Together in the Field
My family and I stayed in the village of Pervomayskoye outside Grozny through the winter and spring of 1996. I took part in the resistance along with some friends, planting remote-controlled mines along roads used by the Russian military convoys. We lay in wait for the vehicles, and set off the mines when they were near enough. In this way we destroyed several armoured cars and troop transport vehicles. One day we watched a group of young Russian infantrymen coming along the road which we had mined. I felt sorry for them – they were just young boys who had not chosen to come to Ichkeria. We let them go past, and waited until a group of mercenaries came the same way. Then we set off the mine.
The Russians and their collaborators didn’t know what I was up to, but they did know where we lived and that we were Aslan Maskhadov’s family. So we were never safe in Pervomayskoye. Anybody at all could come some day to take our lives or to kidnap us. The traitors from Ganterimov and Kakijev’s groups lived in the same village. They carried out acts of provocation and had brought about the deaths of several peaceable inhabitants of the village, including Russians. At the times of the talks, while both sides had stopped the fighting, these bandit gangs attacked Russian checkpoints in order to start the war up again. They took up positions round about in the village and shot at the Russian positions with tracer bullets. The Russians replied with heavy calibre machine-gun fire against the village. Nextday it was reported on television that Chechen fighters had broken the peace agreement by carrying out armed attacks on Russian soldiers.
One night in the middle of May 1996, some of these traitors, men of Said-Magomed Kakijev’s commando, crept into our village and shot at the house where our family and my uncle’s family were living. We were at home at the time. A mortar hit the house roof, but fortunately it didn’t explode.The detonator had not worked. In the morning when I went out I saw that mother was standing looking at the house to find out whether or not it was us they had been shooting at. Bits of the roof were damaged where the mortar had hit it. The windows in the house opposite were smashed. Our neighbour came out into the street to gather up the broken glass.
I found the empty tube from the mortar launcher about thirty metres from the house. They had used a hand-held Sjmel mortar launcher, which shoots mortars that function as fire-bombs when they hit the target. At first I didn’t want to tell mother about what I had found, so as not to frighten her, but then I decided to tell her after all. There was no doubt that it was our house which had been the target for the attack. Later, two men came and told my uncle that this attack was intended as blood vengeance against my father. They wanted to avenge a relative who had been killed during the first attack on Grozny on 26th November 1994, even though the rules of blood vengeance do not apply when someone dies in a war. The traditions of blood vengeance in the Caucasus are hundreds of years old, a custom surviving from the time before there were no written laws, only a set of unwritten rules calles Adat. The fear of blood vengeance would serve to put people off murdering each other. But when a murder is committed, a blood feud between families can go on for decades.
Mother was very worried about me after this, and so she asked me to go to join my father in the mountains – that would be safer than staying on in the village. The attack on our house showed that the enemy could strike at any time. So long as I was living there, there was a strong possibility that the Russians or their Chechen collaborators would come to kidnap or to kill me. It was hard having to leave my family, but at the same time I was glad to be able to go to my father and take a bigger part in the struggle against the invaders. My mother and the others travelled North to Znamenskoye, her home village, where they could live a little more safely.
So I went to join my father, who at that time was living in Alleroy, about 60 km. from Grozny. Father had sent a man to escort me on the journey. We travelled by bus from the centre of Grozny. There was a truce at the time, though the Russian side didn’t hold to it. At night one could hear the thunder of artillery shells and Grad rockets being fired from Tukhtsyar towards the Vedeno, Nozhay-Yurtovski and Kurtchaloyevski regions.
My father and I had not seen each other for a long time, and we were very glad to be together again. He was proud that I had taken part in the resistance in Grozny, and he immediately gave me new jobs to do. I was to learn how the the resistance movement’s information and communication systems worked, and install and repair radio transmitters. It was a skill which I would make good use of later.
For security reasons, father never stayed long in one place. Sometimes we stayed in Gansoltsyu, sometimes in Alleroy or Kurtchaloyevski. When he lived in a town, he had only three or four bodyguards. It was important not to be too conspicuous, because there could be Russian spies everywhere. But when he had to move his headquarters or encourage the troops in the field, he travelled with at least twenty bodyguards in a column of four wheel drive Niva vehicles.
Once when I was out on a job in a different part of the country, the Russian forces moved in to surround Alleroy, where father was. Tanks rumbled over the countryside and helicopters buzzed overhead. I heard about this the day after, from father’s assistant, Rakhman, who was with him at the time. He reported to father that armoured vehicles were approaching the town and that they were practically surrounded. Father replied calmly and briefly: “We’ll wait, it’s not time yet,” and continued making notes on the map. Rakhman was worried. He thought their last day had come, because there was a big Russian force approaching the town. After a while he went back to father and said: “Aslan, they’ve already started digging trenches…” Father reacted just as calmly as before. Eventually he gave the order to leave the town. Everyone escaped unharmed. Later, Rakhman asked father how he had managed to stay so calm that day. Father replied:
“You know, Rakhman, the Russian troops don’t have any objectives or ideas of their own. They have to do everything according to orders. They would get their iron armada into position, wait for the next order and dig trenches. They wouldn’t move on to the next step until they were protected by the trenches. So I knew roughly how long this would take and when the fighting would eventually start.”
Father and his entourage were always busy. Everybody concentrated intensely on what they had to do, and father was always holding meetings with the field commanders who came to deliver reports and get new orders. He preferred to give them his orders personally.
Since the killing of Dzhokhar Dudaev my father had even more of the responsibility for the resistance struggle, as President Yandarbiyev had little military experience. Father planned and ordered a long series of operations throughout Ichkeria, and he was highly respected by his commanders for his tactical and strategic skills. But communications could be difficult, and the local guerrilla groups sometimes had also to act on their own initiative.
Even though the Russians had assassinated President Dudaev, my father didn’t give up hope of peace negotiations. He knew that it was risky to have contact with the Russians, but he saw negotiations as the only way to end the war. In June 1996 there was a new truce.
While father and I were living in the town of Shali as guests of Commander Ruslan Alikhadzhiev, the Russian leadership made accusations that our side was not holding to the truce. Russian soldiers surrounded Shali and delivered an ultimatum: everyone was to lay down their weapons by 8 o’clock the next morning. Although there were several hundred Chechen fighters in the town, my father had only his bodyguard with him. He ordered our people under no circumstances to open fire first, so as not to give the Russians an excuse to destroy Shali.
But the Russian forces engineered their own excuse for a fight: a column of armoured vehicles moved towards the centre of the town. The Russians claimed that this was so that they could set up a checkpoint, but they opened fire against our troops. The Chechen fighters answered gunfire with gunfire, and the intruders were forced to retreat. Father held a meeting with the commanders who were in Shali, and gave orders to leave the town the following morning and not to enter into fights with the Russians.
In the evening, planes began circling low over the town to frighten the populace. Shali had suffered fearsome attacks with cluster bombs early in the war. The purpose of these further aerial monoeuvres was to induce the people of the town themselves to throw us out.
Early the next morning we gathered weapons and ammunition and began to make our way out of Shali. We would have to try to slip out through the ring of iron the Russians had set up round the town, without coming into conflict. The day was beginning to get light as we made our way through the fields. We could just about see the Russian armoured vehicles, and from time to time we could even hear the Russian soldiers chatting to each other. There were over twenty people in our group. Other groups had taken a southerly route, but we made our way towards the north-east. Suddenly we heard a whine, like the noise from an artillery mortar – that meant that the projectile had gone past us. Soon afterwards a flare was set off and lit up the area round about us. We had to lie down and wait until the flare had died out, and then we carried on and got through the Russian lines.
That morning I could see how confident father was in himself, but also how concerned he was for the people round about him, his bodyguards and other resistance fighters. When we reached the village of Mesker-Yurt we got into vehicles and proceeded safely to our base in Alleroy.
Back in Alleroy, the intense activity and the many meetings with commanders and resistance fighters continued. We had no illusions that the Russian side had had any intentions of holding to the truce. On father’s desk there were notebooks, intelligence reports he had received from commanders of the various sections and a map from which one could see that he was planning a big military operation. All checkpoints in Grozny, Russian bases, weapon stores and other important targets were marked in red. All the main routes where reinforcements could be brought in had positions for our forces marked, so that we could cut off the Russians. Similar plans were also developed for other towns, such as Gudermes and Argun.
In the middle of July 1996 father went to the village of Makhkety, south-east of Grozny, for a meeting with acting President Yandarbiyev and all the field commanders. This was not a secret meeting. But when the Russians found out that all the commanders and the government were to be together in one place, they decided to attack them all at once, even though negotiations were continuing and a truce had been declared over the whole of Ichkeria’s territory.
So on that sunny day, 10th July, the Russian Air Force began bombing raids against Makhkety and other populated areas round about. Several of the bombs fell on dwelling houses, and many civilians were killed. At the same time a stream of helicopters dropped paratroops in the Vedeno region, and the Russians started an artillery attack on several nearby villages. It was obviously a major Russian operation. They wanted to surround us and kill all the Chechen leaders. Father ordered all our sections in the area to get away from the region as fast as possible. He didn’t want to give the Russian side any grounds to claim that we had started the conflict. All the Chechen leaders managed to get out of Makhkety and each travelled in his own direction – Yandarbiyev went to Atagi, Basayev went towards Shatoy, and others to Shali or elsewhere.
My father’s group took refuge at first in the village of Khatuni. We waited there until it was beginning to get dark, and then drove through Makhkety towards the south-western part of the Vedeno region. As we travelled through Makhkety, we could see the results of the Russian bombing. About ten houses had been destroyed, many of the inhabitants had been killed and people were bringing women and children out from the shattered ruins of the bombed houses. One of the houses in the centre had been totally wiped out. People told us that many of the neighbours had gathered together in precisely that house when the bombing started, because it had a big cellar. Father asked the driver to stop the car. He opened the door and got out, but stopped. He probably realised that it was best to let things be. There were enogh people there to help. We drove on to the village of Dutskhote, which lay at the foot of a high mountain. We made our way to a little clay house. Here we were taken in, given something to eat and fell asleep.
As we were getting ready to leave Dutskhkote in the grey light of morning, we suddenly came under artillery fire from Russian forces. Some of the mortars exploded quite near the house, and shrapnel flew into the room where we were. Fortunately no-one was injured. We waited until the bombardment had stopped before we set off on foot. We left the cars behind, because the Russians were watching all the roads and could have attacked us from the air. We hadn’t gone more than a hundred metres before the shooting started again and the first projectiles were flying just over our heads. Without thinking, my survival instinct took over and I threw myself right down into a puddle. Father looked at me and whispered: “The shells are going past us.” What he meant was that if you can hear the sound of a shell, that means that it has already gone past. The others laughed at me, thinking I was terrified. But I hadn’t had time to be scared. I was embarrassed for my father.
After we had been walking for half an hour we reached the wood. The artillery fire started up again, but the shells were now landing further away. A little later, when we had to cross some open ground, there was a further attack. This time a shell exploded right in front of us. It blew the top off a tree and sent splnters flying around us.
Once we had gone a bit further, father gathered all the soldiers around him and opened up a map, so that we could work out exactly where we were.
The path we were following around the foot of the mountain had previously been shot at by Russian troops. We knew that Russian paratrops had taken up positions on the top of the mountain. Father said that it would therefore be better if we moved near the enemy’s position, because the Russians would not shoot at their own positions. We did so, and thereby escaped from the Russian trap around Makhkety.
In order to avoid the Russian troops we had to trek a long way on foot over steep and difficult terrain, each carrying a load of about 30 kg. The march took several days, heading westwards through the hills. Our supplies of food and and water soon ran out. Hunger and fatigue made us feel like robots, but we knew that to stop could be the death of us. We didn’t dare think about food, as that just made it worse. Once when we sat down for a rest, one of father’s bodyguards found a few buns in his rucksack. There wasn’t much to go round, as there were 23 of us, but we dealt them out and everybody got his share. I thought for a moment, then went over to father who was dozing under a tree. I set my piece of bun down on his map and went back to my place.
When we came near to the village of Ulus-Kert, we stopped to send a pair of soldiers out to reconnoitre. They were due to come back towards evening. Meanwhile, we rested near the road which goes towards Sharo-Argun. I broke off some leafy branches and laid them on the ground, so that I wouldn’t freeze on the cold earth. Then I looked at father. I took all the greenery and laid it down carefully, then invited him to lie down on it. He realised that I was worried about him and wanted to look after him. He smiled at me.
During the evening some of us began eating the beech leaves, which were not particularly juicy. Others tried to hold out, not wanting to eat such food. I leant against a tree and carefully started chewing a branch. The lookouts came to report that some people were approaching us, one of them in military uniform. We all lay down and waited to see what would happen. Everything was quiet. After lying like this for twenty minutes, we sent a couple of men out on reconnaissance to check. When they came back they reported that there was nobody in the area. Nevertheless, we all decided it would be safer to turn back. The soldiers we had sent out on reconnaissance earlier in the day had still not returned. We were afraid that the Russians might have caught them, and we had already seen people in the woods. Long afterwards, I learned that the men we had sent out had got through safely, but that they had been afraid to come back to our hiding place because they thought that there were Russians in the area.
We walked back again for a couple of days, towards the village of Dutskhkote where we had come from. On the way towards the village we suddenly heard short bursts of automatic gunfire. A little later we heard explosions. Father sent some of his bodyguards towards where the sound was coming from, to find out what was going on. They came back and told us that they had met up with Shamil Basayev’s group. When we got there we saw lorries with ammunition and equipment burning, and around a hundred of Basayev’s men resting nearby. They had just seen two Russian soldiers coming down from the mountain, and had shot at them. The explosions were the result of Basayev’s men setting fire to their own lorries laden with heavy weapons and other equipment, so that the Russians coudn’t use them.
They gave us some food. I had a couple of spoonfuls of soup. But Basayev’s group had burnt most of their provisions on the lorries. Some of our men were angry when they heard about that. We discussed future plans and came to the conclusion that each group should go its own way. There would be no benefit in going together, and a big group is more easily discovered than a little one. Basayev’s men would go towards the Shatoy region and occupy the top of the mountain, while we would go back towards Ulus-Kert. The Russians would hardly be expecting us to move northwards towards Grozny. We were obviously no longer very excited about going back again towards Ulus-Kert, following the same route for the third time, but we obeyed the order. Shamil’s group moved off.
Before we set off the next day, I had a look round about and found some army boots. Although they were too big for me, they were better than the shoes I was wearing. I had been very cold at night wearing just a T-shirt, and I was glad to find a jacket which fitted. I also gathered up some Kalashnikov ammunition. Then I came across a sack containing macaroni and another with sugar. I took a bag of each – it was a long way, and we would need food. We set off along the Dargenduk mountains right to the river Sharoargun. The current was strong and the water was cold, and so we had to hold onto each other firmly as we crossed. Movladi Udugov, who was our press spokesman during the war, was the first to enter the river, but he was immediately caught by the current and started crying loudly for help. Long afterwards, father told me that he had thought that it was I who had been caught by the current, as I was the thinnest of all of us. But I was used to strong river currents, because as a child I had often played with my friends along the river Terek, and I knew how strong a full river can be. One of father’s bodyguards ran down the river bank and pulled Udugov out of the water. When we had all got safely over we went on to Atagi, where father established his headquarters for a time.
Some years later we learned that the attempt to assassinate the Chechen leaders in July 1996 had been planned by Russian General Aleksandr Lebed, who at the time was head of the Russian security council. Father told me about this in a letter he wrote in 2004:
“The operation which took place when we were surrounded in Makhkety was planned by Lebed. He did this behind the backs of Kulikov16, Tikhomirov17 and others. If the operation had been a success and they had succeeded in crushing us, he could have come out of the affair like a knight on a white horse.”
I don’t know where father got that information from, but these revelations astonished him. At the time of the assault, Lebed had been presenting himself to the world and to us Chechens as a man of peace. My father himself had met him during some of the negotiations. Father believed at that time that Lebed genuinely wanted peace, but at the same time he was cautious in his dealings with him, because he knew that Lebed represented the Russian military.
It came to be known later that Lebed was planning to stand in the Russian presidential elections in the autumn of 1996. Perhaps his hope was simply that the Russian people would support him if he managed to put an end to the war, no matter whether he achieved this through negotiations or through assassinating the Chechen leaders. Many young Russians had died in Itskjeria, and the war was not popular with the people.
Later, after Putin had come to power in Russia, Lebed was made a scapegoat for the unsuccessful war in Chechnya. He died in 2002 in what was said to be a helicopter accident. I am one of the many who believe that Lebed, a man with great authority in the Russian army, was murdered by order of the Kremlin.
In Atagi we were able to be relatively safe for a while, even though we were not far from Grozny. We had many supporters here, and father lived in a big house belonging to a man of good standing who supported our struggle. It was a peaceful village, and there were no Russian troops in the neighbourhood. Our staff were established here, and father worked day and night to bring about operation “Jihad.” After what had happened in the province of Vedeno, he understood that peace negotiations with the Russians would get us nowhere. The war would have to be won on the battlefield. The operation was to liberate a succession of the occupied territories and launch a decisive attack towards the capital. All the commanders who had been surrounded in the Vedeno region managed to pass through the Russian lines and get down to the lowlands.
After some days father despatched secret packages to all the commanders, giving the time and place for the operation. People began coming to see father, and he explained to them the thought behind the operation and what our tactics should be. Some of our senior commanders didn’t have faith in the plan and said to father: “Aslan, this operation is sheer madness! We shouldn’t try to capture the capital.” Father grew irritated and told them: “I’ll name you all, and tell our people what kind of brave soldiers you are, how you defend the people!”
On day father called me to see him and asked me to travel to Shatoy to set up connections with all the radio stations in that area. It was not a request, but an order such as an officer gives to his soldiers. Shatoy was a little town in the mountains in the south of the country. I had taught myself quite a lot about how I could find radio frequencies and how we could make use of the Russians’ radio network for our own communications. Also, this job was a part of the preparations for the attack on Grozny.
I was taken to Shatoy by two Chechens in a police car. They were among our agents who had infiltrated the Russian police forces. There was fighting in the area I was to go to, and by sitting in a police car I could come through the Russian checkpoints. We came safely to Shatoy, where I met people from Commander Ruslan Gelayev’s group and set to work straight away, as the job would take several days. It wasn’t safe there; the area was under fire from Russian positions at villages not far away from the town.
The Russian forces made an unsuccessful attempt to take the heights near the town of Borzoy, where our forces had their positions. Every morning and evening there were violent air attacks on our positions, using concrete-breaking bombs and cluster bombs. The enemy launched an artillery attack from their rear lines but they did not send in their infantry, because our position was at a height of 1,500 metres which made it easy to defend. On two occasions I had to travel out to our forward bases to check that everybody had the right radio wavelengths, as father had ordered. I got through the work as quickly as possible, so that I could travel back to father and be closer to what was about to take place in the capital. Father had now moved to a village near Grozny. When I got there, he gave me another, even more dangerous task: to go to Grozny and set up the radio frequencies there. I knew how risky that was, but I was proud of the confidence he was placing in me. “Now I’m going to the heart of the occupied territory,” I thought to myself. I made my way to the centre of town by bus. I saw many Russian soldiers in the streets, and all the ruins from the bombing. From the bus station I went to a secret flat used by the resistance movement. I was working almost under the noses of the enemy – the Russian Federal Security Service Headquarters, the government installed by the Kremlin and the Internal Affairs Department were all close by. So I found the radio frequencies we needed to establish our communications.
Once I had finished the job, I took a taxi to Pervomayskoye outside Grozny, to see our house and visit my uncle. It happened that my mother, sister, wife and son were also there. They had come on a visit from Znamenskoye. When I came round the back I saw that mother was working in the garden. She was surprised to see me. She smiled and said, “Anzor, is that you?” We had not seen each other for several months, and had missed each other terribly. I went in to greet the other members of the family. We were all very glad to see each other again, and some of us were crying. They urged me to stay a little longer, but I couldn’t. I promised to come back with father when the victory had been won.
I met up with father in Novye Atagi and reported that I had done everything he had asked me. He was glad to hear that contact had now been set up with his sections. Good communications are very important for effective leadership in a war. When you have radio contact you can receive information about the enemy, know his movements and prepare new attacks. Now we were ready…