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Chechnya's Youngest Insurgents

Doku Umarov (center) poses with two unidentified fighters in an undated photo posted last year.
Doku Umarov (center) poses with two unidentified fighters in an undated photo posted last year.
Despite the threats and reprisals meted out over the past couple of years by the pro-Russian Chechen leadership to the parents of young men and women who "head to the forest" to join the insurgency, there are few signs of that exodus abating.

An aide to North Caucasus insurgency leader Doku Umarov told the insurgency's main website,, in October that over the previous two months, over 180 young men had joined the insurgency ranks. Some of them are shown here being instructed in the rudiments of survival in the forest by Umarov's deputy, Supyan Abdullayev.

The recruits whom Abdullayev lectures who have not donned masks to protect their families from harassment appear to be in their early 20s. But Sulim Yamadayev, the commander of the Russian military's Vostok Battalion who was gunned down in Dubai two years ago, apparently on orders from Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, told in November 2007 that of some 100 defectors to the insurgency from three eastern districts of Chechnya that year, the majority were aged between 15-16, 19 at the most, and had lost a father or brother in the fighting.

That trend is not unique to Chechnya. Salakhaddin Zakaryayev, the 17-year-old Kumyk lad who was killed alongside Daghestani emir Magomed Vagapov (aka Seyfullakh Gubdensky) in a shoot-out with security forces last August, was the son of Abdulgafur Zakaryayev, a mid-level insurgency commander who was killed in March 2009.

Presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Aleksandr Khloponin claimed last week that the average age of the insurgents across the North Caucasus is now 18. The fighters subordinate to Khusein Gakayev, commander of the more moderate Chechen fighters who split with Umarov last summer, are almost all in their late 20s and 30s. By contrast, the young fighter who accompanies Tarhan Gaziyev, Gakayev's second-in-command, on a recent hunting expedition to restock the larder , looks barely 20, while some of the other boys pictured with Tarhan three years ago were even younger.

Such Chechen fighters, born in the early1990s, will have no memories of a "normal" existence prior to the Russian military intervention in Chechnya in December 1994 to "restore constitutional order." They will have grown up with insecurity, deprivation, destruction, the death or unexplained disappearance of their nearest and dearest, and constant fear.

They are the generation that former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov predicted 11 years ago would join the insurgency if low-level hostilities in Chechnya continued indefinitely. Khasbulatov envisaged those young men as "completely uneducated, speaking only bad Russian...[with] no knowledge of contemporary culture, or any conception of morality, [they will be] strong and merciless fighters who do not acknowledge even family ties, [and] who reject the centuries-old mountain rules of etiquette, traditions, and adat," or traditional common law.

Tarhan's hunting companion indeed speaks bad Russian, but in other respects he does not seem to conform (yet) to Khasbulatov's stereotype of cruel and amoral fighters who acknowledge no authority. When he triumphantly digs out of the snow the mountain goat kid whose mother they have just killed, he strokes its nose, rather than simply putting a bullet through its head.

If these young men have not become the callous brutes Khasbulatov anticipated, much of the credit must surely lie with the older commanders who were fathers before they became fighters, and have since assumed the role of father figures to the younger generation of insurgents: the natural-born pedagogue Abdullayev; Tarhan; Mansur; and even Umarov, seen receiving a filial embrace from Hadji-Murat at the very end of this clip.

If the fighting continues another five or 10 years, however, the younger fighters may indeed come to surpass the present generation of commanders in cruelty. Speaking at the side of a young fighter in shock after being wounded, Gakayev warns that "we may be killed, but others will come forward to take our place, Inshallah, and they will be even more ruthless." How that younger generation of fighters will adapt to civilian life when/if the fighting ends is another question entirely.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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