Ordeal in the Dark

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It is almost impossible to imagine Adi Sharon's ordeal, to picture living more than 300 days in a dank cellar without light, with virtually no food other than potatoes and cookies, or to conceive of being terrorized and mutilated by a group of bandits who do not even speak your language. But one thing became instantly, understandably clear the moment the 12-year-old Israeli boy was rescued from the basement where he had been held by Russian and Chechen kidnappers for almost 10 months: he had abandoned all hope. When, trembling and unable to stand, he was handed a cell phone to speak with his father, his first words were, "Papa, do you love me? Why did it take you so long?"

Kidnapped, along with his father, Yosef, on Aug. 23 last year while walking down a street in central Moscow, Adi had no way of knowing from a cellar in Penza, some 560 km southeast of Moscow, that his father had been quickly released, or that the Israeli businessman, who lives in Russia, did try to meet the kidnappers' $8 million ransom demand. In fact, although Adi is only one of several hundred people who have been kidnapped in Russia in recent years, his dramatic June 1 rescue, shown on Russian television, was the result of intensive back-channel Israeli-Russian negotiations and upfront public relations jostling. As one prominent Moscow political commentator puts it: "This boy's liberation was a coup for Putin in his p.r. campaign to convince the West that he has come to power to enforce the law and crack down on crime."

Israel's Deputy Defense Minister, Ephraim Sneh, who was Israel's liaison with Russian authorities, claims that Adi's whereabouts have been known since last December, but that Moscow was in no hurry to take action. "We offered all possible help," says Sneh. "We even suggested sending our own border police antiterrorism squad to go in. The Russians politely refused. They said they were waiting for the optimal time to carry out the operation, lest the boy be killed." Russian authorities counter that they did not need Israeli help and only discovered Adi's location a few weeks ago. But Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo acknowledged last week, during a visit to Israel to meet his Israeli counterpart, Natan Sharansky, that he "asked the people who were trying to locate and rescue [Adi] to expedite everything because otherwise my arrival in Israel would have been faced with questions on the subject."

As it is, it will take some time to unravel the circumstances surrounding Adi's capture and release. What is known so far is that he and his father were strolling early one evening last August down Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a wide boulevard in central Moscow. According to Russian police, at least four men pushed father and son into a waiting car. Yosef Sharon was then freed to come up with the ransom.

Just what Sharon does for a living remains unclear. All Oleg Yelnikov, a spokesman for the organized crime division of the Interior Ministry (mvd), would say is that his "business involves commercial trade between Israel and Russia." But Yelnikov adds, "This was a well-researched kidnapping. They had checked out his work here and were aware of his financial resources."

During the following months, Sharon who has made no public statements apart from an informal thank-you to the mvd personnel who helped free Adi communicated by telephone with the men holding his son. He also sent the kidnappers an unknown amount of ransom money, which they later told him they never received. Instead of releasing the boy, they mailed Sharon the tip of one of Adi's little fingers.

Only after that, in October, did Sharon contact Russian police. "Sadly, this was a very bad move on his part," says Yelena Rumyantseva, an mvd spokeswoman. "We lost all the fresh traces of the car, the bandits, their accomplices and so on." According to the Russians, they immediately put together a team of investigators in Moscow and in the North Caucasus region to search for Adi. In the meantime, the bandits cut off the tip of Adi's other little finger, leaving it in a phone booth that Sharon used to communicate with them. Then, in late May, investigators in Ingushetia, the tiny republic in southern Russia neighboring Chechnya, arrested one of the alleged kidnappers, who led a team of law enforcement agents to the Penza hideaway. As one officer climbed into the basement, Adi, crouching in a far corner, screamed, "Don't kill me! I'm a child! I'm a child!"

The Sharons are not the only Israelis who have been targeted in recent years by Russian and Chechen kidnappers because of a perception that Jewish families have the money to pay large ransoms. An mvd spokesman says that at least six Jewish children not all of them Israeli have been victims of this kind of crime, while Israel's Deputy Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Maria Solodkin, believes that there are still five Israelis in captivity, and that five others were recently released, with three more presumed dead.

That makes Adi one of the lucky ones. But almost a week after being flown home, he is still in intensive care at Tel Hashomer's Sheba Medical Center. He lost 40% of his bodyweight, and doctors are feeding him bread, eggs and other basics, supplemented by an intravenous vitamin drip. Adi also developed gangrene in one foot, which doctors believe they can save.

His mood is reported to be good, and he is enjoying visits from his grandmother and uncle, with whom he lives in Holon, near Tel Aviv (his mother died when he was two), and from school friends. But doctors are waiting to make extensive psychological tests. Says Professor Zohar Barzilai, director of the pediatric critical care unit, "He's at the beginning of a long trip back to normality." It may be longer still before all the facts about Adi's ordeal emerge.

Reported by Andrew Meier/Moscow and Eric Silver/Jerusalem