March 12th 2005 · LN / Petra Procházková · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

A Rebel with Protruding Ears

By Petra Procházková

If he wore civilian clothing and stood somewhere on the edge of a field, I would say that he was a respectable farmer, a model husband and a kind father. For Aslan Maskhadov did not in the least bit look like one of the most famous Chechen rebels who would rather die than be dishonored by being taken prisoner.

I remember the first time I saw him, which was in the autumn of 1994. He was a shadowy figure behind the then Chechen President, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who even back in 1991 named him Deputy Chief of the Chechen General Staff.

Frankly speaking, before my journalist colleagues and I precisely knew the names or faces of the members of the Chechen leadership, we knew Maskhadov was "the one with those ears." His standout, protruding ears gave him a childish expression of bewilderment so as a result he had to gain respect through actual deeds - and not through appearance as did the commanders who looked fiercer and tougher.

At the end of 1994, Maskhadov was promoted to Chief of General Staff. And then all of us remembered him.

He was friendly, but conversations with him were extremely difficult because he often responded to questions with one word, and sometimes only just nodded his head, which was especially calamitous for radio reporting.

"Aslan Aliyevich" corrected me once when I called him "Mr. Maskhadov." Perhaps he might have accepted being addressed as "Comrade Colonel" (though from 1995, General), but "Mr." he definitely did not like. Later on he got used to the manners of western journalists, yet in his soul he would always retain a little of the Soviet officer.

I held many interviews with him and now, when I listen to them again, I realize that such a closed person, who would never reveal anything essential, would be hard to find among the other members of the Chechen armed forces. The most difficult thing was using the microphone because he spoke very softly. He had a rather high voice, but certainly not as resonant as one would expect from an artillery man.

During one interview we talked about the Czech Republic. Only after I shut off my camera and firmly clasped his hand in taking my leave, he announced, "We obviously have something in common, and not just because Russians call us 'Chekhi'." He then smiled and I regretted that my camera was already packed away. "Earlier I didn't understand how you felt when the Russians occupied your country; it's only now that I do. I was in Hungary as an occupier also, and I will regret it for the rest of my life."

Compared with the rest of the Chechen high command, he had no close friends among the journalists. He was always a little inaccessible. In the Russian fashion, he invited us to tea, but we only talked about politics and the war, never about anything personal. He remembered our names, but rarely addressed us by them.

He hid his feelings, except on special occasions, such as during the Khasavyurt Peace Agreements in 1996. Then, as he got up from the table, where together with Russian General Aleksander Lebed he stopped the bloody war in Chechnya, he began to laugh out loud. Even Lebed began laughing. Both men were extraordinarily identical; not only because of their appearance and color of hair, but in their views about the world. They did not read philosophy books in the evening, but rather the memoirs of Marshall Zhukov; they liked clear situations that could be worked into war maps and felt uncomfortable and out of place in the political arena. A signature on an agreement was less important to them than a handshake. And today both are dead.

When Maskhadov became president in 1997, he began to make more mistakes than when he was on the battlefield. He was an artillery man, not an intriguer, disliked underhanded politics, and as a civilian was confused so he did things that he later regretted. In answering my question as to why he introduced Sharia Law and allowed public executions in the center of Grozny, he frowned and replied, "How can I make any order out of this chaos in which Russian spies wreak havoc, and in the aftermath of the war people behave like animals?"

He silently raged when Shamil Basayev, his subordinate and rival, ignored and slandered him. But he was unable to do anything about it, just like he could not prevent kidnappings by groups of abductors. "They're criminals and are insubordinate," he sadly explained. Unfortunately it is difficult to punish wartime heroes. Therefore Basayev, together with the Kremlin, drew him into another war in 1999. He was but one of the few who could have stopped it.

Now a new generation will spring up. They have no use for peace, never heard of the Geneva Conventions, and regard terrorism as a legitimate way of fighting. Russians should not be celebrating victory, and instead should be wringing their hands. They released a genie from the bottle and killed the person who helped them keep that genie inside. Thus, whoever replaces General Maskhadov will be more of a fanatic and far more radical.

Terrorist? Hardly!

I last spoke with Aslan Aliyevich in 2000 when he phoned me at my apartment in Moscow. We knew each other for seven years, yet he had never telephoned me. In Russia there is a ban on publishing interviews with people Moscow regards as terrorists. And Maskhadov's name was high on the list. After asking about my health, he said that it is important that one has an opportunity to openly express his ideas. And because the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny had given him this opportunity, I was interrogated by the Russian secret services.

Maskhadov made many mistakes that caused the deaths of many people. But he most certainly was never a terrorist. On the contrary, he called loudly for peace more than anyone else did. Perhaps that is why he had to be permanently silenced.

This article originally appeared in the Czech daily Lidové noviny on March 10. English translation by Jeannette Vota, our Prague Watchdog translator.

Petra Procházková is a Czech journalist for the Epicentrum Agency, and routinely contributes to Lidové noviny. She covered, among other things, both wars in Chechnya. The Russian authorities considered her persona non grata and ejected her from Russia in 2000. She was denied an entry visa for five years. Then she got involved in humanitarian activities. Eventually, she resumed her work as a journalist (but still cannot work in Russia). She occasionally also contributes to Prague Watchdog.





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