Prague, 15 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A cluster of sodden tents at the foot of a vertical cliff face -- base camp for the commander of the Chechen rebel forces' western front.
Two weeks of incessant rain had done nothing, it seems, to dampen Doku Umarov's spirits. Despite a slight limp -- the recent result of treading on a land mine -- he was busy organizing the logistics for his next military foray, gathering food, medicine, and ammunition.
Umarov has only just turned 40 but a bullet wound to the face and a decade of partisan warfare have taken their toll. He looks far older than his years.
Umarov is today one of the most hunted men in Russia, wanted for a series of actions against Russian armed forces. But he shows little sign of weariness. Armed struggle has become a way of life.
"The loss of Maskhadov was a heavy blow, but when we lose a commander his place is taken by younger, more energetic men and his death is quickly overcome."
"Until we are freed from beneath the Russian jackboot, I can see no alternative, because there are no other possibilities left to us at the moment, particularly in view of what Russia and the so-called Russian Army has done here in the last six years. In my opinion, no honest patriot or citizen of Chechnya can see any other way," Umarov told RFE/RL.
Like most of the current rebel leadership, Umarov maintains that dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin is impossible. But he says he believes the armed resistance will outlive the present Russian leadership.
"Until change brings more reasonable people to power [in Russia], of course there can be no hope the war will end," he said. "But the situation isn't hopeless. Things aren't going so badly for us. They would have been bad had this been 2000 and the start of the Putin era, but I think times are changing. His time is coming to an end and reasonable people will come to power."
Umarov speaks of a war of attrition that will grind the Russians down and force them, in the end, to back down. But how much more are ordinary Chechens still able to endure after a decade of uninterrupted violence? Even Umarov concedes that many are succumbing to the fear and hopelessness that pervades daily life, including, he says, some people who supported the first war.
"Today, they are in some way broken by the fear produced by the FSB [Federal Security Service] and other government structures. Everything they do in Chechnya they do to break people's spirit and break their sense of human worth. And they've achieved real success because they do terrible things to people," Umarov said.
While fear eats the soul of popular resistance, state propaganda, he says, is nurturing the idea that the Chechen resistance is dominated by Islamic extremists. Radical Muslim fighters have their place, he says, but no longer form separate units. Today, they fight alongside traditional Chechen Muslims and secular patriots. He describes himself as a traditionalist.
"Before the start of the first war in 1994 when the occupation began and I understood that war was inevitable, I came here as a patriot. I'm not even sure I knew how to pray properly then. I can't remember. It's ridiculous to say I'm a Wahhabist or a radical Muslim," Umarov said.
Despite the all-pervasive fear, Umarov describes a rebel force that has no trouble replenishing its ranks. In fact, the biggest problem, he says, is turning recruits away. He concedes, though, that the Russians have killed many experienced field commanders.
"That's life. Perhaps I won't be around tomorrow. We're not immortal. We're not gods. Life continues," Umarov said. "We're old already and have to give up our places. See how many young people are queuing up to take our places. There is no such thing as war without losses. [Slain leader Aslan] Maskhadov and many others have departed on the road to Allah. Maskhadov has become a shahid [Arabic term for holy martyr] and his place has been taken by Saidullaev, who is 38 years old, young, bright, well-educated, and full of energy. The loss of Maskhadov was a heavy blow, but when we lose a commander his place is taken by younger, more energetic men and his death is quickly overcome."
As night fell, Umarov's little encampment came to life. It's too dangerous to move during the day, but in the dark, in the forest, he says, the Russians and their Chechen proxies prefer to leave them alone.See also:
Read the full interview
Vice President Denounces Terrorism, Basaev
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the violence in Chechnya, see "Crisis In Chechnya"