RFE/RL's veteran Russian Service correspondent Andrei Babitskii recently returned from a reporting trip to the mountains of Chechnya, where he interviewed rebels about their fight against Russian forces. Babitskii found the mountain rebels better armed than before and increasingly leaning towards religious fundamentalism.
Prague, 14 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After an absence of two years, RFE/RL war correspondent Andrei Babitskii recently spent five days in the mountains of Chechnya, interviewing armed rebels who continue to fight against Russian forces for control of the republic.
Babitskii, who made numerous reporting trips to the republic during the first and second Chechen wars, says what he found reminded him of previous trips -- except that the Chechen fighters he encountered this time appear better armed than ever. In addition, a new, younger generation of commanders appears more determined than their predecessors to continue to fight, and their resolve is driven by a growing religious faith.
"We approach the forest, where a mujahed -- an armed Chechen fighting against federal forces in the mountains -- meets us by prior agreement. We're in the foothills -- the Black Forest, they call it, apparently because of the thick canopy, which stretches up into the mountains. At the edge of the forest there is no sign of life, not a branch moves. But a little deeper, a few dozen meters in, suddenly there is life. A campfire, carefully set, gives off practically no smoke and is unnoticeable from the outside," Babitskii reported from Chechnya.
Babitskii said the first thing that struck him about this typical mujahedin camp is its Spartan quality -- four plastic tents in the forest, a small campfire -- just the bare necessities. Most days, life revolves around a simple routine: training, eating, digging ditches, praying and, most important, keeping clothes dry.
"One of the most important tasks is drying clothes, which get constantly wet both when it rains and also when it's dry, from natural condensation. The mujahedin, in their waterproof NATO-style jackets and pants, sweat as much as in a sauna. So if a mujahed is not digging a trench, cleaning his weapon or praying or eating, he is drying his clothes and his boots by the campfire," Babitskii said.
Up in the mountain forest, the camp is undetectable from the air and so relatively safe from Russian attack. Babitskii said the atmosphere reminded him of previous visits to similar rebel encampments in years past. But if the living conditions are basic, the equipment carried by these fighters -- one of whom introduced himself as "Amir" -- is not.
"I can't shake the strange feeling that I've been through all this before. Nothing seems to have changed since I last saw similar armed Chechens. They are as self-assured as before, they couldn't look less like people hunted and driven into caves. The only thing that's different is the superior quality of their ammunition, waterproof NATO-style uniforms, grenades, spare cartridge clips, 'Mukha' RPGs, machine guns. Amir has a Kalashnikov with a silencer and a sniper's scope," Babitskii said.
In contrast to previous years, Babitskii said, there appears to be little problem with buying weapons from Russian soldiers garrisoned in the lowlands below. Dyshna, a 23-year-old fighter, described the process: "In the cities where they have their main bases, where there are checkpoints, the local youth get to know the soldiers and for two or three bottles of vodka the soldiers will sell them some ammunition rounds. These kids, for 200 rubles, sell it to us and I know that they're getting it for even cheaper -- probably for 50 -- a little vodka and they get the stuff."
The Chechen mujahedin get almost all of their armaments -- from guns to mines to grenades to rocket launchers -- from Russian soldiers. In the past month alone, Dyshna told Babitskii, his group has managed to buy 25 Kalashnikovs.
Among the Chechen fighters, a generational split is occurring. In the lowlands, Babitskii said, many of the youth who act as occasional weapon buyers for the mujahedin eventually end up joining the forces of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. They join not out of conviction, but for lack of any other prospects. It is a move many come to regret.
"On the one hand, there is no work and people have no money," Babitskii explained. "On the other hand, people have no information about what is happening in the mountains. Kadyrov and Russian television, from morning till night, say no one is fighting, that only a few fighters are hiding out in the mountains to escape being killed. And young people think, 'Let's take the weapons and money and we won't touch the mujahedin.' But it doesn't work out that way, because their superiors are smarter. At the first opportunity they create a blood tie. They take somebody who's allegedly tied to the mujahedin or maybe not. They torture him and then they kill him. Whether you want to or not, you have to participate. After that, you're tainted forever."
Those who make it to the mountains, by contrast, are free, but their comparative isolation and the brutal Russian military occupation has pushed them to adopt more radical tactics. An older Chechen commander told Babitskii that the Palestinian uprising serves as an inspiration to many younger fighters, who do not share the older generation's reluctance to adopt suicide terror tactics.
"I don't know exactly who is promoting this, but there is a thesis that is growing in influence, which is that the Arabs [Palestinians] spent 50 years blowing themselves up and have finally gotten a 'road map.' That's what some people believe," the commander said. "But personally, I don't think this is acceptable, that it is acceptable to resort to such methods to fight a war."
There is another aspect to this younger generation of fighters, Babitskii said: their religious fundamentalism. "Here in the mountains, to an increasing extent, the atmosphere is becoming influenced by radical religious doctrine," he said. "In other words, Wahabbism -- although the mujahedin don't like the word -- is becoming the dominant ideology, not only of the war, but of peacetime. I ask the traditional journalist's question: Why are you here? In the first war, the answer was no less traditional: 'for independence,' they would say, 'for freedom.' The answer meant: we are fighting for our own, independent state, separate from Russia -- although few of the people who pronounced those words knew what that exactly meant. Today the Chechens in the mountains have a completely different answer."
Dyshna, the 23-year-old Chechen mujahed, told Babitsky why he fights: "Today, if you bear arms, the main thing is to consider the word of Allah to be above everything else. That is the main thing. After that, there are some other things, such as freeing the people from occupation, from laws we do not need."
Another fighter, Abdurakhman, put it this way: "Simply, we want the word of the prophet and the word of God to be the main arbiter in Chechnya. Today, Allah requires us to establish Sharia law. We want this law."
Dyshna, emblematic of the new generation of Chechen fighters, said he is willing to consider any and all methods to end what he sees as Russian occupation. "For now, we've had some successes, some movement -- praise God -- an ambush here, an ambush there. But if we don't get anywhere with these methods, we can do other things -- praise God -- it's not a problem. If this doesn't give results, we can do other things, kamikaze [suicide] raids or something even bigger," Dyshna said. "We haven't reached that point yet -- praise God -- but if it becomes necessary, we will act. For me, this is a fight to the end. If war is necessary, it will continue as long as I'm alive."
If war is as much a contest of wills as it is of arms, then it would appear that Russian forces have little hope of gaining the upper hand against Chechnya's mountain mujahedin.