A 'fight without end'

Shamil knows one of two things will happen this month when he crosses from Azerbaijan to Chechnya to wage jihad: either the Russian infidels will leave his native Chechnya or he will join Allah in trying to force them out.

Today, Shamil (21) lives in limbo, part of a 6 000-strong Chechen diaspora in Baku, many of whom are without refugee status, aid, or the right paperwork to live in, or even leave, Azerbaijan.

He sees Chechnya’s independence from the “martial law”, now imposed by Russian forces after two savage wars, as his only chance. Before winter sets in he intends to retrace his route from Chechnya back to Grozny, where he will fight to the death.

“This war is a jihad for me,’’ he said.
“I will go to Allah. I do not know what will be there for me [in the next life], but I will become a mujahedin. I will know that I have died for Allah.’‘

Shamil is an example of how some Chechen separatists have been radicalised since the last war began in 1999. Born in Grozny during the Soviet era, he finally left his home town last November. He had held out for two wars that together spanned eight years.

But after the murders and abductions of the Russian “anti-terrorist operations’’ that followed the Moscow theatre siege in which 40 armed Chechens held 800 theatre-goers hostage, “it became impossible to live [in Grozny]”, he said. “I could not work, or get more than three hours’ sleep a night. I wanted to stay but for my family to be safe.’‘

He took his mother and sister on a three-day walk across the mountains to the village of Duisi, in the Pankisi gorge in Georgia, and then across the Azerbaijan border.

“I went to Duisi and then to Baku because I knew I would find Chechens here. There is nowhere for us to go now, and nobody can help us bar other Chechens.’’

It was a final effort to save his family’s bloodline.

One of his four brothers had died during the second war, fighting in the region of Shatoi; another, Ishmael, was taken away from his home by masked troops two months ago and has not been heard of since. His father, Usam, died in the first war, of 1994 to 1996, fighting for Chech- nya’s independence from Russia. He taught Shamil how to use an AK-47.

“My father said that we are Muslims and must fight against the infidel,’’ he said. “It is always my right to protect my motherland.’‘

Moscow insists Chechen separatists are now dominated by Islamist extremists with links to al-Qaeda. They say Chechen rebels are often either foreigners bent on fighting jihad against all infidels, or no more than “international terrorists”.

Shamil, tucked in a corner of a sweaty Baku café, appears an intense, angry young man.

His usually warm eyes sometimes glow with loathing, directed at the people he says are occupying his country. And as his hands stiffen and flex in the air in emphasis, it is clear his Muslim faith provides the drive that makes him see his future dying with other Muslims for independence. To him, the September 11 attacks in the United States were organised by the FBI, CIA and Russian security services as part of a Christian conspiracy.

“After the first war we [Chechens] understood what Allah said. A Muslim must fight against the infidel on his land,’’ he said, elaborating on the separatist vision of an Islamic state headed by Aslan Maskhadov, the last elected president of Chechnya, whose separatist government is no longer recognised by Moscow.

The Kremlin plans presidential elections for October 5, which Akhmad Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed head of the current Chechen administration, is expected to win. This modicum of autonomy will, in Moscow’s eyes, both put its man in place and draw an end to the separatist question.

Shamil sees Kadyrov as a bad Muslim, whom he hates even more than the Russians.

“We have to get rid of the Russians. We need sharia law — it is Allah’s law, the word of the Qur’an. A good Muslim does not kill peaceful people and does not break Allah’s laws himself.’‘

Shamil insists he and “his brothers” never asked for help from foreign Muslims, but “every Muslim is entitled to come and help if they want’‘.

Baku is a no-man’s-land for Chechens, who are denied vital papers and confined to sprawling slums, families of eight eking out their lives often in one room.

The town used to be an open centre of the Chechen resistance, until local authorities shut down several separatist and charity organisations after the Moscow theatre siege.

While the majority of Chechens in Baku, and elsewhere, are not linked to extremists, many now believe that fundamentalists — steeled by two bitter wars into thinking their struggle for independence has a wider religious significance — are doing most of the fighting.

After the last two wars, the Chechen separatist movement was “looking for any support they could get and got hijacked”, said a senior Western diplomat.

“They got support from some fairly dubious mercenaries, such as the late Saudi citizen Ibn al-Khattab.”

Yet the world of purported international terrorism seems very distant from the personal loss and fury that has led Shamil to be so focused and decisive. He says he has nobody to help him financially to get back and will borrow weapons from friends in Chechnya.

“I will go back there before winter, next month. I will go alone. While there are Vladimir Putin’s forces on our land there will be a fight without end.’’ — Â

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