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Moscow: A New Stronger Group Of Terrorists Is Born

In Moscow A New Stronger Group Of Terrorists Is Born

By Daan Kolthoff. *.
25 October 2002.

Wednesday night 23 October 2002, at least 40 Chechen rebels stormed a crowded Moscow theatre in the midst of a musical, taking at least 700 people hostage.

The group, led by Movsar Baraev, took over the show at 9:50pm. The fighters got on stage, firing their automatic weapons, proclaiming: "This is not a joke; we are Chechens". Hostages were immediately advised to call relatives and friends with their cell phones; ensuring the news spread rapidly throughout the city.

Early Thursday morning the rebel fighters started communicating with the authorities. Their demand: A stop to the everlasting war in Chechnya.

The action very much reminds us of the hostage taking of the Budijonnovsk hospital in June 1995, by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev.

At that event more than a hundred people died, both hostages and military, as a result of the storming of the hospital by Russia's federal military. The result was the free withdrawal of Basayev and his fighters into Chechnya after intervention by Prime Minister Mr. Tchernomyrdin himself.

The event left a big scar in the perception of safety and security for the Russian people. Moreover, the immediate response by the public, friends and relatives of hostages at the current kidnapping at the theatre was to gather around the scene, and beg the Russian forces not to storm the theatre - displaying the lack of trust in the subtlety of the Russian Forces.

The hostage takers now demand an immediate stop to the war, [Russian federal] troops be pulled out of Chechnya and the beginning of political negotiations - if not, they will start shooting people.

So far one woman and a security guard have been reportedly killed by the fighters, the woman supposedly an agent for the FSB (the follow up of the KGB).

One difference from the 1995 hostage taking, is that this time there are many foreigners of different nationalities among the hostages, among whom are American, Australian, British, Dutch and German citizens.

After initially expressing their readiness to release [30] foreigners, the hostage takers withdrew the offer after the ambassadors of the hostages' countries didn't manage to report in time to the theatre.

Communication between fighters and authorities is continuing by cell phone, but the hostage takers declared they were only willing to negotiate with representatives of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders, a medical emergency relief agency) or the Red Cross.

A total of 150 hostages were allowed to leave the theatre, among whom 3 children, an older Briton and significantly, all people with a Caucasian appearance. The latter being a group commonly targeted, humiliated and molested by authorities as well as civilians - discrimination against Caucasians is very common practice in present day Moscow.

The hostage takers are heavily armed and, as reported by cell phone by child heart specialist Maria Shkolnikoya from inside the theatre, planted explosives all around the theatre hall, the passage ways, on seats, as well as attached to hostages themselves.

With nothing to lose and ready "to sacrifice for God and the independence of Chechnya" it will be tough negotiating.

Let's take a look in more detail how terrorism in this region has developed. Who are the hostage takers and why do they choose to do this?

The history of clashes between the Chechens and the Russians is a long and bloody one. From the late 16th century through to the mid 19th century Tsarist Russia conquered the Caucasus, the mountainous area at its Southern boundary, bordering Persia and the Ottoman Empire - world powers at the time.

Whereas many tribes, ethnic groups and nationalities surrendered to Russia, the Chechen people (and various people from neighbouring Dagestan) fled into the almost inaccessible highlands of their country and continued their guerilla war against imperialist Russia.

Deporting the [neighbouring] Ingush from their highlands to the lowlands of the Northern Caucasus, the Russians created a nowhere land in the middle ranges - deforesting the area - a tactic used by the Russians long before the Americans thought of this in Vietnam.

A highlight in the Chechen resistance is during the reign of Imam Shamil of Dagestan from the mid 19th century, leading to many revolts and beautifully put into words by Lev Tolstoy in Haji Murat.

The beginning of last century appeared hopeful for the Chechen nation when after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 independence came for a short term in the shape of the Peoples Republic of the Northern Caucasus.

Soon this was reversed in the foundation of the Socialist Soviet Autonomous Mountain Republic, consisting of, besides Chechens, Ingush, Ossets, Balkars, Cherkess and other small Caucasian nations.

Despite all guarantees, not much came from autonomy and – especially - the 1930's became known for the Chechen revolts against the Russian coloniser.

Countless Chechens were arrested, murdered, while many others died through the [Russian] government organised famine.

The ultimate climax came in February 1944, when Stalin ordered the deportation of the complete Ingush and Chechen nation to Siberia and Central Asia.

Practically all Chechens were deported in this very well organised operation; 25 - 50% of deportees died during the deportation from cold, hunger and thirst during the weeks long journey in unheated cattle trucks.

The entire Chechen nation - houses, land and belongings - were redistributed and given to the new, forced, Russian, Osset and Cossack immigrants (causing lots of violence between the ethnic groups after the break up of the Soviet Union).

It took till Chrutsyev’s famous Secret Speech in 1957 to rehabilitate the Chechens, but not much was done to facilitate the return to their homeland.

Many of present day Chechens were born in Siberia and Kazakhstan, the memory of the deportation is still very much alive among the Chechen people and - as we know now - was only a pre-text for what was to happen half a century later.

With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 all the [15] republics that formed the Union went for independence. Chechnya had never been a 'Republic' (like Russia, the Baltics and Ukraine for example) and saw it's chance and claimed independence, on 27 October 1991. Former Soviet air force general Djochar Dudayev became their president.

Disagreements mounted up between Russia proper and the self-proclaimed republic, the Russian [federal] military started building up its presence in the surrounding autonomous republics, but it took until 11 December 1994 before the Russian [federal] troops actually invaded Chechnya, from the East, North and West.

Despite the overpowering numbers of the federal forces and the indiscriminate bombing of the republic the Russians were unable to settle the conflict to their wishes and on 31 August 1996 it settled a peace agreement with former Soviet general and later Chechen President Aslan Maschadov.

Russian federal forces would retreat from Chechnya, a committee for the reconstruction of Chechnya was installed and the definite decision on the status of Chechnya was postponed for 5 years.

The poorly organised (and funded - none of the promised Russian federal funding materialised) Chechen government faced big difficulties bringing back normality to the war torn country where "Mafia" and local war lords seemed to reign at times.

Making the country a very unsafe place for Western aid workers as the "kidnapping industry" flourished.

When in mid September 1999 bomb attacks took place in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk, the Russian authorities saw the hand of the Chechens in this and found legitimation to begin another military campaign against Chechnya.

Evidence for the bomb attacks has never been made public and many rumours go round that the FSB was involved - distracting attention from the big internal problems the Russian Federation was facing.

A cordon sanitaire was put in place around the republic by 50.000 Russian federal troops and a heavy bombing campaign took place on Grozny and followed by other major centers in the republic; leaving little of an already flattened country.

A period of extreme terror followed, and continues today. Random arrests, executions of thousands and thousands, acts of torture and rape by Russian (para-) military and "contractniks" are commonplace and well documented for the fourth subsequent year by organisations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Little opposition has been put in Russia's way by the West, happy as it is with Western orientated president Vladimir Putin.

Against all odds, Russia is still only in control of the Chechen lowlands; the capital Grozny and other major centers, and only by daylight, as the Chechen resistance has never ceased to exist.

Now the hostage taking of some 700 innocent people; what is hoped for from this attack and what could the consequences be?

What is hoped for is the final and definite withdrawal of the Russian federal forces from Chechnya - seen as the oppressive colonisers.

Definitely, this attack -involving many foreigners of different nationalities- will highlight the Chechen case again - after hardly having any coverage in world media over the last years.

This could result in international involvement to find a solution for the future of Chechnya's status; be it independent or obtaining a certain form of autonomy within the Russian Federation.

A scenario similar to Kosovo vs. Yugoslavia is often referred to by the Chechen people, however the time is very poorly chosen. President Bush -in his war against terrorism- needs all the support he can get from President Putin and a deal around this support is not hard to imagine - Mr. Putin already having given 'carte blanche' to the Washington administration in return for closer ties to the West.

Already Mr. Bush's spokesman Sean McCormack has made it clear where US sympathies lie.

Meanwhile, a direct result is already showing: the intensifying pogrom-like hunt for "Black-asses" (the common referral to Caucasians by Russians).

A darker looking reporter at the scene of the hostage taking was [publicly] molested by police…., a Chechen who volunteered to exchange himself for Russian hostages had to run from drunken youths.., it is only a prelude for what is to happen over the next few days.

Can we learn from this case book study of terrorism and war and its effects?

Clearly the use of military force and persecution to a race of people is not meeting the aim of eliminating terrorism.

In fact we see the reverse happening. After years of war the Chechen people have very little of their homeland left. All infrastructure is destroyed, the people who dare to remain live in hardship and fear of attack.

The majority of the population live outside Chechnya in the surrounding republics. These "refugees" are often living in refugee camps under cramped and basic conditions. Young people have nothing to do, no schooling, mothers and grandparents spend their time trying to insure there is a meal on the table, the numbers of working age males is limited - having mysteriously disappeared, been shot or taken up arms.

Are these not circumstances tailor made for the making of more terrorists? And have we not seen an almost identical situation develop elsewhere in the world with identical consequences?

Every terrorist act is an unjustifiable act of violence that we should be looking to eliminate. War on the ground in the terrorists’ nation does not appear to be working.

In fact we could argue in the Chechens' case that a stronger and larger group of terrorists have been born.

World "super powers" need to take a good look at their strategies and give examples of where violent responses have given longer term security and safety.

Every individual has the right to basic human rights - war often takes away access to these rights. Give people back their freedom and assist them in access to their basic rights and maybe we will begin to see a safer world to live in.


* Daan Kolthoff: Recently immigrated to New Zealand after many years of working with refugees and international humanitarian aid organizations.

Previously based in the Netherlands working for the Dutch Government Immigration Service as a case officer for refugee applicants. A specialist on the Caucasus region. This involved in-depth research and writing of reports and checklists over Chechnya, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Also worked with Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontieres and MERLIN. The later two are both medical emergency relief organizations operating in Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Georgia, South Sudan and Bosnia.


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