#6 - JRL 7140
April 9-15, 2003
Vendetta Makes For War
A commission on truth and reconciliation between deadly enemies has been set up in Chechnya
By Sanobar Shermatova
The commission is headed by Chechnya Mufti Akhmed Shamayev and Grozny mosque minister Khamzat-khadji Salamov. Such conflicts are traditionally handled by religious figures and elders. The situation today, however, is far more complex than anything in the history of Chechnya that has lived through a great many devastating battles. This has to do with the fact that vendetta has become widespread and is thus working for the continuation of the war of Chechens against Chechens.
Preempting the Interior Ministry
The traditional institution of vendetta prescribes killing the slayer of a murdered relative. It does not matter who "ordered" or funded a crime: It is he who actually pulled the trigger or planted a mine that has to pay with his life. During the first war the Chechens were firmly convinced that there would be no civil war in their republic: After all, everyone knows that a murder would have to be paid for with one's own life. Tradition was preserved even during the cruel public execution in 1998 footage of which was shown throughout the world: The death sentence passed by a Sharia court on a woman and a man guilty of domestic murder was executed by the relatives of the murdered persons, who deemed the sentence to be just, assuming the responsibility for the blood that was shed. Today, however, it is clear that the ancient "eye-for-an-eye" principle failed to safeguard the Chechens against fratricide. Only a few years ago a killing of a Chechen by a Chechen for political motives was inconceivable. But now those who enjoyed incontestable authority in Chechen society fall victim to such crimes.
Recently it was announced that a high-profile assassination that stunned the republic last year had been solved. In the fall of 2002, Said-Pasha Salikhov, a prominent religious and public figure, and his son were murdered in the village of Starye Atagi. The two belonged to the Koreish clan, an Arab tribe that the Prophet Muhammad had come from. Salikhov's ancestors moved to Chechnya from Mecca in the early 20th century to preach Islam. The Koreishids hold a special place in the unofficial hierarchy of Chechen society. Their authority is so great that even in Soviet times their help was solicited to solve complicated domestic conflicts.
Investigation established that the murder had been perpetrated by two brothers who were members of Starye Atagi's jamaat, a radical religious society. Jamaat members, called Wahhabis or Salafites, are opposed to traditional Caucasus values and do not recognize any authority or blood relationships - all that which lies at the root of the highlanders' culture. One of the alleged assassins, according to the Chechen Prosecutor's Office, was killed in a shoot-out while the other was put on a nationwide wanted list.
Few Chechens, however, doubt that Salikhov's relations will find the killer before he is tracked down by law enforcement agencies.
Vendetta is regarded as a purely familial affair that is off limits to outsiders. The relatives of people who have been killed or abducted, secretly conduct their own investigation, painstakingly collecting evidence and paying large amounts of money for any information that can help identify the slayer. Unlike law enforcement agencies, they cannot afford to go wrong, as they will have to answer for their mistake. But it so happens that more and more often a family case turns into a state case, especially insofar as concerns gangs of abductors.
Few outside Chechnya know that the main role in smashing the group of Arbi Barayev, a notorious slave trader, was played by the relatives of Chechens who had been kidnapped or killed. The whole thing started when, in 1999, Ruslan Azerkhanov, a 50-year-old head of the Alkhan-kala rural administration, was killed. His relatives - officers of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) who served in a GRU special "Chechen" team - carried out their own investigation.
They detained Isa Lorsanov, aka Beard, a member of the Barayev group. Isa confessed to killing several local residents who had earlier been reported missing and showed the place where they were buried. Beard, however, strongly denied he had anything to do with the killing of Azerkhanov, maintaining that Islam Chalayev, Arbi Barayev's right hand man, had been involved in the crime. Isa Lorsanov was executed by the relatives of the people he had killed while the GRU "Chechen" unit launched a manhunt for Chalayev who was subsequently seized but then escaped. Before he did, he provided evidence pointing to Barayev's involvement in the assassination of Ruslan Ezerkhanov.
As there were no relatives of the people killed by Chalayev among the unit officers, the question arose of what was to be done with him. It was decided to hand him over to the brothers of a person who had died at his hand. That person's relatives, who lived in the Vladimir region, came for Chalayev to Chechnya. Before long, however, Arbi Barayev offered them a ransom for his lieutenant's release. Islam Chalayev was set free while Barayev used him to target GRU special task officers.
The war between the GRU unit and Barayev ended in the latter's elimination. In the summer of 2001, Arbi Barayev was seized and shot. Six months later Islam Chalayev was executed by relatives of one of his victims. But the vendetta chain did not stop there. Soon after Barayev's death, six members of the GRU special task unit were killed under mysterious circumstances. Their relatives are now conducting an investigation to identify their killers.
Chechens say that vendetta has lately been losing its specific target, becoming less personified. This is evident from, among other things, an undeclared war between the Chechen Special-Purpose Police Detachment (OMON) and religious radical groups. It began with the military operation in Grozny and Gudermes in 2002, when OMON officers took out several Wahhabis. In response, radical groups started eliminating OMON officers regardless of whether they had been involved in the operation. This vendetta has since been going on with varying success: A vehicle with OMON officers runs into a mine in the Novogroznensky district, they kill several jamaat members in retaliation, and so forth. This past March, OMON commander Musa Gazimagomadov was severely injured when his car was hit by a heavy KamAZ truck, and later died of his injuries. Investigation rules out foul play, but OMON fighters are sure that the road accident was the work of the Wahhabis.
The latest high-profile victim of the vendetta is Djabrail Yamadayev, deputy military commandant of Chechnya. In March 2003, Yamadayev went to the town of Dyshne-Vedeno, where he was bombed in a house. Locals suspect that Shamil Basayev was behind it. The strife between Yamadayev and Basayev goes back to 1997 when the Yamadayev field commanders, who were in control of Gudermes, ousted a certain Atlangeriyev whom Basayev had appointed head of the local administration. The strife intensified when, in 1999, the Yamadayevs took the side of federal forces, and now the Yamadayevs and the Basayevs are mortal enemies. So a retaliatory strike on Basayev must be in the offing.
Can the new commission in Chechnya break the vicious circle of vendettas? According to Umar Avturkhanov, a former leader of the Dudayev opposition, right now this is an unviable proposition. The commission can only start working after the federal center has granted the much talked-about amnesty to all active Chechen militants, which will open a broad dialogue with various groups. Meanwhile, the ancient custom of vendetta in Chechnya is taking a toll of more lives, bringing to naught all efforts to achieve national reconciliation.
The operation of the GRU "Chechen" special task unit is classified, as is the activity of the GRU itself. According to information in our possession, the unit was formed during the first military campaign. It was led by a Chechen officer who had worked in the GRU since the Soviet era. The group comprised Chechen fighters whose relatives were kidnapped or killed by the "Wahhabi" groups of Arbi Barayev or the Akhmadov brothers. One high-profile operation carried out by the unit was the elimination of Arbi Barayev and members of his group.