The year 2006 in the North Caucasus has started with a new fierce battle in Dagestan’s mountains. On January 2, a special police unit that was combing a gorge between the villages of Gimri and Shamil-Khala ran into an ambush and had to retreat. Additional troops sent to the area also met strong resistance and entered the gorge only after three days of non-stop shelling and bombing of the area. Yet the insurgents had left the gorge by this time and the security officials only found an empty dugout. The dugout was huge; official reports said that up to 60 people could hide there at a time. It is quite possible, however, that this hiding place is not the only one. Sources of Kavkazky Uzel in the Dagestani police say that the rebels could have a network of secret bases around Gimri (Kavkazky Uzel, January 5).
Gimri, an old Dagestani village situated in the mountainous Untsukulsky district, is the site of several fierce clashes between insurgents and federal forces that took place in the republic recently. They are not by accident: Gimri has an old, established tradition of rebellion and guerrilla war.
Khazi-Mullah, the first Imam of the North Caucasus, was born in Gimri, and it is here that a council of elders proclaimed him the Imam and the Leader of Gazavat (or Jihad) of the Caucasian nations against the Russian Empire in 1830. The third and most famous Imam of the North Caucasus, the national hero of Dagestan, Imam Shamil, was also born in Gimri. During the 19th century Caucasian War, the village was assaulted by Russian troops several times. The most famous assault took place in October 17, 1832. Almost all defenders of the village were killed, and Imam Khazi-Mullah and his assistant Shamil, the future Imam, were blockaded in a watchtower. Khazi-Mullah was killed while the wounded Shamil managed to escape.
During the period of Soviet rule, when Stalin proclaimed Imam Shamil the leader of the national-liberation movement of the Caucasian nations against imperialist Russia of the tsars, Gimri became the spiritual and cultural center of Dagestan. A memorial plaque was attached to the house where Imam Shamil was born. The village was visited by Dagestanis from all parts of the region as well as by guests of the republic.
After the first Chechen war, when various separatist and Islamic groups in Dagestan started to talk about independence and establishing Sharia law, the residents of Gimri kept silent. Their neighbors, residents of the Buinaksk district villages of Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi, openly declared Sharia law on their land, but Gimri was not ready to support them. People in Gimri silently observed how the Russian troops and Dagestani policemen were destroying Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi in 1999, after rebels from Chechnya raided Dagestan.
The situation in Gimri changed beginning in 2000. Women started to wear the hijab or even a black veil. There is still an administration head in Gimri, and the Russian national flag still flies in the center of the village, but the real power is in the hands of the Imam of the local mosque. Each decision of the Gimri administration has to be confirmed by the Imam. If, for example, the Imam wants to ban the sale of alcohol in the village or make girls and boys study separately, nobody protests this even if it violates the laws of the Russian Federation.
Two years ago, people calling themselves members of Sharia Jamaat, a Dagestani rebel group, began visiting Gimri. In contrast to the 1990s, this time they were welcomed in the village. Many young Gimri boys decided to take the path of Jihad. In 2004, local militants stepped up their activities. On October 10, 2004, Untsukulsky district police chief Khadzhimurat Azizov and his assistant were killed near the Gimri tunnel on a strategic road that runs near the town of Gimri and connects the mountainous part of Dagestan with the valley. It was the first time that security officials paid attention to Gimri. Russian military units (the 102nd Brigade of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops and the 136th Brigade of the Ministry of Defense) combed the area after the assassination but found nothing. Nevertheless, Russian generals suspected that some rebel groups might be hiding in the Untsukulsky district. They even considered using the air force (Chechnya Weekly, October 27, 2004).
Early last November, special-task police units started a massive mopping-up operation in Gimri that lasted several days. On November 3, according to Shamil Magomedov, head of the Gimri administration, a shoot-out between policemen and insurgents took place in the village (Nezavisimya gazeta, November 8, 2004). The rebels managed to escape, and Gimri was surrounded by federal forces. Dagestani Interior Minister Adalgirei Magomedtagirov came to Gimri and demanded that the residents hand over to the police anyone who was a Sharia Jamaat member. Magomedtagirov threatened to dispatch helicopter gunships to strike the village with missiles if they refused. When this information was immediately published by the separatist Kavkazcenter website, the interior minister realized his mistake, understanding that news of a missile strike or even the possibility that Imam Shamil’s native village might be bombed could enrage the entire Dagestani society. The security officials vehemently repudiated the report about the minister’s threat, but the commotion surrounding the situation in Gimri forced the federal side to retreat. The plan to close the Gimri tunnel to traffic and to conduct a Chechen-style “zachistka” in the village was dropped.
In December, the police units came back to Gimri and the clashes there resumed. On December 15, Special Forces tried to surround a group of rebels in a house, but the gunmen returned fire and escaped. One soldier and one militant were killed in the shoot-out (Interfax, December 15).
After the failure to destroy the rebel group in the gorge during first days of this year, federal forces again started to cleanse Gimri. It is unlikely, however, to produce any results. Unlike their ancestors, the modern warriors of Islam in the Caucasus prefer to hide in secret mountain dugouts rather then to fight to the death in blockaded villages. However, the insurgents know quite well that, in contrast to local policemen or the Russian troops, they are always welcome in places like Gimri, where they can readily get food, shelter and everything else they need from the local population.