Khamzat (Ruslan) Gelayev
Ruslan (Khamzat) Gelayev (1964–February 28, 2004) was a prominent commander in the Chechen freedom fighting against imperialist Russia. The Russians nicknamed him the Black Angel which he also used as his radio communications call sign.
Ruslan Gelayev was born in 1964 in the village of Komsomolskoye near Urus-Martan, 10 years after his parents had returned from the Stalinist deportation of Chechens into Central Asia. In 1992-1993, he took part in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict as a volunteer on the Abkhaz side alongside Shamil Basayev. After his return to Chechnya, he soon became a commander in Dzhokhar Dudaev’s Spetsnaz (special forces) unit Borz (Wolf).
In the 1994-1996 First Russian-Chechen War, Gelayev fought against the Russians, including as a major commander in the famous defence of the capital Grozny. He was one of the first Chechen commanders awarded the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria’s highest medal “Kioman Syi” (Honor of the Nation) and in early 1995 he became the commander of the South-Western Front of the Ichkeria Armed Forces. In 1995 Gelayev’s units defended the village of Shatoy, where Gelayev was wounded several times. On March 6, 1996, Gelayev led a surprise raid on Grozny, regaining large parts of the city for two days, inflicting serious losses on Russian occupying forces and leaving with more than 100 hostages. This was seen as a test before the recapture of the city in August in the operation by Shamil Basayev, which ended the war and in which Gelayev also participated.
After the war, Gelayev became deputy Prime Minister under the new Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in April 1997; he went on a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and took on the name Khamzat. The following year, in 1998, he was appointed the Defence Minister of Chechnya, the post which he held until he was replaced by Magomed Khanbiyev in 1999. Gelayev maintained links with Maskhadov as well as his rival Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.
At the start of the Second Russian-Chechen War, Gelayev commanded a large force of some 1,500 fighters in defense of Grozny, but withdrew from the city in January 2000, which left it open to attack and for which he was later severely criticised. Following the inexplicable withdrawal from Grozny, Gelayev was demoted from Brigadier General to Private and stripped of all military decorations.
In February-March 2000, Gelayev’s forces were taking heavy losses as they withdrew from Grozny to the mountain forests in southern Chechnya, when Arbi Barayev contacted Khamzat Gelayev promising him aid and transportation to a safe area. When Gelayev’s forces arrived at the specified meeting place, they were instead ambushed by a large number of Russian troops and retreated to the Gelayev’s native village of Komsomolskoye. There, more than a thousand freedom fighters were besieged and pounded for weeks by the Russian army in one of the largest battles of the war, ending with some 800 freedom fighters and more than 50 soldiers dead (according to Russian figures); Gelayev himself escaped the encirclement with just few hundred of his men.
By mid-2001,Gelayev decided to rebuild his forces in the Pankisi Gorge across the Georgian border. There, Gelayev had built up a significant armed force of 800 Chechens. Georgian authorities were accused of negotiating a deal to supply and arm Gelayev’s force in return for the October 2001 Gelayev’s raid on behalf of Georgia into Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. Gelayev earned admiration from senior Georgian politicians; President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze described him as “noble man and an educated person who is well-disposed toward Georgia”. From there, Gelayev led a hit-and-run attacks against Russian military targets in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Russians responded in a series of secret airstrikes on a Georgian territory, during which a Georgian civilian was reported killed.
In August 2001, Gelayev played a crucial role in releasing Russian human rights activist Svetlana Kuzmina who was held in Chechen captivity where she spent more than two years. Gelayev acted upon the request of Louisa Islamova, the wife of his fellow rebel commander Lechi Islamov, who was being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison pending trial; Islamova had tracked down Vyacheslav Izmailov, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, and offered to try and persuade the rebels to free hostages if Izamailov would help her try and secure her husband’s release in court. Gelayev wrote a note warning Kuzmina’s captors that if they did not free the woman, they would become his deadly enemies. Lechi Islamov was later reportedly murdered with poison in captivity.
In September 2002, Gelayev’s forces managed a large raid into the Russian republic of Ingushetia, capturing the villages of Tarskoye and then Galashki, but Gelayev’s fighters became surrounded, took large losses and were dispersed. Among these killed in the battle was Roddy Scott, a British freelance reporter who travelled with the freedom fighters; seven to 40 Chechen fighters were killed and five were captured, while 17 Russian soldiers were also reported killed by the Russian official reports. In December 2003, Gelayev was incorrectly reported dead after a firefight that left nine Russian soldiers dead. In an interview, Gelayev said “he would continue to fight until not only our country but all the nations of the Caucasus are freed from the double-headed eagle of Russia”.
In the winter of 2004, Gelayev was attempting to lead a 40-strong unit of his forces from a raid in Dagestan into the safe haven of Georgia, but was faced with heavy resistance and was consequently practically wiped-out in a large Russian manhunt operation; 30 Chechen fighters (possibly including Khozh-Ahmed Noukhayev) and 14 Russian soldiers were reported to die in the fighting and landslides, while several rebels were captured. On February 28, 2004, Gelayev was killed after a skirmish with a two-man Russian border guard patrol he encountered while attempting to cross the border into Georgia alone; Gelayev shot and killed both guards, but Gelayev fought with a larger group of border guards, and was killed after his arm was shot-off by heavy machine gun of an attack helicopter.
Gelayev’s body was positively identified, but not released to his relatives for the reason that he was classified as a terrorist by the Russian authorities. His family has since been campaigning to release his remains or disclose what happened to the body.