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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Warlord Fights Rebels for Russia

UPPER VEDENO, Chechnya — Raybek Tovzayev is a Chechen warlord who fights on the side of Mother Russia against the rebels of his homeland whom he calls bandits.

He was born in a red brick house perched on a mountaintop where three ancestral villages of his clan look out over the Vedeno Gorge, a narrow slash of valley cut since prehistory by the retreating snowmelt from the high Caucasus further south.

It is a recent Sunday, and Tovzayev has just returned from a memorial service for one of his bodyguards who was killed on June 28 during the seventh attempt by Chechen rebel leaders to assassinate Tovzayev because, as he says, he is the only thing standing between order and chaos in Vedeno.

The rebels, especially Shamil Basayev, the most famous of their leaders, who also comes from Vedeno, "are doing everything they can to get back here and to get rid of me."

Tovzayev is therefore a key link in the Russian strategy to pacify Chechnya after two cycles of war in the last decade. He stands here muscle-bound with his Kalashnikov automatic rifle asleep on his shoulder like a latter-day Hajji Murat, the character from Tolstoy's story of the Chechen warrior who went over to the Russian side, with tragic consequences, in the war against Imam Shamil in the 19th century.

The Vedeno Gorge and the Argun Gorge are the main strategic pathways between the plains of Chechnya and the mountains that lead to the borders with Dagestan and Georgia. To control the gorges is to control the supply lines and infiltration corridors that sustain the rebellion.

"I am not exactly a petty figure here," Tovzayev said with pride.

Nor is he outfitted like one.

He wears a solid gold chain under his camouflage jersey and a matching flak jacket and pants, which are tucked into combat boots. A gold watch on his wrist accents the gold chain as well as the gold trim on his tasseled Moslem prayer cap. A Motorola walkie-talkie is hitched to his belt.

Tovzayev never intended to become a fighter on either side of this war. But on Aug. 18, 1995, a band of rebels led by Allauddin Khamzatov came to this hamlet and told the residents that they were setting up camp. "My father told them to leave, because not a single person in this village has fought against the federals." But instead of heeding the old man, "they killed him" in front of his family.

When word reached Tovzayev — he was in Europe, trying to make money in trade — he immediately returned home to carry out the Chechen tradition of blood revenge.

"It did not take me three months," he said.

He and the band of fighters he raised from his clan set out to find Khamzatov, and they found him in the town of Mairtup in October.

They hid there and waited patiently, studying his habits. Then, on Oct. 17, they laid an ambush on a road and blew apart the car that Khamzatov was riding in with his senior aides.

"There were three cars in convoy, about 15 men, but we only hit the one where he was," Tovzayev said. "All of those who killed my father were in that car. Thus, I revenged."

Nothing has been the same for him since. "This is how this kind of life started — fighting bandits," he said. "In March 1996, when I entered Grozny, I was encircled by about 60 of them and barely escaped," he recounted. "Then in June 1996, I was arrested by Basayev's people and put in Basayev's prison at Dargov."

After half a year in prison, "On the night of Feb. 19, 1997, I managed to escape to Dagestan," he said, walking through freezing and snow-laden high passes for days until he reached safety. Then he slipped back into Vedeno, where he built his militia force of more than 130 fighters and waited for Russia to act.

"In the second war," he said with pride, "we organized a volunteer opposition unit for the liberation of Vedeno, and in February 2000 we were in front of the Russian troops and we liberated Vedeno."

The federal army is trying to keep Tovzayev alive.

Recently, Colonel General Gennady Troshev, commander of Russian forces in the Northern Caucasus, gave Tovzayev a jeep with bulletproof windows and doors.

Troshev has also decorated him with the "order of courage" medal for his perseverance.

Tovzayev is working with the local residents to persuade them to stop aiding the rebels.

"Not all rebels are bandits," he said. "There are some decent people among them, but they are afraid to come out of the forests." Eventually they will, he believes. And every morning his men sweep the road for mines here in ambush alley so he can stay alive to see that day.