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Russia: RFE/RL Interviews Chechen Field Commander Umarov

By Andrei Babitsky In mid-June, RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii traveled to Chechnya where he established contact with field commander Doku Umarov, one of only two commanders who have fought with the Chechen resistance since 1995, throughout both wars. Following the Khasavyurt accord that ended the first Chechen war in 1996 and the election of Aslan Maskhadov as president in January 1997, Umarov was named by Maskhadov to head the Chechen Security Council. In that capacity, he intervened in July 1998 to quash an armed clash between moderates and Islamic radicals within Maskhadov's entourage. During the second war, Umarov has commanded the southwestern front, the region southwest of Grozny that borders on Georgia and Ingushetia. Russian officials have branded Umarov, like other resistance leaders, a "terrorist," but he has unequivocally distanced himself from the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by his fellow field commander Shamil Basaev. Umarov does not, however, refer to Basaev by name anywhere in his interview with Babitskii.

RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii: The camp where Doku Umarov's small group -- just six men -- is located was nothing more than several tents scattered around a forest and a couple sheets of plastic hanging from tree branches. A stream runs beside a meadow a bit further down the slope, while 200 or 300 meters above the camp looms an almost vertical precipice. It would be a simple matter to break your neck trying to climb down it. The group has been camped here for a few days, preparing supplies and ammunition for a long march. The Chechens spend all their daylight hours waiting for dusk, when they can ascend the mountain and, at a predetermined place, meet with sympathizers who, according to a previously sent list, have collected provisions, medicine, and equipment. I saw dried soups, canned goods, clothing, and little things like a cobbler's needle and synthetic thread. Huge quantities of medicines are brought, since life in the mountains gives rise to numerous illnesses. They are taking pills all the time for every reason. The armed men don't pay any attention to the cloud of midges hanging over the meadow all day, as if they have grown completely accustomed to them. For the last two weeks, it has rained nearly every day. Drops rattle on the plastic sheets with such a deafening sound that you'd think the echo could be heard for hundreds of meters. But that is just an illusion.

The war for you has been going on for six years. Don't you think there is some other way out of the situation?

Doku Umarov: At present, as long as we have not completely liberated ourselves from the boots of Russian soldiers, I do not see any other way out, because now no other possibilities remain. More, after all that Russia, the Russian so-called Army has done in this country, I, for one, do not see any other way out. I think that any honest citizen, any patriot of his people, also sees no way out.

RFE/RL: Doku Umarov, whose nomination as vice president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was confirmed only days before [on 16 June], limps very slightly. After he climbs up or down the mountain, his limp is considerably more noticeable. Recently he stepped on a land mine. Forces loyal to pro-Kremlin Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, hearing of this, announced that Umarov had lost a leg and, together with Russian forces, organized a huge manhunt in the mountains, thinking that he would be easy to find and catch. However, the vice president's leg is in place and he is eager to show it off, saying that this time the wound healed surprisingly quickly. He is 40 years old, although he looks older because of a wound to the face that he received a few years ago. Plastic surgeons were able to restore the damaged portions of his skull and now he has some almost unnoticeable difficulties with pronunciation and pronounced scars on his lips and chin.

Don't you think that a significant portion of the population doesn't want to live outside of Russia -- I mean, the Chechen population?

Umarov: Of course not. Today, if one can speak without looking back, without being afraid that you might be abducted for speaking, that at any moment one might be subjected to the terror that the Russian Army is committing now -- if you take away that fear, I think that about 1 percent of the Chechen population would say that they don't dream of life without Russia. Earlier, under the Soviet Union, when we were one country, maybe. But now, after six years, I think, there are no such people. Today it is simply because of fear, because of the dead-end situation, and because they don't see any future, that there are people who have lost their faith. And these people, in order to secure themselves, save themselves, talk this way.

RFE/RL: That's what you suppose. I understand that these conclusions are based on suppositions. But nonetheless there hasn't been a referendum, there hasn't been a chance to express what the people really think about this question.

Umarov: I participated in the first war. At that time, as you know, there was an opposition -- [former Checheno-Ingush Obkom First Secretary Doku] Zavgaev or [Grozny Mayor Beslan] Gantamirov, many names and people who considered themselves part of the intelligentsia and who stood on their principles, who really did not envision life either with Russia or without Russia. That is a fact. I know because I was also from a family of the intelligentsia and I know how my father thought. But now that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his gang -- which he brought in, armed, and let loose -- have come to power, after that, that opposition, that intelligentsia, doesn't think of life with Russia. They only dream of getting rid of Russia, that it would be better to be subjected to anyone else, if only those barbarians were gone. Those people who did not support us during the first war, who were actually ready to stand with weapons against us, those people have preserved their sense that they are ready to lay down their lives for an idea. Now these people are ready to fight against Russia, against these.... I have spoken a lot to these people. These people give us much more support than those people who supported the revolutionary processes, supported our course. But now they are broken by the terror that has been created by the structures of the FSB [Federal Security Service] or the structure of Putin's administration, perhaps. Everything they are doing in Chechnya is done to break the human spirit, to make people lose their humanity. And they are having considerable success with the horrific things they are doing to people. From futility, when a person thinks he has no way out, when a person thinks only about getting enough to eat, when he is placed on the edge of survival, when a person sits and waits for his monthly welfare. And he knows that if they don't give it to him, then he can't buy any bread, if they don't give him his compensation payment, then he won't have a roof over his head. These days you can get people to do or say anything if you have strength, power, and money.

RFE/RL: It doesn't seem to me that there is much hope that the war will end. There is no chance of you winning it as a military conflict. What are you hoping for?

Umarov: We are believers. A person without faith is not a whole person. We are on Allah's path; it is a sacred path for us. So we are obligated to perform the jihad. Today there is a superpower that the entire world believes cannot be defeated militarily -- that idea also needs to be analyzed. But until there is a regime change [in Russia], until sensible people come to power, until then there will not be an end to the war. But there is no such thing as dead-end situation. Our situation is not as bad as some people think. Our situation would be bad if it was 2000 and the rule of Putin was just beginning. But I think that the times are changing, that every rule comes to an end, and that his epoch is ending, sensible people will come to power. Such a regime, such an empire sooner or later must come to its end. But to stop now, to bow down and live with those people is practically impossible. No self-respecting person could do it. Those people who are afraid, who don't have the force of will to proceed down the road of freedom for their people, that person -- if he respects himself -- cannot live with those people. Because they leave him no dignity.

RFE/RL: Umarov is not a Wahhabi -- that is known in Chechnya. He practices traditional Islam, although he doesn't deny the right of existence to the form of radical Islam widely known as Wahhabism. Within the armed underground, a new situation is emerging. While previously Wahhabis formed separate detachments and fought separately from Chechens who practice traditional confessions, now they are all mixed together. In one group you can find people of all different faiths and this no longer leads to conflicts as it did before when the radicals tried to convince the traditionalists that they were infidels. This somehow seems to contradict the widespread notion that all those in Chechnya who are fighting against Russia are practitioners of radical Islam.

How correct is it to say that in the forests there are no longer any people who are not motivated by radical Islam, who are not trying to establish a Shari'a-based state, a Shari'a-based legal system, who reject the traditional Chechen way of life?

Umarov: That is an FSB fantasy. Ideological work has come to the forefront during this war. This is the ignorant thinking of Kadyrov's clan, because Kadyrov considered himself a traditional Muslim. A Muslim, any Muslim, any person must live according to some law. And if a Muslim lives according to Shari'a, then Shari'a forbids him from goofing around or smoking or doing such things, then I consider that good. But I, for example, came to this war as a patriot. The switch to war happened in Moscow and when the occupation began, I understood that war was inevitable and I arrived as a patriot. Maybe at that time I didn't know how to pray, I don't remember. Now, they say I am a Wahhabi or a follower of radical Islam. That is laughable. I have a whole front. I go along that front and I don't see people fighting to bring to the world Wahhabism or terror. The whole world is just clinging to those two words.

RFE/RL: Let's talk about terrorism. Your commander Shamil Basaev planned and carried out several terrorist acts. To justify himself, he wrote in one letter that Allah gives one the right to take away from someone what he has taken from you.

Umarov: In any case, we do not have that right today. If we were to use those methods, then I think not one of us would be able to return as normal humans.

RFE/RL: There were terrorist acts in Beslan, in Moscow, and the responsibility for that blood lies both with the Russian authorities and with the entire Chechen resistance. Does that mean that such acts have been acknowledged, have been granted moral legitimacy by the Chechen resistance?

Umarov: No, in the eyes of the resistance such operations have no legitimacy. We ourselves were horrified by what they did in Beslan. Because we know the concrete facts of what our people hoped for, how it all began.

RFE/RL: Well, no matter what they hoped for, it is obvious that kidnapping children means putting their lives in great danger.

Umarov: That is a fact. Definitely, if one knows what to expect from the Kremlin. I, for example, knowing Putin, knowing his team -- it is a fact that on the first day one could have expected that this would be an enormous threat for the children. And that's how it turned out, that's how the operation ended up.

RFE/RL: The new president and vice president of the Republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria, Abdul-Khamid Sadullaev and Doku Umarov, intend to follow the policy of [slain President] Aslan Maskhadov, who condemned terrorism and called on Russia to negotiate. However, Shamil Basaev, who organized several terrorist acts on Russian territory, occupies an official post in the leadership of the Chechen resistance, and, just as Maskhadov did, Sadullaev and Umarov consider Basaev a comrade in arms. A situation in which the opposition has, even if only conditionally, some sort of distinct center creates the hope for negotiations at some point in the unforeseeable future. Doku Umarov has been accused many times of being involved in kidnappings during the period between the wars. I asked him about this. Of course, his answer couldn't dispel all doubts and it is necessary to return to this topic -- he will be asked about it many times and he will have to answer to even more serious charges.

In the period between the wars, this place was governed by banditry. Various groups kidnapped people and introduced slavery into everyday life. How do you assess that period? As far as I understand, such charges have been leveled against you.

Umarov: I was secretary of the Security Council and I had to constantly -- in order to avoid a civil conflict, like the one that happened in [July 1998 in] Gudermes -- I therefore had to constantly deal with [field commander Arbi] Baraev and [field commander Ramzan] Akhmadov, with the Ingushetians, and with [former Ingushetian President Ruslan] Aushev. Maskhadov sent me everywhere. Because of these contacts, I began to be accused of this. But I always -- when these accusations reached this level, when Maskhadov said at the Security Council that I had been accused -- I said, "Here is my statement, but a person's guilt can only be established in court. If I am guilty, I will not lift a finger to defend myself. Prove it and that's all But what people say -- that is slander, and it isn't for me. Just give me a fact. Without facts, a person can say, looking at a horse, "there is a goat." Kidnappings, chaos -- all that happened. But you look around today -- those people who flourished in the slave trade -- where are they now? The main bandit, Movladi Baisarov -- where is Baisarov today? Where is Yamadaev, where is his deputy today? [Editor's note: There were seven Yamadaev brothers, and it is not 100 percent clear from this context which one Umarov was referring to, but he probably had in mind Ruslan Yamadaev, who now represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma.] You say "slavery" in reproach, but things never got to the point where people were selling corpses. And now, when there are 100,000 Russian troops here, they are selling corpses. And they are stealing so that they can murder and sell the corpse. That is the scale of what is happening.

RFE/RL: In November there are supposed to be elections to the Chechen legislature. Do you think that this will lead to yet another quasi-governmental structure or can it be an authoritative organ of power?

Umarov: No self-respecting person will participate in these elections. They won't vote and they won't run. This will be yet another structure that will sit at the Kremlin's trough, a simple fiction. Although, perhaps, because of competition among themselves for these positions, they will create an appearance, they will create the impression that they have formed parties for these elections.

RFE/RL: I was really surprised how freely, without looking around, without taking any apparent precautions, the Chechen fighters moved through the forest. Two years ago when I was here, the atmosphere was completely different. Every second the Chechens expected an attack, prepared for them for days on end. There were trenches and lookouts guarding the camps around the clock in any weather. Now there is nothing like that. It seems more like an encampment of hunters taking a break. Only the distant roar of reconnaissance planes remind one that a war is going on. "Now we move around relatively freely," Umarov told me. It often happens that two groups -- Russian and Chechen -- will encounter one another in the forest and move away without engaging. No one needs extra casualties.

Ramzan Kadyrov says that sooner or later he will cope with the resistance. Is it true that the actions of his forces have been as successful as he says?

Umarov: His masters in the Kremlin keep summoning him and saying: "Come on, let's put down our weapons and take up shovels. There are no results from you, from your army. You are just spreading drugs and terror among the people." And every time the masters pull his strings, he shows up with 100 mujahedin who have surrendered, a bunch of captured weapons, several of Basaev's arms, and some of Umarov's left legs.

RFE/RL: Nonetheless, it remains a fact that after all these years of fighting, the federal forces and Kadyrov's units have managed to liquidate a significant portion of the old command group.

Umarov: That is life. Tomorrow, I might be gone. That is life -- we are not immortal, we are not gods. Life goes on. We are old and have to give up our places. There are several young people climbing up toward each of our places and waiting for their turns to take these places. There is no such thing as war without loss. So, Maskhadov and others have left on the road to Allah. Sadullaev took Maskhadov's place. He's 38, young, smart, and full of energy. Tomorrow, perhaps, one of these young people might take my place. Someone might come along who will be even better than I am. But by comparison now, what is the difference, what has been broken? The losses have been big. In general, before Maskhadov's death, I didn't really notice them, but simply the death of Maskhadov was a great loss. But for every commander who has died, someone has appeared immediately -- maybe I'm not being fair to the dead -- who was young and energetic and who made you forget the loss. You don't forget, of course, your brothers, your friends, that they existed. But their places have been taken by eager, energetic people.

RFE/RL: In general, if you compare things with the first years of the war or the situation as it develops from year to year, is there a kind of dynamic, an order to the development of the mood of the entire conflict?

Umarov: At first, if you analyze things, on some level, on the level of ideas it was as if they were establishing order or taking revenge for the offended honor of Russia. Or it was clear that they were carrying out some sort of ideological program because of the abductions of people, the cut-off fingers. In his soul, every Russian soldier felt responsibility. Now there is none of that. It has been lost. Now the majority -- because they don't extend the contracts, because they don't pay what they owe-- they have to bring in against their will.

RFE/RL: But all the same, precautions must be taken. For example, Chechens in the mountains don't use mobile communications, or they use them only in extreme situations, although everyone carries a phone. As soon as they get into the forest, they pull out the batteries because they believe that even a phone that has been turned off can be listened in on and located. And that location determines within a radius of 20 meters where a call has been placed, and literally within a few minutes there might be an artillery strike. Russian artillery batteries are placed around the republic in such a way as to be able to open fire on any position from four separate locations. "Now in Chechnya there is a half moon," one of the Chechens told me. "We move around the forest at night in small groups since the Russian forces have equipment with which they can easily follow our movements." When the moon begins to wane, the small units come together into larger formations.

The fact that Kadyrov's forces are now going after relatives -- does that hold young people back?

Umarov: Actually this has exactly the opposite effect on young people. Now I face this issue myself. This winter, my aunt and my wife's brother went missing. I don't know -- maybe they were killed, maybe they weren't. And two relatives from Itum-Kalinskii Raion. They took someone's wife and six-month baby. They took someone's father or brother. Because they have been taken, I don't see fear, neither in words or conversation. On the contrary, I see aggression. All this is Allah's will and we have to accept it calmly.

RFE/RL: What can you say about the losses suffered by the Russian side and Kadyrov's units?

Umarov: A week ago in the Itum-Kalinskii Raion, one group destroyed two armored personnel carriers and passersby blocked the road. Civilians weren't allowed through. They counted more than 30 bodies. That was a simple diversionary action. We have learned to attack quickly and move on. They are trying to conceal their casualties. One GRU [military-intelligence] group between the villages of Malii Kharsinoi and Staryi Kharsinoi, there are two villages there and we were there recently. One GRU unit had 39 members and we destroyed 38 of them. They one who survived was made a Hero of Russia, but they didn't announce it anywhere. And that, by the way, is the GRU. They collected their weapons, but didn't make any announcement. With Kadyrov's men, it isn't always to hide their losses but just to get rid of a problem. Quick burials and that's it. No one is going to run to local or raion councils and report that someone has died. Among Kadyrov's forces, some, fearing reprisals, maybe they went along for money, even their parents don't try to publicize their losses or keep an accounting. But their losses are greater.