An article by Svetlana Meteleva, appearing in the March 12 issue of Moskovsky komsomolets, puts individual human faces on the tragedy of children in a civil war. What she reports from her conversations with Chechen teenagers now serving prison terms for their guerrilla activities should be treated with some caution: Prisoners of all ages, especially those in Russian prisons, become expert at saying what their jailers want to hear. Nevertheless, much of what she heard rings true with what we know from other sources about Chechnya’s slide into criminalized anarchy.
Among the young Chechens whom Meteleva was allowed to interview at a Russian prison camp for young criminals was Artur Magomadov, who barely managed to finish ninth grade before being recruited into a guerrilla band in the year 2000. The recruiter and head of the band was a schoolmate, a boy who, at 15, was his own age. Two years later the band was destroyed by pro-Moscow troops, and Artur is now in his third year of an eight-year sentence for insurrection and murder. The friend who recruited him, Kazbek Zaurbekov, is dead.
Artur claims that he initially turned Kazbek down, but gave in when the latter threatened to kill his mother and sister. Their unit consisted of eight teenage boys, two of whom are now serving prison terms like Artur. Their leader, Kazbek, told them he was under the command of a cousin of the notorious terrorist Arbi Baraev, from whom they received orders as well as intelligence information and, sometimes, money. Their first serious mission–which had the effect, and probably also the intent, of leaving them no chance to turn back from their new life–was to murder two Chechen women, acquaintances of Artur, who were said by Kazbek to be collaborators.
According to Meteleva, such bands of teenage “warriors of Allah” began to appear during the first Chechen war, “but it was precisely during the years 2000 to 2002 that the number of such bands increased at a geometric rate. The ‘age for recruitment’ began at 14, with a whole range of recruiting techniques. Many were indeed intimidated into joining, either by their peers or by older comrades. Others were attracted by grand slogans…Some joined for the sake of money. And there were those who entered guerrilla bands in search of ‘the true faith.'”
Ruslan Koichuev, another young prisoner interviewed by Meteleva, told her that “many of my classmates and acquaintances began to wear strange clothes and to let their beards grow. There were various rumors about them. They explained to me that they worshipped Allah alone, that they would not visit the graves of saints or other sacred places [NOTE: these are customs deeply entrenched in Chechen culture, but considered heretical by purist Wahhabi Muslims]….When I began to read their literature, I came to understand that they were closer to the truth than were our Chechen mullahs.”
Artur told the journalist that after he began serving his prison term, three teenage guerrillas came to visit his mother and aunt back in Chechnya, told them that Artur had betrayed the cause, and shot them dead in the presence of his pregnant sister. “I will get out of here in another four years and seven months,” he said, “and I will go home and take revenge for my mother’s death….I will find them without fail and kill them together with their own families.”