February 5th 2002 · / Chris Kline · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

The West and Chechnya: The diplomacy of Realpolitik

They had been marching for hours and they were tired, so there was no fanfare when the small guerrilla troop arrived at the farmhouse where I was hiding. In the dim light of kerosene lamps I caught my first glimpse of the tough Chechen guerrillas Russian President Vladimir Putin insists on labeling "terrorists and bandits." They looked like partisans the world over, clad in a motley array of uniforms and improvised half-uniforms, some lacking even proper boots but all of them festooned with ammunition and armed to the teeth with captured Russian rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers.

I looked into their war-weary faces and I was surprised at their youth. They were boys who were no longer boys. So many of the older veterans have been killed that the Chechen resistance depends increasingly on adolescent volunteers. Of the dozen fighters before me none was older than nineteen, most were even younger - the smallest of them, barely taller than his bazooka, was merely sixteen. They would be my escort on the pre-dawn trek on a forest path scarred by shelling to reach their hidden stronghold less than two kilometers from Russian army positions, and later we would march alongside an enemy artillery barrage, the night sky illuminated by incandescent yellow and red bursts of high explosive. Chechnya was on fire.

The scenes of my Chechen journey are still sharply drawn in my mind's eye. The memory of fear, the kindness and generosity shown by Chechen civilians and guerrillas alike, the countless stories of horror and sacrifice that color the nightmare of Chechnya at war, are also just as vivid a year later. Last spring, together with a French freelance camera crew traveling by car, horseback and on foot I was smuggled across five hundred miles of Russian territory to reach rebel-held Chechnya. Our five-week clandestine expedition for ABC News Nightline began many months after Grozny, the shattered insurgent capital, fell. The majority of western journalists, like members of watchdog groups, had either been expelled or forced to endure strict Russian censorship that confined them to the peripheries. But we eluded the Russian gauntlet to live amongst the fighters and the resistance network in the heart of the combat zone, and our effort remains unmatched even now. Our film is still the last visual testimonial to emerge from guerrilla territory and the only face-to-face interview with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov since the latest conflict began.

Since coming home I have tried to no avail to have another news organization sponsor my return to Chechnya. I have also tried to speak out as a journalist witness to the slaughter in the Caucasus, and I have always met silence. When I approached the European Editor of NPR she told me that her own reporters, while having mostly failed to reach the sharp end of the war, had done a "conscientious" job. I replied I had earned the authority to offer my views because I had seen it, and she never called me back. With rare exceptions I've watched Chechnya's story all but vanish from American television screens and newspapers, that is until the monstrous events of September 11th.

To my dismay I listened to a State Department spokesman link Chechnya to Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Wartime expediency and alliance-building demands Russian support for our efforts in Central Asia, so it seems Chechnya will be sacrificed on the slimmest of evidence. Speaking in Washington recently, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov stated with conviction that Moscow "respects international law, international norms and human rights." We have said nothing to dispel this fantasy. Pragmatism toward Moscow now entails tacit acquiescence of a genocidal war.

But Chechnya is home to new gulags, the so called "filtration camps" where 30,000 Chechen POW's and prisoners of conscience languish in bestial conditions, bereft of even rudimentary medical care and routinely subject to torture, starvation and execution. Any Chechen can be arrested without charge or face capital punishment without trial. Chechnya's cities and villages are smoldering ruins constantly subject to wanton bombardments meant to sow terror through the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. Out of a pre-war population of roughly a million, after two years of carnage one in seven is now dead. Those left permanently disabled, blinded, limbless, or crippled by psychological wounds are too numerous to count. Many are children. Chechnya is fast becoming a nation of invalids and grave diggers. It is also a nation of refugees: there are some 250,000 of the dispossessed living in the squalor of makeshift camps, short of everything except misery. Disease and malnutrition is rampant among them and the onset of winter leaves them prey to the elements. International humanitarian organizations are largely barred from rendering any aid.

The Russian army and interior ministry troops routinely carry out what are euphemistically labeled "cleansing" operations. Ostensibly meant as search-and-destroy missions against the resistance, they are in practice another facet of Moscow's scorched earth policy. One of the villages where I hid in a safehouse was "cleansed" this past summer. A Russian column arrived and soldiers promptly began to summarily shoot down able bodied men in front of their families, including boys as young as seven, while dozens of other men were taken to the nearby woods and did not return. The crackle of automatic weapons fire could be heard in the distance.

Women of all ages were also gang raped in front of their families. Those who resisted were lucky if they were only beaten severely - some were murdered after the soldiers had pleasured themselves. Scores of other villagers of all ages and sexes were rounded up and driven away for "interrogation." Then followed a further orgy of pillage and looting as the soldiers ransacked houses and then set them alight. Families of victims seeking to claim their dead for burial were forced to pay the soldiers ransom money before the Russian column left the village, the soldiers cheering and guzzling the vodka their officers had distributed. It was not an isolated incident, but an example of Moscow's state-sponsored terrorism witnessed in hundreds of Chechen villages with terrible mathematical certainty. Eyewitnesses and survivors filed a detailed account to emissaries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but the OSCE never issued a formal complaint to the Russian authorities nor has any investigation ensued.

When I interviewed President Maskhadov (a man who assumed leadership of his nation in a transparent democratic election overseen by the UN and the OSCE) at a secret base in Chechnya's mountains, he told me bluntly that "if we lose this war we will be exterminated, we will be wiped out, so we must win and we will win." All the young fighters I came to know repeated the same stark logic, since they understand the meaning of genocide. As god-fearing Muslims they are proud to call themselves Mujahadeen and many wear the green headbands that mark them as Islamic holy warriors, but they bear no ideological or spiritual resemblance whatsoever to the medieval primitives of the Taliban or the murderous zealots of Al- Qaeda.

The Chechens are an ancient culture rich in folklore, music and poetry. Their language, Chechen-Ingush, is some 2,500 years old. Their particular brand of Islam is anchored by the ecstatic and decidedly pacifist mysticism of Sufic tradition. Judged excessively permissive and liberal in its expression of spirituality by rigid conservative Muslims elsewhere, Chechen Islam is rejected as heretic and particularly loathsome by ultra Wahabis such as Bin Laden. The rhythmic chanting and dance-like trance of the quintessential Chechen ritual of faith known as the Zikr, which can see men, women and children joyously celebrating together, is regarded as especially odious by fundamentalists.

Chechen mysticism is culturally specific and not readily compared to other Sufic traditions. The body of Chechen Islam, which loosely adheres to the Sunni tradition, reveals itself as one of the most tolerant, vibrant and esoteric forms of Islam anywhere in the Muslim universe. It follows that the Chechen constitution recognizes and guarantees the equality of the sexes - no doubt proof of further apostasy to those inclined to execute radios and televisions. Putin's selling of his brutal war in Chechnya as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic radicalism is little else than calculated propaganda.

The entire fighting strength of the Chechen forces numbers no more than 7 to 10,000 combatants. Dependent on what war material it captures, lacking heavy weapons, devoid of an air force, chronically short of everything from ammunition to radios and medicine not to mention boots, uniforms and helmets, it is laughable anyone would consider such a ragtag army as posing an expansionist threat. The Chechens fight only to retain their hard won right to self-determination, an objective they have striven to achieve in various unsuccessful uprisings since the time of Peter the Great. Still reeling from the wholesale destruction and loss of life endured in their 1994-1996 war of independence and never having received as much as one Ruble of the reparation and reconstruction funds that cemented their peace deal with then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, it was with reluctance that the exhausted Chechens mobilized to resist the latest Russian invasion of their country.

The bulk of the tiny Chechen regular army was decimated during the second battle of Grozny and the costly retreat that followed its fall. As before, the task of fighting the occupier then fell to ordinary citizens forced to take up arms. In this sense the Chechen resistance is both a classic guerrilla force, and a citizen army filling its ranks entirely from volunteers and drawing sustenance, aid, shelter and moral support from the same larger civilian population which it defends and from which it originates.

Despite impossible odds the Chechens have proven themselves masterful and resilient practitioners of unconventional warfare, often negating the size and weight of Russian firepower by striking unexpectedly then quickly melting away into the rugged mountains and forests they know so well. Chechnya's is a war of raids and ambushes that constantly leaves the Russian enemy frustrated and surprised. What the guerrillas can do little to prevent are the inevitable arbitrary reprisals, which the occupying army, rarely able to come to grips with them on its own terms, routinely carries out against the civilian population. Moscow's indiscriminate retaliation serves only to enrage the Chechens further and steel their resolve never to surrender.

In contrast to the hapless, often demoralized and poorly led Russian conscripts, who make up the bulk of Russia's expeditionary force - an occupying army further weakened by endemic corruption, alcohol and drug abuse, a high suicide rate and desertion - the men and women who serve as Mujahadeen and elsewhere in the underground remain highly motivated and dedicated to their cause, willingly able to perform prodigies and endure sacrifices time and again on the very edge of human endurance.

I came to know some of the fighters who had survived the winter retreat from Grozny , where thousands of fleeing civilians accompanied the retreating Chechen fighters and the only escape from the doomed city lay through a minefield under heavy fire from the encircling Russian forces. Every moment's delay meant more would be cut down as the cumbersome mass of refugees and guerrillas remained exposed to the withering barrage, unable to turn back or advance. Then came an order: volunteers among the fighters were asked to deliberately detonate the mines and open a path for the rest to follow. Shouting "God is great", the guerrillas threw themselves onto the mines. Hundreds died, but thousands got away. This is how the Chechen army lived to fight another day.

The teenage partisan I met told me how he had watched his best friend intentionally blow himself to bits so he might live. It had weighed heavily on him, but tears had only come later. He asked me, "so, do I look like a terrorist and a bandit?" No, he didn't. Neither did the twenty-year-old former medical student who described how the Russians had burned with flame-throwers the wounded comrades the Chechens had left behind. He understood what it means to be taken prisoner by the Russian army.

The partisans fight because they are secure in the knowledge that if they do not they will be destroyed as a people and a nation. They are Muslims and their faith gives them great strength, but they are not fanatics, they are courageous and their god is a tangible presence for them in a way few of us in the West recognize any longer. But what soldier does not pray on the battleground? The partisans often live and fight in view of the villages and fields where they were born, so there is no mistaking what it is that they defend.

As a clan-based society Chechens fight in tribal and family-based units. So it is alongside kinsmen, cousins, brothers and neighbors that they enter the fray. This too makes them stronger, but when one of them falls the wound is even deeper since no one is a stranger. There is none of the spit and polish found in armies elsewhere, none of the rigid hierarchy and deference to rank. Theirs is an informal army, a meritocracy where the most able natural leaders come to the fore.

Such egalitarian organization is a concept intrinsic to the Chechens' fiercely individualistic culture, and it lends itself well to the defense of a nascent democracy, as Chechens have known a tribal form of proto- democracy since antiquity. It is how they have always ruled themselves, and how they wish to rule themselves now. They have never known a prince, a despot or an aristocratic class. Such things are an alien concept and all traditional Chechen leaders have always arisen by popular acclaim. They are Chechen Mujahadeen, and they have nothing to apologize for. They are neither superhuman nor evil, but patriots of flesh and blood who wish to be free on their own soil. Why would we condemn them?

Washington has asked Maskhadov to sever all ties with terrorist elements in Chechnya. He cannot do it: he never had relations with them to begin with. Maskhadov is an able soldier who served as Chief of Staff of the Chechen forces in the last war, and a straight-speaking statesman democratically elected by his people. His government is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare. He is a moderate leading a centrist, pro-Western government, who longs for an honorable and equitable peace with Russia, but he lives as a wanted man, a price on his head.

Since the current war began Maskhadov and his tiny but indefatigable diplomatic corps -led by his eloquent Foreign Minister, Ilyas Akhmadov - has begged the United States, the European Union, the OSCE, and the United Nations to intervene and bring the war to an end through outside mediation, all to no avail. He admits that in the passion of war abuses have been perpetrated by his side, but also acknowledges that they pale both in scale and frequency in comparison with Russian atrocities. Leading human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch corroborate his findings. Among Muslim leaders he was one of the first to unequivocally condemn the terrorist outrage of September 11. He has vowed to provide, despite his limited means, whatever contribution he can in efforts to break the global terrorist network. The response from Washington and Europe is muted at best - except to admonish him for harboring terrorists.

Much is made of the Islamic foreign legions supposedly fighting in Chechnya. The hard truth is that there are perhaps 80 or 100 such volunteers, probably fewer. The majority of them are ethnic Chechens from neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia and elsewhere from the Chechen Diaspora as well as perhaps a few Turks, Azeris and Arabs.

Similar conspiracy theories abounded during the Bosnian war, but when the smoke cleared the Muslim foreign volunteers were revealed as a mere handful - as they will prove to have been in the Caucasus. The primary suspect cited by the West is a naturalized Chechen commander known simply as Khatab. Sometimes identified as a Jordanian or a Saudi, Khatab is a strict adherent of the Wahabi sect and a skillful battlefield leader serving as chief deputy to General Shamil Basayev, perhaps the most legendary of all the Chechen commanders and himself a fundamentalist Muslim. That Khatab has any links to Al- Qaeda has never been proven with any certainty. Moreover, the number of fighters under Basayev and Khatab represent only a small percentage of the Chechen resistance, and both guerrilla leaders have remained dutifully subordinate to Maskhadov's authority as commander in chief.

More telling is that not even the majority of Khatab's fighters are necessarily strict Wahabis, but serve in his unit out of clan and regional loyalty. I spent time at one guerrilla base where the commander answered to Khatab in the chain of command. During the last prayer ritual of the day only half the unit bothered to formally pay homage to Allah. There was no friction or resentment among the more devout guerrillas for this omission, and all recognized one another as comrades in arms. All Chechens profess a belief in Islam but many expound, if not an exactly secular outlook on life, then at least a less rigorously strict expression of this faith. In happier times there is plenty of good tobacco, vodka, music and joie de vivre in Chechnya. Islam can be an intrinsic cultural component in the identity of a people without dominating every facet of their behavior - something as true in Chechnya as it is anywhere else in Islam.

It has also been conveniently forgotten that in the immediate aftermath of the last Chechen war, a minority of fundamentalists who tried to co-opt the struggle for liberation and impose Sharia law were promptly crushed, to the overwhelming approval of the general population. Certainly the slaughter of the Chechen war and the complete indifference of the outside world has helped to radicalize a minority among the fighters and helped to introduce a strain of Wahabism. It poses a risk in the post-war period if an independent Chechnya survives the current conflict, but the salient truth is that the majority of Chechens cling steadfastly to their own idiosyncratic form of Islam and have no wish to be burdened by extremist theocracy any more than they desire to be oppressed by a foreign power.

The real danger in isolating and abandoning Maskhadov's Chechnya is that Western indifference and realpolitik will only help to foment the desperation and anger that feeds the very same Islamic radicalization we wish to quell elsewhere. In purely military terms, with Chechnya fighting for survival and having no hope of outside intervention or aid, we can hardly expect Maskhadov to spark a simultaneous internecine conflict against allies fighting a common Russian enemy. We must trust him to keep order in his own house when the war concludes, aid him if he cannot do it alone, and help ensure now that an accommodation can be reached with the tiny fundamentalist minority in his camp so that further civil war can be prevented.

The West has done well neither to repudiate nor to stereotype the whole of Islam as intrinsically fanatic, bloody minded and backward, just because the unforgiving and narrow Wahabist tradition has found a messianic and extremist champion in Osama Bin Laden. While we pay this supposedly broad-minded view lip service, whether we admit it or not we are easily predisposed to recognize Islam only in terms of the suicide bomber, the terrorist, the burqa, puritanical intransigence, brutal repression and hostility towards modernity. In this incomplete and uninformed judgment, we are not free thinkers and consider Islam poorly. We have done so with Chechnya.

To our shame as democracies we have allowed the slaughter in the Caucasus to go unchecked. In the interest of realpolitik the Western world has stood idly by and celebrated Putin as a reformer and a trustworthy friend. When a newly inaugurated Putin returned triumphantly to Moscow following his first state visit to London, the war only increased in its ferocity. Now embraced by Washington, Putin has sought and obtained further endorsements for his actions throughout the European Union, and an arrogant Kremlin now has the vindication it had been denied.

The message we are sending is clear: we will acquiesce in genocide, since Russia's state terror can be overlooked and legitimized when it serves Western interests. But this view can only mean greater agony for the Chechens while staining the conscience of the West. If our clamoring for justice in the global struggle against terror is only for the strong, it will be no justice at all. Ariel Sharon was outrageously wrong when he evoked the appeasement of 1938 as Israel's potential fate. Israel is not the new Czechoslovakia, but Chechnya is.

Chris Kline,a former London Correspondent for Bloomberg News Radio and CNN Mexico Bureau Chief, is an award winning international freelance journalist and documentary maker. Kline heads Frontier Dispatches, an independent U.S. based production company dedicated to conflict coverage. Kline is a contributing writer for the Sunday Times of London. His broadcast work is distributed in Europe by Journeyman Pictures, the UK's leading maker of front-line films.


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