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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Young Rebels Spurred By Allah and Revenge

SOUTHERN CHECHNYA -- Five men stood on a grassy slope, beneath a tree, facing the towering forested mountains. "Allah-u-Akbar, Allah-u-Akbar!" the leader called at the top of his lungs, hands cupping his ears in the traditional Moslem call to prayer.


His cry rang out in the still mountain air, echoing back off the surrounding peaks. The men bent, knelt and pressed their foreheads to the ground.


They were Chechen rebel fighters, resting up at a small camp in the trees, high above the populated valley. Only a persistent cuckoo broke the stillness. It was hard to believe that there was a war going on.


But when a Russian helicopter circling the valley below turned towards the camp, Ali-Khan, 16, leapt up with excitement, grabbing up a machine gun, throwing belts of bullets over his shoulders. Another fighter loped up the hill to a heavy-duty machine gun seized from a Russian light tank and now concealed with branches from a beech tree.


These were dedicated fighters, several of them veterans from the early days fighting in Grozny and the hostage raid in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk last June, uncowed by the Russian spring offensive which has once again pushed them back into the mountains.


Their faith and their self-confidence set them apart from the demoralized Russian troops facing them.


"We are convinced we will win the war, we are convinced that Russia is in moral collapse," said Mahmoud Chemerkzayev, 29, one of the oldest of the group, wearing a pink and green prayer hat.


Committed Moslems, Chemerkzayev and the others rise at 4 a.m. for namaz, early morning prayers, and live by strict Islamic Shariat law. They reserve their greatest scorn for Russia which they described as godless and a Satanic empire.


"I used to drink, smoke, take heroin, like any young man having fun. Then I realized that if I take the pure, honorable way of Allah I would gain much more satisfaction," said Aslan Imakayev, 24, who joined up to fight immediately the war broke out.


Asked why he decided to fight, he said: "They [Russian troops] killed a lot of young men around where I lived in Grozny. They were not fighters but they just shot them." His uncle, a commander, disappeared at the height of Russian bombing raids of the city. His body was never found, Imakayev said. Every fighter has a similar story, and almost everyone has lost a relative in the war.


The dozen fighters in the woods, were on standby to go and fight when needed. Up on the mountain they meanwhile dug deep, zig-zagging trenches concealed with piles of hay, foxholes guarding the approaches from the valley below and in the woods, a bunker in the side of the bank, supported by heavy logs.


"We are ready at all times, when the order comes, to set off immediately," said Chemerkzayev. "It does not matter if I die, I have three brothers to take my place," he said.


"The young ones are the strong ones. Look at us, we are old and sit around quietly. We think about home and our lives. They are not hampered by such thoughts."


Pointing to 16-year-old Ali-Khan, he said, "That one is our grenade launcher. He has barely fired his first and before it hits the target he is loaded ready with the next."


The next day a unit of five fighters was ordered down on a secret operation. Heavily armed, they left under cover of darkness, in high spirits, like a group going off hunting.


The oldest was 23, and they said no one was in charge, they worked together as equals. "Dudayev was no one to me," Beslan, 17, said of the late rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.


"I recognize only one leader -- Allah. Basayev, he's just the same as me," he added, speaking of top Chechen commander, Shamil Basayev, who led the Budyonnovsk hostage raid. "He's just a man and only became famous because of Budyonnovsk. But he's just the same as me."