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“Further war is not pleasing to God” – A visit to the Chechen mountain schools

AUTHOR:  Yuliya Vishnevetskaya, 17 May 2007

Translated by  Agatha Haun and revised by Manuela Vittorelli

The principal subjects in the Chechen mountain schools are Russian and the Quran as an elective. “Meeting a child, you say to him: ‘Good morning. How are you?’ We try to say it in Russian. That’s necessary for them, for them... to live... ”

A combination of Caucasian and Islamic hospitality puts one into a trance: here there is some kind of quite subtle attitude toward visitors. For example, Chechens consider it their duty to clean the guest’s shoes – and it isn’t clear at all what one should do – whether to say thank you, to apologize, or to perceive it as something proper. A Chechen always tries to fulfil any request that you may have, but what he feels in this process: fear, awkwardness, or doubt -- one must guess according to the nuances of intonation or not guess at all. Throughout my entire stay in Chechnya, an invisible voltmetre was constantly operating in my head, measuring the tension of the situation. One becomes very tired of this. May one take a photograph? May one smoke in the presence of these people? May one ask about this? It is necessary to control oneself all the time, and this, as everyone knows, is much worse than being controlled by someone else. And the other way around, one feels that the same little apparatus is functioning in the heads of the people that one is talking with. For example, the director of studies of one school located on a mountain said that the village was an important strategic point and the military made use of it. “How do they make use of it?” I asked automatically. He glanced at me with a kind of strange expression, an awkward silence ensued, which was ended only by the following question. As became clear later, the brother of this director of studies was a guerrilla, and another brother had been imprisoned for complicity. At the end of the conversation he said: “Thank you very much, even if you are a Russian. I understand that there are different people in every nation, both good and bad, but what happened hasn’t been cancelled out”. Evidently he was thinking about putting a different accent on things, but it turned out just that way. Incidentally, this was the only instance of such frankness.


I used inside connections to get into Chechnya: acquaintances from the Committee for Aid to Refugees – Civic Assistance were travelling there to do research on schools in mountain villages. It was necessary to know what kinds of schools were most in need of help and what exactly they needed. I tagged along with them. This gave me the opportunity to see a great many Chechen schools, speak with a mass of people, and visit dozens of ruined Chechen communities. In this context I must acknowledge that I was far from being independent — I had to see a great deal through the eyes of those with whom I was travelling. Our guides were staff members of the Chechen branches of Memorial (most prominent human rights organization in post-Soviet Russia and former Soviet republics – translator’s note), and we stayed in their homes. They were all very likeable people: Idris in Argun — cheerful and awkward, never saying anything bad about anyone; Khasan in Gudermes — mild, intelligent, who worried about everyone; Shamil in Grozny — a serious young ascetic, whose parents had died during the war and whose brothers and sisters had moved away to Ingushetia. Now he lives alone in a large cold house, in which the only decorations are yellow cards, with English words, stuck to the walls. All these people are united by the unconditional desire to give help — in the general environment of fear and the absurd, this is a very important motive for remaining in Chechnya. “We will pretend that nothing happened”, Khasan says with a sad smile, who spent the whole war in Gudermes; although fate spared him personally, what he saw and heard traumatized the young Chechen almost as though he had experienced it personally.

A natural history lesson in one of the schools of the Nozhai-Yurtovskii district. The four-year-old daughter of the teacher is sitting together with the pupils.

Almost nowhere were we delayed. Guides from the local administration, or RONO, after accompanying us during the day, invited us for tea in the evening. More accurately, as though by chance, we found ourselves near the home of the guide. I noticed that Chechens live in surprisingly similar conditions. Everywhere floors that were polished until they gleamed, cleaned carpets, neat rows of shoes by the porch. A great deal of any kind of meal is understood by the expression “for tea”, including chicken with potatoes — a dish that is always prepared in one and the same way. When you’ve seen this chicken twice in a row, these carpets, and the traditional Caucasian cradle, covered with the familiar coverlet — but all this in a slightly different setting — you have the feeling that the space is distorted. The human rights activists absolutely did not want to travel around Chechnya late in the evening; often we were invited to stay for the night, but there could be no question of this — each time we returned to the town where the usual “tea” awaited us.

In four days we looked at 22 schools in four mountain districts. That’s very many. As a result, almost all the schools merged together in my mind in one cold room with blue and white walls, decorated with numerous portraits of Kadyrov the younger (pro-Kremlin military-political leader in Chechnya, son of a previous leader who was killed in 2004 – translator’s note) and his aphorisms. Who hangs up all of these? “Just try not hanging them up!” the director answers. Among these schools there were also model-demonstration schools, which had been repaired and had children’s playgrounds, and altogether bleak schools where there’s barely a glimmer of life. Almost everywhere they complain of the lack of trained personnel. “If there was a place to live, teachers would come here”, they say in the RONO. ”There’s Kadyrov”, they relate, “he brought some Russians to his Benoi clan, offered them a salary of 15,000, they work. And our rate is two or three thousand a month”. The foreign language in almost all schools is Arabic. The teacher of Arabic, as a rule, holds elective classes on the Quran and lessons in ethics, where he tells the children about Chechen traditions. In one of the schools of the Vedenskii district the imam built the stove with his own hands. For some reason, they all still talk about repairing the sports hall: it would seem there’s no need to run around in stuffy indoor rooms, when there’s clean mountain air all around and beautiful natural surroundings, but no – the teenagers don’t have anywhere to work off their energy, say the teachers, we need sports equipment. It turns out that for the Chechens, sports are very important in general, especially free-style wrestling. In some schools there are psychologists and as a rule, they really do devote themselves to the children.

Here, perhaps, are all the differences from the statistically average Russian school. By the way, the situation in different communities is not the same, much depends on the condition of the village and people’s readiness to build a new life here. For example, in the village of Ushkaloi the school is accommodated, with some difficulty, in the teacher’s small house, but in a neighbouring community, just a couple of kilometres from here, there’s an enormous building equipped with a dozen computers — but there’s nobody to study there: almost all the residents with children moved away to the lowlands. The director of the school, an old, tired woman with a lifeless gaze, tells how the school teacher was killed by a bomb fragment, how she, the director, was taken to be shot, but the children ran after her — and only by the good will of some commander, they let everyone go.

I remember the last phrase of the account that I read in the notebook of a Chechen girl: “And Pugachev left Grinev in peace”. (refers to Emelyan Pugachev, who led a Cossack insurrection during the reign of Catherine II, and was executed in 1775; and a character in Aleksandr Pushkin’s story, “The Captain’s Daughter”, featuring the Pugachev revolt, which inspired an opera by Cui. – translator’s note) We try to find out from the director what can be done to help this school. “Nothing is needed. Put up an iron fence, otherwise the cows will knock over our wooden fence”.

A small family-type school

The road to the Nozhai-Yurtovskii district, part of the federal Baku-Rostov highway, at first goes through the lowlands, flat as a grass plot. Now and then, alongside the road, we encounter groups of young people with large black sacks. Among them there are many girls in scarves and short skirts. Moving along on their high heels through the green expanse, they carefully pick up rubbish and put it in the sacks and with elegant movements they shake it out onto large smoking piles. “Subbotnik”, (in the Soviet period, voluntary, unpaid work days, for cleaning up public spaces and similar tasks, especially on Saturdays (“subbota” in Russian) – translator’s note) Idris explains to me, “tomorrow is Chechnya’s Constitution Day, the anniversary of the referendum”. By the way, I observed such rubbish-removal processes long before the day of the referendum, and after it. For me the smell of Chechnya is the smell of burning rubbish. There’s a feeling that in this republic there is a permanent subbotnik going on.

“The children were dismissed for the subbotnik”, that was what we were told that day in almost every school. In the village of Gansolchu, incidentally, they somehow forgot about it: the children were studying as if nothing were going on. In general, here more attention is devoted to private than to public life. The director’s whole family was gathered under the school roof: his wife and older son — a student taking a correspondence course — teach mathematics, his younger son is studying, his daughter is completing the eleventh grade and probably sooner or later will turn up here, too. Instead of the dreadful electric signal, here there’s a quite melodious little bell. Even the layout of the school building contributes to creating a family-like atmosphere — two small buildings: in one, the teachers’ room; in the other, two classrooms divided into two more sections by partitions. The watchman lives here, the owner of the two buildings. “The rent is 3,000 a month. This money is supposed to be paid by the RONO, but it hasn’t been paid for two years. They don’t chase us out because then they’d lose the work of the watchman, and anyway that’s a thousand a month”, says Zelimkhan Djabraev, the school director.

“I teach Russian language classes”, explains the director of studies of the school in the Avar village of Kimkhi on the border with Dagestan. During the war nearly all the inhabitants left for Dagestan, now they’ve started to come back, little by little. Because of the cold, this morning no one came to school. The director of studies sent the teachers to the village to gather the pupils for the second shift.

The old schoolhouse, like most buildings in the village, was completely destroyed. In 2002, after the elderly director and the school watchman were killed in the same night, 16 families immediately abandoned Gansolchu. Within a short time, all the rest left also. The village remained empty for eight months. During that time the buildings that had been left undamaged by their owners were also destroyed. Some people think that the military bombarded the empty village so that no one would return, others — that they simply dismantled the homes to get building materials. “There was an old man among us who was very unwilling to leave — he was the very last one to leave, he cried”, relates the wife of the director Iisita, “then he found everyone in the lowlands and talked them into returning. He was a very good man, he was welcomed everywhere. We lived in the Gudermes district: everyone was bored there, only the women worked. And Akhmad Kadyrov (father of current pro-Kremlin leader Razman Kadyrov, initially a leader of the separatist forces, then defected to the pro-Kremlin side, killed in 2004 – translator’s note) just promised that he would help people to return to the mountains. This old man gathered everyone together — we went to the administration and asked them to assign a battalion to guard the village. We returned. When he saw that his home had been destroyed, the old man immediately took to his bed with a heart attack and died two days later”.

The attitude toward the refugees’ return to the mountains, as I understood from the words of social workers, is ambiguous: it’s as though the government wants people to live in the mountains again, however this is disadvantageous to the military, who strive to completely control the situation in these districts. For the people it’s also a very difficult choice. Many, like this old man, want to return: after all, Chechens are very attached to their villages, for ages they have buried all the representatives of the clan in one and the same cemetery, even if it is located outside Chechnya. The mountaineers feel like real refugees in the lowlands, even if they haven’t left the borders of the republic and therefore can’t claim the aid that is offered to refugees in one way or another.

At the same time, it is terrible to live in the mountains, especially for young men. In almost every village one can hear about how masked men abducted this or that resident by night and took him off to some place unknown. They kill some, they interrogate some for a long time and release them half-dead, some disappear altogether. Almost all of them are subjected to humiliation. The logic of these arrests is arbitrary: denunciations, confessions under torture — any information that in one way or another has wound up in Kadyrov’s database. The motive can also be personal revenge. The situation is made more complicated by the fact that a vast number of Kadyrov’s followers are guerrillas who were amnestied last autumn. “That’s the logic of ‘37”, says Lena Burtina from a humanitarian programme. “Maybe the arrests have some sort of rational explanation, but the most important thing is to maintain the atmosphere of fear. Now many things are possible: to be at law with federal troops, to file a complaint with the head of the administration, but if you say even a word against Kadyrov, your life’s in danger”. 

In this sense, life in the lowlands is quieter, especially in a town: there aren’t any guerrillas there, there it’s simpler to “dissolve oneself” in the mass. Therefore the refugees, as a rule, connect the past, but not the future, with the mountains. For example, Zelimkhan and Iisita live in the mountains but they’re building a home for the children in the lowlands: in the mountains, they say, it’s always more dangerous, although here, of course, you’ll never die of hunger. As far as I understood from Memorial staff members’ statistics, only a fourth of the former population is definitely inclined to return to the mountains. But they, evidently, are people with beliefs. We passed through a village where there is nothing at all — only with difficulty can one guess where the houses stood — but even so, the former residents want to return precisely to these deserted hills. Much depends on whether a person is successful in obtaining compensation for a destroyed home: as a rule, the papers that are submitted lie in the administration for many months and then it turns out that they’ve been lost. The documents are discovered only after a person promises to divide his compensation. The “recoil” amounts to between 30% and 50%, this money goes up the line. In very rare cases, when a village has been totally destroyed, its leader can insist on 100% for the residents — 350,000 rubles. Many prefer to use this money to build a house in the lowlands, but there problems are already emerging with the plots of land: they also have to be obtained through bribery

“When we came back, at first we walked along the paths behind the livestock, we were afraid of mines”, continues the school director in Gansolchu. All the pupils in Chechnya have been taught anti-mine rules — posters with dogs and hedgehogs hang in every school, which warn about unknown objects. But they try not to go far into the forest anyway, they even gather fuel wood close to the house. They go to gather ramsons in groups — if someone gets blown up, the others carry him away.

In the school of 72 pupils, classes are held in three shifts. There are no teachers of chemistry, physics, and Russian. Other instructors teach these subjects. “How can that be? They don’t know this”. “Never mind, they read the textbook and tell the children what’s in it”. The director gives informatics lessons on the only computer in the school, in addition to giving lessons in work and physical training. He teaches boys up to the sixth grade in the skills of farming, from the seventh to the ninth grades — construction, and in the senior classes — how to drive his own car. There is no foreign language. “Earlier there was a teacher of Arabic, but he was arrested. Later he was released, but he didn’t come back here”. The food here, as in most Chechen schools is humanitarian aid – from the organization World Vision. (non-governmental Christian aid organization, based in the United States – translator’s note) Cooked groats are prepared in the teachers’ room on the electric stove. Earlier they cooked with milk — also the director’s, as is not difficult to guess — but recently Zelimkhan sold his cows, therefore groats served with milk are a great rarity in the school now. Above the stove on the wall hangs a mirror, and above it there is a moving inscription: “Teacher! Look at yourself. Smile! And go to class”.

As far as I knew, in Chechen traditional society, school is not the antithesis of the family, but rather something like its continuation. Here there are no discipline problems, it is the accepted way to listen to the teacher: they are respected people in the village. When I appeared, the children invariably stood up, and this jarred on me every time — but they always stand up in the presence of adults. On the other hand, here the attitude toward the children, as everywhere in the Caucasus, is different: they are seldom punished, people try to meet their wishes. In a good, but very rare variant, as in Gansolchu, the Chechen school is something like a village club, where the adults teach the children what they themselves know.

Definition of trauma

“What is called trauma is damage to the tissue, caused by environmental factors; they differentiate among mechanical traumas, thermal, open, and closed”.

“Good, Vakha, who else wants to ask a question? Aza, ask your question”.

“What is antiseptic?”

“Antiseptic is a means of the chemical and biological disinfection of wounds. Antiseptic prevents microbes from getting into a wound”.

“Good. Aza, go to the board. Aslan, ask your question”.

“What’s trauma?”

“What we call trauma...is injury...caused...”

“You didn’t listen well. Sit down. Who else will tell us what trauma is?”

And so on to the end of the lesson. This, as it is easy to guess, is FSVA (fundamentals of the safety of vital activity). The child standing at the board is as though paralyzed. By his facial expression, it seems as though he is in need of “antiseptic” himself just now. They whisper to him from the first desk — he tries to guess how the word should be pronounced. These are children 13-14 years old, most likely they know, not by hearsay, what trauma and antiseptic are.

These are the upper grades. In the lower grades everything is more understandable and more cheerful. Here, for example, is the natural history lesson. The teacher, who appears to be 50, her gold teeth gleaming, walks among the rows, her four-year-old daughter holds onto her skirt. The stove is alight, a bucket of water is being heated up on it, for washing the floors. A pupil opens her book, in which is written in large letters: “Man is an intelligent being”. “We know many different animals. The cow, the goat, the hare, the wolf, the tiger”. A pause. We translate into Chechen. The four-year-old girl has gotten tired of standing behind her mother, she sits down beside someone at their desk, sticks out her tongue at me, and starts to draw. “A cow — right, a hare — what’s a hare? Good”. We read further: “But among them there are animals whose young play, like the kitten, he loves biscuits and ice cream. But when he grows up, he learns mathematics, learns to drive a car...” Translation.

Almost all classes in the first three grades are Russian language lessons; after all, the children don’t know it at all. And why learn it there in the primary school? There too, as far as I recall, is a nonsense. But together with the elementary vocabulary, the children learn axioms that are foreign to them, a way of thinking, and a system of abstract knowledge: “Man is an intelligent being”, “The Volga flows into the Caspian Sea”, “Mathematics is the queen of all sciences”, and so on.

“They don’t understand Russian – I say it in Chechen, then again in Russian. When we meet a child, we say to him: ‘Good morning. How are you?’ We try it in Russian. That’s necessary for them, for them...to live...” the director of the Khimoi village school in the Sharoiskii district acknowledges with embarrassment. The school occupies half of a house — the owners live in the other half, renting it out for two classrooms. The only 13-year-old girl, who has become the centre of attention, sits in one of them, huddled up and staring at her desk. “The second shift – the others are ill”, explains the director. Now she’s having a mathematics lesson with the girl. They appear to be the same age; wearing her coquettish denim skirt, the 25-year-old director, who lived in Rostov for many years, sometimes seems even younger than the reticent village teenager with a scarf on her head.

Out of the 300 village residents, 150 are employees of the ROVD. (Department of Internal Affairs – translator’s note) Even the women here wear police uniforms: a scarf on their heads, a necktie around their necks. In the mountain districts in general there are many different kinds of soldiers; ROVD, GRU, a subdivision of the Kadyrov guards, “Vostok” (east) and “Yug” (south) battalions, it’s hard to tell them all apart. Even the Chechens, as a rule, can’t say exactly what to call the military unit that’s standing right next to them. In the beginning the BTRs and the little sand houses aroused my unhealthy journalist’s interest, afterward I simply stopped paying attention to them, as with the ruins of buildings and the giant portraits of both Kadyrovs which constantly appeared before my eyes.

In this school there’s a total of 17 students. In nearby communities, as we were informed at the RONO, there’s approximately the same number. In the neighbouring village of Kiri, the school had to be closed temporarily approximately two months ago. After one of the residents was abducted at night, all his relatives hastily collected their things and left for the lowlands. As a result, out of the eight school-age children in the village, two remained. I saw one of them, it seems. By the way, it may be that he is still a pre-schooler — in general, Caucasian children go to school when they are seven years old. Standing on the porch of a huge wooden house, he brandished a toy pistol and shouted at me: “Halt!”


The 25-year old director in the village of Khimoi: “When we meet a child, we say to him: ‘Good morning. How are you?’ We try it in Russian. It’s necessary for them, for them...to live...”


By chance our driver turned out to be a native of this village and a cousin of the man who had been abducted. “For a long time, he hadn’t lived in Kiri at all, he worked in town, at the GRU, and came here to visit. They came for his nephew, he decided to intervene: look here, he says, let’s sort this out, I’m a soldier too. Finally they took him away and left the nephew”. As Aslan says, since the end of the war such things happen quite often. “During the war it was quieter: there was a military unit here, we helped each other, they didn’t bomb us. But when the federals left, these arrests started. They interrogate, ask what you know about guerrillas, who you can name. It’s worst of all when a man disappears completely and it’s even impossible to bury him. I’m from here, but I’m going to live in town: there’s almost none of this there”.

If you want, it’s possible to find fault with almost any mountain-dweller. Almost all of them in one way or another had connections to the guerrillas. For many, these are relatives, someone let them stay overnight, someone gave them food. Speaking in general terms, an orthodox Chechen should give hospitality to anyone — it’s all the more difficult to refuse someone with a weapon. ”We were between two fires”, say the refugees from mountain villages. “In the morning the guerrillas came, in the evening — the federals”. It isn’t hard to guess that in history lessons the subject of Russian-Chechen relations isn’t touched on at all. “I’m afraid to say anything”, says the history teacher in the village of Kharachoi, one of the tensest in the Vedenskii district. “The relatives of many children here have died, someone’s relatives went to joint the guerrillas. I talk about only what’s prescribed by the curriculum: in such-and-such a year such-and-such military operations took place. And if I say something more, maybe they won’t understand me”.

First day of the holidays

The holidays in Chechnya started the day before — they let the pupils out in honour of the anniversary of the referendum. In several villages, for some reason, they celebrate the recently passed constitution by a general feeding of birds. On this free day I gathered up the courage to ask Idris to take me to the village of Guni in the Vedenskii district. It’s a very beautiful place, and moreover a Muslim holy site is located there — the grave of the mother of the Chechen Sufi Kunta-Khadji. Idris was upset for a long time, hesitated, said that according to rumours there were “foresters” in those places again during the day, but I, terribly tired of this politesse, persistently pretended that I didn’t understand the hints and shifted the whole responsibility onto him — if you say “No”, it means No. Finally he agreed – on the condition that I wear a scarf and a long skirt. For safety, Idris took his wife with him: “With two women, no one can touch me, if something comes up, I’ll say you’re our daughter”.

Dancing lesson: the teacher, 40 years old, tapping out the rhythm with a ruler, teaches the girls to dance the lezginka. They are accompanied by an accordion and drums.

On the way we meet up with several teenagers, walking along the road carrying sticks. “See, it’s already begun”, comments Idris. “In the summer there are as many as 7,000 pilgrims. See what a long line of cars there is! Although according to the rules they’re supposed to go on foot. Such a pilgrim is given hospitality everywhere in Chechnya: they go on foot for a month or two and always get a place to stay overnight and help”. As I approached the holy site, I fastened on the scarf, but incorrectly, as it later turned out: it should have been tied under the chin the way old women do it. In March the holy place is almost empty: I see a vast cemetery on a foggy hill, a dozen or so old women wearing white scarves walk among the rows of graves. They chant some sort of prayers and clap their hands. This, as far as I know, is the dhikr ritual (an Islamic devotional practice, remembrance of God, repetition of the names of God, with singing, music, dance, meditation, or other elements – translator’s note) — but somehow simplified. According to the Sufi idea, one should bring oneself by dancing to ecstasy and exhaustion. After completing several circuits around the most important tomb, the old women, moving back, go down the hill, climb into a minibus-taxi with a small green flag, and drive away.

The natural question occurs to me: why do people honour Kheda, the mother of the renowned sheikh, where is his own grave? It turned out that he died in a Russian prison. Incidentally, Chechens don’t believe that: “He’s still alive!” In these parts there’s a legend current, that Kunta-Khadji wanders around Chechnya and, like the Russian Nikolai Chudotvorets [miracle-worker], appears to people at a time of difficulty. They relate that they’ve seen him during bombardments and special operations.

Guni, Marzoimokh, Pervomaiskoe, and Miridi are villages united by a shared administration and connection with the Sufis’ holy site. In all there are about 2,000 residents here. Although the majority aren’t practicing Sufis and are rather afraid to get close to those who perform the dhikr ritual, here everything is steeped in the personality of Kunta-Khadji. “They’re from Guni!” the head of the administration speaks with pride about the sheikh and his family. They show me the house in which the famous saint lived. “During the Soviet period, a KGB man wanted to go there”, they tell me. “It seems to me, he says, someone’s living there. The man who was head at that time explains to him: you shouldn’t, people haven’t gone there for a hundred years. But he says, I’m going in there and that’s that! They went and a bird flew out from the corner and stunned them”.



In the first Dyshnevedenskii school the electricity was cut off. For such an occurrence there is a reserve bell. It has a much more beautiful sound and the teachers gladly let the children ring it, too.

This Akhmet Kunta-Khadji Kishiev, as I afterward found out, was the most consistent Muslim pacifist. He appeared in a situation which in a way resembles the current one — at the end of the Caucasian war, when the Chechen people were on the verge of complete physical annihilation. The head of the Islamic government at that time, Shamil, insisted on continuing the struggle to the last Chechen. A herdsman from the village of Ilskhan-yurt, Akhmet Kishiev, proposed the only viable alternative — to accept the melancholy and unjust reality with the aim of preserving themselves physically and spiritually: “Because of the systematic wars, our numbers have diminished catastrophically. The tsarist power is already firmly established in our territory. I don’t believe that they will come from Turkey to help us, that the Turkish sultan desires our freedom and our rescue. That is not true, because the sultan himself is the same kind of despot as the Russian tsar. Believe me, I saw all this with my own eyes, as I saw the despots in Arabic countries taking shelter behind the sharia. Further war is not pleasing to God. And if they tell you to go to church, go, for it is only a building. If they make you wear crosses, wear them, since it is only a piece of iron, but in your souls and hearts you are Muslims. But if they touch your women, make you forget your language, culture, and customs, rise up and fight till the death of the last man remaining!”

In everything else, Kunta-Khadji was an absolute Mahatma Gandhi: he preached not to pollute the water, not to harm animals, not to return evil for evil, and not to carry weapons. “War is savagery. Keep away from everything that resembles war, if the enemy has not come to take away your faith and honour. Your weapon is the rosary, not the rifle, not the dagger. To die in a fight with an enemy who is much stronger than you is like suicide. Such a death is lack of faith in the power and grace of Almighty Allah, who creates tyrants not to do harm but in the name of purifying people’s morals. For those who are in the [Sufi] order, tyrants are empty idols, which will fall and be smashed, like clay pots”.

Kunta-Khadji’s revelations were a genuine revolution in Chechen consciousness, but they grew out of traditional life, from traditional laws, at the time when Shamil imposed an Islamic state system that was in general alien to rural Chechnya. In the insoluble conflict, Kunta-Khadji proposed the liberating possibility of treating any authority as a formality.

For the Russian authorities, Kishiev’s Sufi ways were much less acceptable than Shamil’s holy war: mysticism is more difficult to defeat than war is. “The teaching of the dhikr, in its own way, in many respects resembling holy war, serves as a better means of national unification, awaiting only a propitious time for the fanatic awakening of forces at rest”, Loris-Melikov, the governor of the Tersk region, writes in his 1863 report.

A resident of the village of Guni, who served in the Soviet army in the 1970s, “began little by little to retire into his shell”. The present activities of the military seem to him to be a continuation of the fixed-period service.

It is interesting that the quite young Kishiev died in a Novgorod prison, while Russia’s chief enemy Shamil lived to a ripe old age in Kaluga, in the condition of a respected captive; he received a huge pension, entertained many guests, including influential Russian politicians. They released him to go to Mecca to die. As a public figure he was understandable to Russia, but his younger contemporary Kishiev was perceived as a danger.

It is not surprising that the modern Chechen authorities often exploit Kishiev’s rhetoric. Even the surname of Kadyrov goes back to the Qadiri Sufist order (named after Abdul Qadir Jilani, 1077-1166 – translator’s note) – that is the name of the branch of Sufism that Kishiev propagated, and even the current president positions himself as a follower of the great sheikh, often referring to him in his interviews. Of course, in the world of extraordinary violence all of this is perceived as rhetoric. However, here and there the philosophy of Kunta-Khadji lives on, not only in the form of the truth in books. It’s true that his natural disciples do not take on themselves the courage to talk about the entire Chechen people — they can talk only about the preservation of his village, his family, already perceiving the Kadyrov authority as a formality which one must deal with.

“Today we’re inspecting the buildings”, says the deputy head the Pervomaiskoe administration. “It’s constitution day, there may be acts of sabotage”. In fact the village is full of soldiers. This is the Vedenskii district, the native place of not only the inoffensive Kunta-Khadji, but also Shamil Basaev (prominent anti-Russian Chechen guerrilla leader, killed in 2006 – translator’s note). “Today they took away two men — I demanded they return them. They did. I even signed at the headquarters, I can show you: I guarantee that there are no guerrillas in the village. I myself personally signed an order: whoever goes over to the guerrillas, we will evict their families”. Beksoltan Bulatmurzaev has held various positions of leadership here for more than ten years already: head of the administration, deputy head, head of the village club. For me he’s a man who’s hard to understand: he resembles the stout, whiskered officials from Chechen television. At the same time he claims he’s honest, protecting the residents: “Recently they took away a man at night again. I gathered our old men, went with them to the headquarters. We were at the prosecutor’s office, at the FSB, at the police station. We say: we won’t tolerate this, let’s settle it according to the law. Two hours later they returned him”.

Finally we approach the school. There are no classes today, as already noted, no, but pre-schoolers are sitting in one of the classrooms — this is one of the few villages where the children learn Russian before school. Incidentally, in this case the kindergarten function is more important: the parents pay 80 rubles per month so that someone is occupied with their children during the day.

“Khattab (Ibn al-Khattab, guerrilla commander in the Chechen wars, killed in 2002 – translator’s note) was held here, in our village”, boasts the school’s director of studies, who combines jobs as the village mullah and geography teacher. It turns out that during the first war the village inhabitants signed an agreement with the federal troops: you don’t bomb us and in exchange we won’t let guerrillas come through. A local home guard was gathered together, about 200 men. And once during the night some men from Guni, as they tell about it, met Khattab. “For sure, it was him, in person. Bearded, that wasn’t enough”, says the deputy head, pointing to the phalange of his finger. “There were 20 men together with some foreigners: they didn’t talk to our men. We locked them in the school. Then I went to the headquarters, reported to the federals. And they said: there was no order to detain such a man, let him go. We had to let him go. Then we understood that nobody needed our resistance. But we held out for the whole first campaign”.

We go down to the well, surrounded by old walnut trees. Apparently this was earlier the central place of the village of Guni — now the centre has been relocated to neighbouring Pervomaiskoe. It’s a very old, beautiful place, it feels as though during the war life here wasn’t interrupted as it was in other villages. Very many are left here, the bombings affected Guni to a lesser extent. Beautiful girls scurry past the well with soldier yokes for carrying buckets, children are burning something again. On the hilly crossing of two roads, that form what resembles a town traffic roundabout, stand deaf old men in hats. One of them is a former village elder, the same man that was once attacked by a bird at one time. The old men complain to me about the problems with the electricity. From a distant ravine one can hear a noise like a tractor at work or a miner’s pick. They explain to me that it’s gunfire (from the news the next day I find out that a special operation really was carried out in the vicinity, four guerrillas were killed). That’s how the first day of the school holidays was celebrated in the homeland of the Chechen Tolstoyan. (referring to novelist Lev Tolstoy’s writings advocating Christian pacifism and nonviolence – translator’s note)

Below is the ancient mosque, and above — one more school. “That’s where I brought the soldiers’ mothers”, Beksoltan relates. “In the first war, you remember, there were many of them: they went to Chechnya to look for their sons. I drove them here. One was named Ira, the other, Natasha, it seems. On the road some guerrillas stopped us and said: give them to us as hostages. I refused — I brought them here, gathered all the residents in the school yard. The guerrillas came and demanded that we handed over the soldiers’ mothers. But we didn’t do that. Of course, they had weapons, but they didn’t start shooting Chechens for that. They also threatened my family, but later the federals came and they retreated into the forest”.

A slovenly bearded man goes around us with a strange, intelligent smile, whispering something unintelligible — I can’t make out the words, but the pronunciation is clearly Russian, almost without an accent. “There, photograph him!” says the deputy head. “This is our madman. He doesn’t have any family: his mother died, his sisters moved away. He served in the Soviet army and gradually started to withdraw into himself. He’s been living on the street for 20 years already. We built him a hut, but he doesn’t live there, he only drags all sorts of junk there. Recently the federals took him away: they thought he was helping the guerrillas. We had to go look for him. Then after a week they said: ‘Take him away!’ I found him in a pit, beaten up, half-dead. He speaks Russian very well, by the way. They asked him: ‘Where’s your weapon?’ He answered: ‘I gave away my weapon after demobilization’ “. “Demobilization”, whispers the lunatic and smiles contentedly. Then, folding his hands as though in prayer, looks into the camera lens and mutters: “I propose...as far as possible...to get married”. Everyone around us laughs: I’ve already received a proposal. But I feel sad: probably this is the only person who’s spoken to me all week without a voltmetre in his head.

Original Russia Reporter Nr.1

All photos by the author.

Translated from Russian by Agatha Haun and revised by Manuela Vittorelli , members of
Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation is on copyleft for any non-commercial use: verbatim copies in their entirety may be freely reproduced, respecting the source, the author, the translator, and the reviser.
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PEACE AND WAR : 14/06/2007