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

It is a well-choreographed, monotonous routine performed dozens of times a day. It all falls to pieces, however, when the Salvation Army trucks come along.

At checkpoint after checkpoint on a recent journey into Grozny, soldiers skipped all the formalities and greeted the lead Salvation Army vehicle with a polite request for a Salvation Army button. Just like American kids fixated on Pokemon, Russian recruits stationed in Chechnya are obsessed with getting the dime-size Salvation Army lapel pins.

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

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

"We are the first to get to places in the hills where they are still shooting," said Idris Musayev, 40, coordinator of the Salvation Army's project here, as he led the convoy east to Grozny in a small Russian-made Lada car.

Musayev, an ethnic Chechen and a Muslim, is intensely proud of his work with the evangelical Protestant organization that is far more active in the region than the country's Russian Orthodox Church or various Muslim humanitarian groups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan envisioned the children's food packages as a way of filling a niche not covered by other aid groups.

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

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

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

"I bet at this point you'd have a hard time finding a Chechen without one," Ryan said, explaining that his aid workers have given out about 40,000 of the calendars. "I want to make sure it is clear right up front that we are a Christian organization. I don't want anybody later saying that we hid anything."

Leaders of Russia's dominant Russian Orthodox Church sometimes complain of Western missionaries using deceptive tactics. The Russian Orthodox Church itself has taken little interest in the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, which the church's hierarchy has strongly backed.

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

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

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