Russians try new tactics to flush out Chechen fighters

Phil Reeves finds a group of separatists in Chechnya optimistic at the prospect of a new onslaught

It is growing dark and we are in a red-brick building which could easily be mistaken for an English parish hall, were it not in a Chechen village in the middle of a war zone.

To its occupants, a group of separatist fighters, it is headquarters, a place to plan nocturnal raids on the marauding Russian army. To the Russians, it is a pocket of resistance, one of those targets which they are under orders to destroy.

But to me, a journalist seeking interviews, it seems more like a local social club, a version of the British Legion in the Caucasus. In the kitchen, two women are peeling onions and boiling water for tea. On the bashed- in sofas and armchairs around the room sit a handful of men, some in fighter's clothes, others in mufti. Every generation is represented here, from a pale boy in fatigues who looks far too young to kill, to a grizzled one- eyed veteran, who looks far too old to do so.

One of the Chechens tells us that the Russian army is less than 10 miles away; we can hear occasional artillery fire and exchanges of machine-gun fire. Two or three fighters, mere youths, lounge around and smoke on the balcony, apparently keeping watch, with their rifles nearby. There is probably no need. The rebels have many supporters out there amid the apple orchards and the muddy lanes, law-abiding residents who would none the less alert them if the Russians arrived.

The leader, Doku Makhayev, a lean man with a dense black beard, is sitting on a bed in the corner, under a wall decorated with posters of the guerrilla leaders Dzhokhar Dudayev and Shamil Basayev and a Chechen flag. He is in uniform, and carries a knife with a fox's-foot handle in his breast pocket, a pistol at his hip, and the TV channel controller in his hand.

Before the war, he was a construction worker. Now, at 41, though a father of five, he is a full-time fighter: regimental and deputy chief commander of the south-western sector, known as Sector Number One. He has 11 villages on his patch, including this one.

For him, these are particularly troubled times. The Russians have launched an offensive in which they are trying to flush out Mr Dudayev's forces from the villages by persuading elders to sign agreements, promising to expel the fighters from their midst. Those that refuse to do so risk joining the lengthening list of settlements which the Russians have been - and, in some cases, this week, still were - bombarding.

"In this village, people are not going to sign," said Mr Makhayev. "There are certain circles who are willing, but they wouldn't dare." His men were therefore stockpiling weapons, and preparing their defences in readiness for a Russian onslaught.

Last month, he said, the separatists held a series of rallies in nearby villages, explaining how worthless they thought the agreements were. They might as well be "death warrants", he said. Just look at the fate of Novogroznensky, a village which - according to several reports - had signed an agreement, but was still shelled.

The strategy of the Russians and the Moscow-backed government of Doku Zavgayev (who claims 77 villages have now signed) is to try to drive a wedge through Chechen communities, causing peaceful residents to turn against the local fighters whose presence could lead to their doom. It is, however, easy for the rebels to shrug off responsibility for any bloodshed; they can blame the Russians.

They also tend to argue that death is a matter determined only by Allah - no matter how many Russian shells shower down from the heavens. And the Kremlin has almost certainly failed to understand the complexity and depth of the relations which knit together peaceable Chechens with the "boyeviki", the fighters.

Talking to Mr Makhayev, one is inclined to dismiss him as a boaster, a braggart lacking any clout. This evaporates when he suddenly turns up the TV set, now showing a prestigious Russian current affairs programme. He explains that he arrested one of its journalists, for editing pictures of corpses into a recorded interview with Dudayev. He only let his captive go after the programme agreed to apologise; now he wanted to see if it would keep the promise. It did. "Excellent," he said, quietly.

It was a small triumph. Mr Makhayev dreams of bigger victories: winning the right for a referendum on independence and the departure of the Russians. He insists that there would be no massive reprisals, and denies President Yeltsin's claim that an all-out withdrawal would lead to civil war.

"The Muslim courts will deal with 10 or 15 traitors who invited the Russian troops here, but we will find a common language. We are all Chechens, and all of the same blood." What of the hundreds of Chechens, the local Ministry of Interior police, who fought against them in Grozny? "We will forgive them."

For now, this is fantasy. He must focus on the war. He says Mr Dudayev's forces, in absolute disarray last summer, are now stronger and more numerous. "We have arms, we have transport, our people are well rested, and our wounded guys are being taken care of." They are planning another spectacular assault, "a blockbuster movie", he says.

And, sitting in their village headquarters, he and his men are looking forward to the summer. "Allah helps us by sending fog at night. There will be green leaves on the trees soon, and they will screen our manoeuvres." What no one in that building knows, is whether they will live to see the summer, when it comes.

Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football
News
news
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
life
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
News
peopleWrestling veteran drifting in and out of consciousness
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator - Cisco Partner - £110 p/d

£110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator (SC Cleared), Cisco Go...

Recruitment Consultants - IT - Trainee / Experienced

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £40-50K first year: SThree: The SThree group i...

Primary teachers needed for supply in Huntingdon

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers need...

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone