His sun-drenched face tense and soft voice methodical, coming out almost like a deep prayer, the Wahhabite guerrilla fighter Shamkhal admits that his main goal in life is to kill Russian soldiers.
A 30-year-old who follows an austere form of Islam and has been waging a demoniacal guerrilla war against Russian forces in Chechnya and Dagestan for three years, he gives the impression of a hunted and haunted man — one who has nothing left to lose but his life.
He is jittery, always on the lookout for Russian choppers and snipers, agreeing to speak to AFP in a desolate field near the Dagestani capital after three days of tense negotiation through intermediaries.
And even then, Shamkhal’s mind seems absorbed in its own ghostly world of endless guerrilla strikes and evasion. Shamkhal only starts speaking after being asked why he thinks the Russians are trying to hunt him down.
”We were never the first to attack, but we did take up arms in our own defence,” said Shamkhal, contradicting the official account of what started a three-year cycle of bloodshed when rebels from Chechnya launched an incursion into neighbouring Dagestan on August 7.
”The Russians have pinned all the sins of today’s era on us. This is not just,” he said. ”We do not plan to kill everyone who is not with us. Let them live. But they have to let us live too. And those who try to stop us are our enemy.”
The assault led by guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev and his lieutenant Khattab — now dead, reportedly poisoned by rivals within his own gang — was ostensibly aimed at re-creating a 19th century Islamic Caspian Sea state joining Chechnya with Dagestan.
Some 230 Russian federal troops were killed and 875 wounded in five weeks of fighting that ensued. But this was only the prologue to the all-out war that broke when a frustrated Moscow launched an invasion of Chechnya on October 1, 1999.
Nearly 5 000 Russian soldiers have been officially reported dead in that fighting although some speculate that the true figure is three times higher. Russia believes more than 15 000 rebels have been killed.
But they are still resisting.
”We have been shot at, jailed, and many of us are hiding in Chechnya, Dagestan or even further away. But none of us have ever given up — this would mean giving up on the great Allah. We ask Allah for strength to endure and win,” said Shamkhal.
Suspicious and at times speaking disjointedly, Shamkhal refuses to give any details of his battles — how many guerrillas are in his formation, their recent losses, or where they may be based.
But he does dismiss the Russian accusation that he is a ”terrorist” indiscriminately attacking civilian targets in the name of his cause.
”Islam strictly prohibits the murder of women and children and we adhere to this,” said the fighter.
”We think that the Sharia law is the only one applicable to Muslims, and it seems that this is why they fear us,” he said.
”But only thieves, murderers, people who sell alcohol and drugs should fear Sharia. And the existing laws of Dagestan do not conform to Sharia. That is why they declared war on us.”
Will this ever end? Shamkhal said never.
”It is every Muslim’s duty to take part in a jihad (religious war). All those people who are fighting us in Dagestan and Chechnya do not understand that this will never end because religious faith is stronger than army discipline,” he said.
”I believe in the great Allah. I have nothing more to add.” – Sapa-AFP