Villages in crossfire of Moscow's war on terror

Chechnya: Bewildered residents of flattened hamlets left to pick up the pieces as army struggles to create a new Maginot Line
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The Independent Online

HIGH IN the Dagestan mountains overlooking the Caspian Sea, the villagers of Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi are caught in the crossfire of Russia's war with Islamic rebels.

HIGH IN the Dagestan mountains overlooking the Caspian Sea, the villagers of Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi are caught in the crossfire of Russia's war with Islamic rebels.

Two years ago, their areas were under the control of the radical Muslim Wahhabi sect. Now, Moscow has virtually flattened both hamlets in its efforts to crush the "Caucasus terrorists".

The villagers do not knowwhy their homes were pounded out of existence or how they are going to rebuild their lives. Not a single house in Karamakhi was spared the bombing by Russian jets last month. Gaping holes have been left in roofs and walls, and only the occasional kitchen, bedroom or living room is still recognisable.

Russian soldiers and Dagestani "volunteers" now stand guard over Karamakhi in case the Wahhabis or their Chechen allies return.

A man called Magomedshowed visitors the ruins of his three-storey house. The doors, furniture and television were gone. All that remained was stolen by the Wahhabis or the Russian soldiers.

When Moscow came to the rescue of the southern Russian republic of Dagestan - in the face of the Wahhabi "peril" - it was at a price.

"How could the pilots know where they were dropping their bombs - whether it was on a Wahhabi house or not?" asked Magomed, a 50-year-old in a ragged T-shirt. "Why they destroyed everything, we'll never know. In any case, if they really wanted to arrest the Wahhabis, why didn't they do it another way? It would have been much easier to pick them up as they left the mosque on a Friday. Now they've gone."

Some Wahhabis had hidden in the cellar of his house. Used syringes lay scattered next to a packet of new ones. "They obviously needed something to keep up their morale," said Magomed.

His wife, Aminat, emerged from the ruins to speak of her grief. "We saved up for this house for 25 years. Then we lost it all. The first day of the bombing - even before it started - there was a rumour that war was coming. Everybody said it was time to leave. And we left with just the clothes on our backs - nothing more."

All the villagers have similar tales to tell. Karamakhi now resembles a ghost town. The men arrive from nearby Buynaksk or other villages to clear up the ruins and try to recover their belongings. Women and children tend to stay with relatives, friends or in refugee hostels in Buynaksk. Aminat is one of the few women brave enough to return to unearth a few potatoes.

In the centre of the village, an animated discussion was continuing, while lorries unloaded gravel. People with trowels and bricks were already rebuilding a ruined site.

"It's our ruined mosque," said Ibadulla Mukhayev, a former village councillor. "This war isn't about religion - it's about political machinations. And we're the innocent victims."

On a nearby hill lies the ruins of Chabanmakhi. There, an armed group was keeping outsiders away until a man emerged to explain that he was the "new administrator" and decided who entered.

Standing on the unmade road that runs through the village, an old man in a threadbare suit surveyed the scene. "I was born 75 years ago," he said. "We got used to the Wahhabis. Almost all the family was mixed. Sometimes a father would be Wahhabi and the son not. In recent years, they stopped us selling alcohol and cigarettes in the village."

Another villager chipped in: "They even prevented us putting up a Christmas tree or playing music at weddings. At funerals, we were not allowed to cry. Our women had to hold back their tears."

Referring to the former Soviet Union, the old man commented: "If only we had kept the great fatherland, nothing like this would ever have happened. Nobody would have given them money from abroad. They would not have been able to get weapons so easily and so, little by little, take power against us."

An open mass grave lay beside the local cemetery. The rotting bodies of 14 local Wahhabis - apparently flung there by their departing comrades - were being buried. Like the villagers, the Wahhabis also return home - but at night."They come back to see what's going on and to try to pick up their things. After all, this village was also theirs," said the local administrator.

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