ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU goes looking for fighters, and finds an ancient people rooted in their landscape
SEPT. 1. Thirty or so armed men and women hold 1,000 people hostage in a school in Beslan, a small town in southern Russia. The hostages are teachers and schoolchildren, corralled by their captors into the gymnasium. After a siege that lasts several days, a bomb accidentally goes off among the hostages. Scores of them are killed and wounded, and panic ensues. Hostages try to escape by the windows; the kidnappers start shooting at their fleeing captives. Local people surrounding the school open fire on the kidnappers. The police storm the school and more bombs go off. The building goes up in flames. All except one of the kidnappers is killed. Over 330 of the hostages die. Many of the dead are young children.
We are told that the hostage takers are mainly ethnic Muslims from the southern Russian provinces of Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya. A few weeks later, an obscure website features a quote from Chechen leader Shamil Basayev, claiming responsibility. The Chechens have struck again.
The name has come to mean something horrible. The Chechens, and Chechnya, symbolize war, destruction and terror. Soon after my arrival in Russia, I tell my friends in Moscow that I will visit the Chechens, that I feel compelled to understand these people. They respond with anger: “There is nothing to understand,” they say. “They will rob you, kidnap you, kill you. Please do not die for something so meaningless.”
After two wars spanning a decade, Chechnya is a wasteland. It is effectively divided into two zones: the areas under Russian military control in the north, and the Chechen zones toward the south and into the mountains. Russian forces control Grozny, the capital, during the day, only to lose it at night. I am reluctant to accept one of the military tours of the Russian zone, something the Russian army offers journalists. I need to find another way to make contact with Chechens, spend time with them, get a sense of who they are.
Chechnya is in the North Caucasus, butting up against the rugged mountains that form the border with Georgia. The Pankisi Gorge cuts into these mountains. Although it is
on the Georgian side, it is a Chechen place, filled with refugees and, allegedly, a haven for fighters. Two years ago, it was the temporary home for much of the Chechen rebel leadership. Irritated, Russia pressured Georgia to reassert control over Pankisi. The gorge is now a restricted-access area, carefully monitored by the Georgian police and military. But it is still my best way to the Chechens. The trick is to try to make contact with some before going to the gorge, possibly in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
THESE DAYS—and especially since the Beslan incident—Chechens keep a low profile in Georgia. Grateful to find refuge, they don’t want to make it hard for the Georgians by
making their presence too obvious. Through a rough-looking Georgian journalist, I get the names of some Chechen “journalists” in Tbilisi. I am suspicious of being set up; the Georgian is overly calm about these Chechens “arranging things” for me. After a few shady meetings, the Chechens promise to get back to me about going to Pankisi, but don’t; after a couple of days, I make contact again. As if I had not been left hanging, they tell me right away there is no problem in me going, but that I will have to go clandestinely. I am sent to speak to the man who, for a price, will take me.
Salpudeen is tall, thin and fair-skinned, with the gaunt, expressionless features of someone who has seen—or done—too much. He is some kind of refugee. He doesn’t speak English; I don’t speak Russian. I watch him for some sign of warmth. None. Still, I agree to go with him. My logic is simple: how can I trust him if I don’t trust him?
At the appointed time, we meet at the minibus depot. The driver takes a road that gradually leads to the mountains. For several hours, I watch the countryside slide by, wondering how we will get through the checkpoint. Finally, Salpudeen gestures to me to slouch down. The minibus slows to a crawl and slowly rolls by some Georgian soldiers for inspection. The van is packed with
women and children. I sit at the back with a few men. I hang my head and feign sleep. The Georgians wave us on and I am in.
Pankisi is a series of villages splayed out on the flood plain where the Alazani River erupts from steep mountains. The communities are dense groupings of small wooden houses surrounded by vegetable gardens. The inhabitants are Khysts: Chechens who fled over the mountains 200 years ago during the great Chechen war with the czars. They are Georgian citizens, but now they’ve been joined by a new batch of Chechen refugees fleeing a new war with new Russians.
I follow Salpudeen through the narrow streets to a Khyst house where I will sleep. An old lady in a head scarf warmly embraces us. The Chechens are Muslims, but evidently not like Muslims elsewhere. Many times, I have had my hand swatted disapprovingly away by elderly ladies whose hand I have unwittingly tried to shake. Here I am kissed.
It is the magic hour before sunset. Golden rays light up the cornfields, haystacks and fluit trees. I follow Salpudeen past the colourful little houses toward the river. Along the way, people call out “salaam alaikum”— peace be to you—to each other and hug. I am repeatedly embraced by strangers. Horses graze on the grassy plain. A man is overseeing some boys who are proficiently knocking lined-up cans off a knoll with their slingshots. We arrive at the river. Salpudeen removes his shoes, puts his feet in the water, turns to me—and grins from ear to ear.
Of the Chechens, I expected a sombre and extreme people, and a grey and barren land. And here I am with Salpudeen, lazily soaking my feet, trading words in our mutual languages. Chechen sounds unlike anything I have ever heard: short, guttural and choppy. River is “khi,” mountain is “lam,” fire is “tsi.” It is the stuff of which Chechens seem to be made.
The next day we visit refugees. The worst off are those without money, family, friends or connections to arrange better lodgings. They live in grimy apartments in small Communist-era block buildings in the middle of town. The tenements are without electricity or sewage. In fact, all of Pankisi is without electricity or sewage.
Omar Kidaev lives in a single cell-like room with his cat. He survives on meagre UN handouts: tea, noodles, canned fish. He proudly tells me that he used to be in the Soviet army and worked at a nuclear missile
silo. “The warheads were aimed at Australia and San Francisco,” he says with a goldentoothed grin. “I was once part of their missile defence, now I run from the Russians. The Soviet times were better for us. Good services and no discrimination.” He lifts his shirt to show numerous scars from bullet wounds. “Now I have had my fill of war.” The atmosphere is entirely different at a picturesque little settlement named Selobani. In the subtle hierarchy of the Pankisi valley villages, Selobani is at the top, its name spoken with a slight tone of reverence. There, I am introduced to the four brothers of the Umkader clan and their families. They have lived in Pankisi for four years, since the war became really nasty in Chechnya. Milkheza, a young Umkader girl in a bright pink dress, speaks
broken English and serves as my translator.
The family asks questions about Canada. They tell me that there are no proper schools here for their children, and no real work. I slowly understand they have heard a rumour that Canada is considering taking in some Chechen refugees—which goes a long way toward explaining why I was welcomed to Pankisi in the first place. I tell them Beslan would probably make Canadians very nervous about Chechens right now. “This has nothing to do with us,” they shout in exasperation. “Do we look like terrorists?” One woman passionately adds, “I cannot bear the thought of those dead children. It is not us!” A man says, “They kill our children, they level our homes, but we don’t do the same.”
A villager arrives with a dramatic warning:
“A raid! The special forces are coming! Five minutes !” A military helicopter buzzes overhead. I am shuffled away into a Khyst house with Milkheza and some other children. “This happens a lot,” she says. “My mother gets really worried. All the men in our family were fighters at one point or another. They could take any one of them,” she says of the Georgian soldiers now outside. “They don’t search Khyst houses, only Chechen ones,” she adds. As it turns out, the operation has been staged for a Russian TV crew— a show for public relations between the Russians and the Georgians.
Mblika Moussayev is one of those whose house is searched. She tells me it happens every time there is a raid, and says she wants to leave. When I ask whether she would miss Chechnya if she came to Canada, she cannot hold back her tears as she angrily declares, “I will never miss Chechnya so long as there are Russians there.”
“Not all Chechens want to leave,” a young woman with a head scarf tells me. Her English is good and her face stands out: round and soft. She converses with the others in Russian, and I ask her where she is from. She tells me that she doesn’t want to lie and won’t tell me. So I guess, and she begs me not to reveal it in print. She is 23. Over a year ago, just out of film school, she came to Chechnya to make a movie—and fell in love with a young fighter. She has been married
two months; he is in the mountains and she is waiting for him. “You are a romantic,” I say. What I want to tell her is that she’s chosen a hard road, that behind the romance are ugly things. But who am I to say this? In the end, I admire her spirit.
THE NAME has
come to mean something horrible: the Chechens symbolize war, destruction and terror
She is living in Pankisi with her husband’s best friend and his family. He is a fighter, too. Now 26, he started when he was 17. “I miss it,” he says, “but I cannot fight in the lowlands. Too many people know me, there is nowhere to hide. And I cannot fight in the mountains anymore. My guts can’t handle it. In the mountains, for weeks on end, you only eat nuts. It is only for the young.”
ORGANIZING A TRIP to the mountains involves more shady business. But it shows me another side of the Chechens: they are horse people. As I wait on the street one night while Salpudeen tries to arrange things, riders gallop by, lit by the moonlight. It is an eerie experience.
The next day, Salpudeen and I hitch a ride
on a motorized carriage. It takes us into the river gorge and past another Georgian checkpoint. Along the way, Salpudeen points out a hydroelectric facility and snickers. His meaning seems obvious: Pankisi has no electricity, yet here we see that there is power—the Georgians tolerate the Chechens, but don’t want to encourage more of them to come.
We ford the fast-flowing river on foot and penetrate the thick forest on the other side. Two Chechens bring horses and we go deeper into the forest. Salpudeen and the others constantly give me handfuls of wild nuts and berries they gather as we go. We pass an ancient community of stone houses, now home to an old man and three little boys. Families send their sons here to get to know the mountains, Salpudeen explains.
The forest is magical; the mountains tower above us. As the path gets steeper, we pass a few lone riders. One looks like a young Fidel Castro, with a commandante cap and scraggly beard. I begin to get a sense why legions of heavily armed Russians cannot defeat these small bands: no one masters the terrain like they can. They belong to it.
We rise and rise, along treacherous paths. A slip would be deadly, but the Chechens, who seem to have incredible faith in their little mountain horses, laugh at my apprehension. Finally, emerging from the trees, we establish camp around a crude lean-to. Khaled, a young teenage boy carrying dinner—a dead sheep—arrives to serve us. He is from Selobani, but wanders the mountains with the sheep—more training. Soon he will fight. That is the Chechen way.
The next day we climb higher on foot. The Chechens stop to pray every now and then. In these mountains, their worship is as simple and as true as any I have ever witnessed. There are mountains beyond mountains. Salpudeen points out a narrow pass, more than a day’s walk away. Chechnya is there. It can be done. But not this time.
I learned long ago to mistrust the politics of romance, and the Chechen story is a romance of an old race. But never have I had so strong a sense of a people who belonged where they were. And while I’ve met fighters, there’s been nothing of the savagery of Beslan in the men and women I have talked to. But they are tough. The only way to defeat the Chechens is to exterminate them, and that is not to be: we humans are lucky to still come in such a fierce old mould.
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