GROZNY, Russia, May 31 (RNS)--To reach this obliterated city, humanitarian-aid truck convoys run a gauntlet of a half-dozen Russian militarycheckpoints, where surly soldiers check documents, affect menacing looks,and sometimes extort minor bribes.

It is a well-choreographed, monotonous routine performed dozens oftimes a day. It all falls to pieces, however, when the Salvation Armytrucks come along.

At checkpoint after checkpoint on a recent journeyinto Grozny, soldiers skipped all the formalities and greeted the leadSalvation Army vehicle with a polite request for a Salvation Armybutton. Just like American kids fixated on Pokemon, Russian recruitsstationed in Chechnya are obsessed with getting the dime-size SalvationArmy lapel pins.

At one muddy roadblock surrounded by barbed wire and manned bytanned soldiers with automatic rifles beneath their olive ponchos, anominous voice boomed over the public address system: "Where are thebuttons? They promised us buttons."

The fad on the front line of Russia's battle against Muslim rebelfighters is, perhaps, an indication of soldiers' boredom--or maybe theyview themselves as agents of salvation? If nothing else, it is a powerfultestimony to the Salvation Army's gutsy presence in a godforsaken placefew other religious-aid agencies have dared venture.

"We are the first to get to places in the hills where they are stillshooting," said Idris Musayev, 40, coordinator of the Salvation Army'sproject here, as he led the convoy east to Grozny in a smallRussian-made Lada car.

Musayev, an ethnic Chechen and a Muslim, is intensely proud of hiswork with the evangelical Protestant organization that is far moreactive in the region than the country's Russian Orthodox Church orvarious Muslim humanitarian groups.

When the Salvation Army first started distributing baby food tovillages and towns in the breakaway republic of Chechnya on March 2, theRussian military was still battling for them. Now, heavy fighting hasgiven way to isolated hit-and-run guerrilla attacks, and the daytimesecurity situation has somewhat stabilized.

Despite the improvements, large humanitarian organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have chosen to stay out ofChechnya, instead focusing on the estimated 215,000 refugees living intemporary shelters just across the border in Ingushetia. That means theSalvation Army's $100,000-a-month baby food program is vital to thoseChechen mothers and infants who remain behind in the ravaged republic.

On a recent weekday morning, the Salvation Army's mud-spatteredwhite trucks pulled into the village of Cheri-Yurt, located about 10miles from Grozny and home to 22,000 people, 10,000 of them new arrivalsfleeing fighting elsewhere in Chechnya.

According to the women standing in line for the Salvation Army foodpackage for children 5 years old and younger, this was the first timeany such aid had been distributed in the town since normal fooddeliveries were disrupted with the onset of fighting last October.

Mali Takhterova, a 40-year-old housewife, explained how she recentlygave birth to an underweight son.

"We didn't have enough to eat. The baby was born at just 1.6kilograms [under 4 pounds]," Takhterova said as she stood in line withother local women. "There won't be many more new children here anytimesoon. There's just not enough to feed them with."

Each food package contains enough juice, dry milk, porridge, andpuree to sustain a child for three weeks, said Salvation Army Capt.Geoff Ryan, a wiry Canadian with a close-cropped beard who launched theArmy's program in the region and sometimes rides shotgun with Musayev.

Ryan envisioned the children's food packages as a way of filling a nichenot covered by other aid groups.

"A lot of the women who are supposed to be lactating are not becauseof all the trauma," said Ryan, 37, who estimates there is sufficientfunding for the Army's program to operate in Chechnya through October.

Ryan is the only Salvation Army member working in Chechnya, and evenhe only makes periodic visits. The rest of the staff are Muslims. Whilethe Army's traditional evangelizing activities have been put on hold,that doesn't mean the Salvation Army is shy about its identity, Ryansaid.

Rivaling the popularity of the Salvation Army's lapel pins are theSalvation Army pocket calendars, on which the organization's Christianprinciples are clearly stated.

"I bet at this point you'd have a hard time finding a Chechenwithout one," Ryan said, explaining that his aid workers have given outabout 40,000 of the calendars. "I want to make sure it is clear right upfront that we are a Christian organization. I don't want anybody latersaying that we hid anything."

Leaders of Russia's dominant Russian Orthodox Church sometimescomplain of Western missionaries using deceptive tactics. The RussianOrthodox Church itself has taken little interest in the humanitariancrisis caused by the war, which the church's hierarchy has stronglybacked.

This identification in the popular mind of Russian Orthodoxy and theRussian military make evangelizing the Chechen people a daunting taskfor the Salvation Army, Ryan said.

"To most of them, the face of Christianity is a Russian soldiercarrying a Kalashnikov and wearing a cross around his neck," he said.