Decision time for Soviet POWs in Switzerland
The young Soviet soldiers living on the beautiful 3,000-foot-high Zuger Berg in the heart of Switzerland, with a sweeping panorama of lake and Alps, have more to think about than the view.Skip to next paragraph
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A long, tough road lies behind these nine members of the Red Army. It stretches from their scattered Soviet villages through grueling imprisonment by Afghan freedom fighters to internment in faraway Switzerland.
As their internment comes to an end, the soldiers, who are about 20 years old , face a difficult decision: Should they return to the Soviet Union or ask for asylum in the West?
After World War II, the Soviet Union treated its returning prisoners of war badly. It is a widely held opinion that the Zuger Berg soldiers may face courts martial on their return as well as imprisonment.
Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who now lives in the West, says: ''It is naive to think otherwise.''
But, no one knows if this will happen. The men have families, the life they know, back home.
Three are due to return to the Soviet Union on May 28 after two years of internment. The Swiss Foreign Ministry has confirmed that two may ask for asylum in the West. If they do, Switzerland may be accused of influencing them.
A tenth Soviet internee escaped from Zuger Berg nine months ago and is seeking asylum in West Germany.
Why are Soviet soldiers interned in Switzerland? It is probably the first time that prisoners of war have been transferred with agreement of the conflicting parties to an uninvolved third country.
For the Afghan rebels, operating under rugged conditions of guerrilla warfare , keeping prisoners is not easy. Imprisoned Russian soldiers live in fear of execution.
In 1982, after long and difficult negotiations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reached agreement with the Afghan fighters and the Soviet Union on interning Russian captives in a third country.
Pakistan or India was the logical choice. But the Soviets refused Pakistan, and the Afghans rejected India. Neutral Switzerland was acceptable to both.
The internees work in the fields, stables, and woods on Zuger Berg and are paid $4 a day. They have their own television, radio, and Russian-language books. Once a week, they can leave the prison farm under guard for the pretty town of Zug. They can be seen drinking coffee regularly in the inn near the farm where a waitress keeps an eye out for strangers. She recently informed the police with a quick telephone call of ''suspicious foreigners'' who turned out to be a French magazine team.
Press are not allowed to visit the internment farm where some 30 Swiss militia soldiers keep watch. Every effort is made to keep the internees from becoming propaganda tools of any organization promoting the East or the West. This has led to accusations that the Swiss are operating a small ''gulag,'' accusations that are met with shocked indignation by Swiss officials and the ICRC.
''We saved these soldiers' lives,'' ICRC spokeswoman Michele Mercier exclaims.
The Zuger Berg internees have been told they can apply for asylum. But they must make the decision alone.
The Swiss worry that the Soviet Union will see any requests for asylum as a breaking of its contract with the ICRC. The Red Cross estimates that something under 100 Soviet soldiers are still in the hands of Afghan fighters. The last of the nine in Zuger Berg arrived in Switzerland last February.