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12/10/2006

The man who gave second chances

Anna Politkovskaya on the Chechen warlord Buvadi Dakhiev

On September 13, the deputy OMON commander of the Chechen republic, Buvadi Dakhiev, was killed by a shot to the head in what has become a famous exchange of fire between Chechen and Ingushetian militias at the checkpoint between Chechnya and Ingushetia. Without going into the background of this conflict – which has been explained, widely disseminated and discussed – I would like to say something about Buvadi that could not be said during his lifetime. In doing so, I would like to honour the memory of this person who often helped me with my work, sometimes in moments which could have found a lethal end, had it not been for his help.

Buvadi was an extraordinary personality, he was full of contradictions, consisted of two halves. If there is any association to be made, it would be with Nikita Khrushchev's tombstone in the Novodevichiy graveyard in Moscow: one half entirely black, the other entirely white.

On the one hand, Buvadi was a military type through and through, one of many in Chechnya, an officer in the Chechen forces allied with Moscow; but he was one of the new breed that came into being when criminals and terrorists from Kadyrov's contingent took over power. He was a representative of the Dudaev opposition, which since 1995 had been serving in faithful obedience to the Chechen OMON; an absolutely pro-Russian and unswerving position – Chechnya was simply part of Russia. For this he received medals and badges of courage and was made colonel. When Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev came to power, Buvadi was living in Chechnya, without principles. Then came the second war and he began to fight in the front row against Maskhadov and Basayev.

He was, at times, extraordinarily brutal. Let's call a spade a spade: the Chechen OMON people are no harmless boys who wouldn't hurt a mouse – they are there to shoot and they shoot to kill until they themselves get nailed. The OMON has kidnapped, beaten and made people disappear and God knows what else.

My final meeting with Buvadi was in August in Grosny: his eyes were lowered, he bit angrily into a melon as though it were to blame for something, he was nervous and ate the red meat of the fruit with the appetite of a starved man; he did everything possible to avoid a discussion of the Chechen student who had been kidnapped and held by the OMON and had since disappeared without a trace. And Aminat Kuloyeva, the pensioner and mother of the student Alichan Kuloyev, was running around all of Chechnya with other aggrieved mothers, pleading with everyone they met to put in a good word for them with Buvadi – maybe he could say where their son is.

As a matter of interest, I did do it. But Buvadi said nothing: there was nothing to answer, he was a student, now he's gone.

Buvadi: " He had done absolutely nothing wrong."
"Then why didn't you let him go?"

Buvadi was silent and chopped the melon peel into bits.

On the other hand, Buvadi was as brutal as he was gentle, while many others were never gentle in the least. The Chechen military is divided between those who think before they kill and those who have forgotten to think. Buvadi tried to understand who he had in his sights. And that saved many people's lives, including some hopeless cases – judged by the laws of the Chechen war.

Internally, Buvadi was known in Chechen circles as the man who rescued the widows of commanders, who as potential Shahids ("those who fall for the faith"), were doomed to be liquidated. What kind of a rescue was this? Buvadi kidnapped them and took them home – something he had no right to do.

What did they do at Buvadi's? They were basically put under house arrest, in quarantine if you like. After work, Buvadi went home and talked with them through the night. Here, in his house, that was basically a barracks, Buvadi housed potential Shahids – and it's probably not exaggerating to say that they were indeed suicide bombers, ready to go, when they came to Buvadi, already trained by their husbands and their comrades, already knowledgeable about how to use explosives, to steer a bus and, on command, to drive it at any time and in any place into whatever.

"Why do you have to do that?"
"They all had their children with them."
"And the children all lived there too?"
"Yes, they were there with their children. I wanted to find out: are they all irredeemably lost? Will they still be able to raise their children or is it already 'all history'?"

I would guess that not one of them left his house "irredeemably lost." The result of this bizarre education by the OMON–man Buvadi in an outlawed Chechen milieu – a worse place cannot be imagined – were that the mothers, following their brainwash by Buvadi, actually began to understand that they were first and foremost mothers.

"At the beginning, they just wanted to die for their husbands. They wouldn't accept a piece of bread from me," Buvadi explains. "Because my bread came from the traitors. They didn't touch their children, as though they weren't there. They sat there in their veils as though dead, nothing else."
"And what happened then?"
"I talked to them constantly and after two or three days, they began to eat. Some took off their veils and put on a scarf – as is customary in Chechnya. There was one who had stolen from us. A Wahhabi – I have to laugh! But it was just that one. When they finally came back to life, I found homes for them. Abroad, or here, in Russia. I looked for relatives so that they could live somewhere, as far away as possible from big cities, where they could telephone, meet up."

We talk about his motivation: why did he do all that?

"What did they know, those little things?" Buvadi asked me. "At their age, we were all young pioneers, we went to summer camp, to the movies, ate ice cream! They don't know any of that. And that's how it happened. I felt I owed them something."
"And your conclusion about the Shahids? Can they be redeemed? Are they irreformable?"
"No, the Wahhabis – most of them cannot be condemned. Their heads have just been clouded."

I will not name the names of the young widows that Buvadi rescued - that's not necessary. The main things is that they themselves know who is meant and to whom they owe their second lives. After Buvadi sent them as far away as possible from the Caucasus, they continued to call to ask for his advice, what they should so in this situation or that. Until September 13 of this year.

It was roughly in the year 2002... or maybe at the end of 2001. Winter. A hard winter – shootings, explosions, but at least Kadyrov's son was still being sent away when the adults talked business. There are no end of underground organisations in Grosny, most of them made up of teenagers between 14 and 16.

"I feel so sorry for them," says Buvadi, who often issued the order that they be eliminated. "We surround them – they know that they're going to die soon, and I listen to what they're talking about through a walkie-talkie.
"Why do you feel sorry for them?"
"It's like with the Shahids. They haven't lived yet, they haven't seen anything. I feel a personal sense of guilt that they they've been robbed of their childhoods. How often did they ask me, crying out of the houses that we'd surrounded, "Let me die, uncle!" And I let them be blown up because I knew what would happen if we caught them alive. And sometimes I delivered their last words to their parents."

For some reason, we recalled especially vividly the stories of the underground youth that he had liquidated this August. Buvadi had been very happy that there had been no law prohibiting a return of the corpses at the time.

"I gave the corpses back to the parents in person. How could I manage that now?"

At the time, in 2002 or 2003, we discussed who he believed the Wahhabis to be. And what should be done about them. At the time, we heard much slander, many insults of the Wahhabi from the pro-Russian Chechens. They were being killed without batting an eyelid. But Buvadi permitted himself to say the following out loud: "There were bandits as well as absolutely decent people among them. And they were all killed."

I can still see him as he said that to me. The second storey of the "white box" of the OMON building in Grosny - the office of the OMON commander at the time, Mussah Gasimagomedov, who was later killed. Strange, drunk officers from the Russian special units were careening around ("the Russians") with glazed-over murderous looks – the "death squadrons" of the interior secret service and the military intelligence corps. Comrade Buvadi in war. Buvadi put down his snack and bottle and explained something to them as well.

"Decent people? Why decent – if anything!" And I in turn tell something horrible of the lives of those who identify themselves as Wahabbis.
Buvadi cuts me off.

"My brother was a Wahhabi. He was an absolutely decent person. I've never since met such decent people. Neither before him, nor after. Decent in every respect – in his thoughts and his daily acts. He didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't do anything bad."
"Did he work on you?"
"Never. He never forced anything on me."
"And where is he now?"
"He is dead."
And after a half minute of silence, he says to me with unbelievable pride, with joy even and a smile, as though his brother had won the Nobel Prize, "He fell in combat. As it should be."

Those who were eating or drinking, ceased. To express so much pride for a Wahhabi in the midst of the bulwark of the anti-Wahhabi movement seemed to be to risk the brother's fate.

Kadyrov's son followed later. And how he hated Buvadi! He was constantly trying to stick him in the terrorist camp. "You support them!" For the entire summer, he was trying to get Buvadi thrown out of the OMON, to drive him out of Chechnya. When chechenisation took on its ugliest form, and baseness was considered as worthy as courage in the country, Buvadi's brother was put forward as evidence that Buvadi, a fighter to the core, fancied the terrorists; in addition, he was offering Shahids courses in salvation.

But Buvadi remained proud of his decent Wahhabi brother and the fact that he was returning children to their mothers. He never condescended to keeping quiet on these matters. These days, many Chechens are in a similar situation to Buvadi, with brothers going astray in all directions. The civil war has torn families apart, destroyed their morale and new customs have set in: publicly breaking off with your own brother, for example, because he's fighting for the wrong side.

There are two versions of Buvadi's death. The first, the "dark one" goes that he drove to where the Chechen and Ingushetian militias were fighting, slapped an Ingushetian militia-man and was shot right away.

I don't believe it: shooting yes, but one on the face – that wasn't his style, he knew too well the consequences of a fight among Vainakh.

The second version: when the skirmish began, Buvadi was nearby and hurried to the fighting to calm everyone down. He got out of the car, told the people they should listen and pull themselves together – and was met with a volley from a machine gun.

That's how it was. And I'm glad that Buvadi was himself to the bitter end: he tried to stop them from shooting. Even though he could hit moving targets very well. But Buvadi spent the last hours of his life on his "white" half. "Everyone is sick of the war," he said to me a month before his death. "Everyone wants reconciliation."

Today there is an astonishing shortage of such people in official Chechnya – no angels, rather people who feel deprived, who suffer. There are more and more autonomous monads in Chechnya. Killing someone means as much to them as sipping tea. It's not possible for such people to understand someone who has already been defined as an enemy because he lives differently.

What does "understand" mean in the Chechen context? Understanding means staying alive. That's the price of tolerance, and the only one at the moment, even if some people continue to believe that the games with the amnesty are an example of Kadyrov's tolerance and that he "rescues fighters" to preserve the nation.

Lies, all lies. People are being bound by bloodshed; the hope is that these fetters will act to restrain and control. Buvadi, on the other hand, wanted to unite with the possibility of being able to live without his help – that was his principle. He gave people a second chance, even though his position in fact prohibited him from offering them a first one. He gave. Just like that – and there's nobody here that can replace him.

"Do you at least have a machine gun in the house where you're staying?" Buvadi asked, worried.
"There's no machine gun and I don't want one," I murmur. "I've had enough of machine guns. We've had them for seven years. Are you not tired of them?"

Buvadi was silent but agreed. Even Buvadi was tired of the machine guns and the eternal fear. He was dead tired of not being allowed to leave his weapon behind, of having to sleep in camouflage in a house that looks like a barracks. It is said that he who is tired, dies.

*

This article from September 21, 2006 is the last that Anna Politkovskaya published in Novaya Gazeta. She was murdered on October 7 in her apartment building. A German translation was published on Perlentaucher on October 10.

Translation from the German: Naomi Buck.

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