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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Remembering Basayev's Raid Five Years On

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Five years ago this month, Shamil Basayev led hundreds of well-armed fighters into Dagestan, where they seized a number of remote mountain villages. Later, footage shot by a cameraman in Basayev's group was shown around the world: bearded men with Kalashnikovs and Stinger missiles marching along a dusty road in the Botlikh district and the dismayed faces of local residents.

But all that came later. In the beginning there was fear. Fear and loathing in this southern Russian republic plagued by robbery and kidnapping during three years of so-called Chechen independence.

The second Chechen war began on Aug. 3, 1999.

Late July 1999 was hot and, from a journalist's point of view, just plain dull. In Europe, a man firing a rocket-propelled grenade at his neighbor's house would have been front-page news. But in the independent Dagestani weekly Novoye Delo, where I worked at the time, all it got was a two-line brief, along with reports of stolen cars, arms seizures out in the countryside, poaching and even the kidnapping of a bride. We were all biding our time before the paper closed for the month of August.

The news of Basayev's raid therefore didn't reach me until Aug. 4, when the electricity was finally turned on at my family's house in the mountain village of Khuri. Our old television, scarred by a bullet in my grandfather's Grozny apartment during the first Chechen war, only picked up one station, state-owned RTR. We watched Magomed Tolboyev, secretary of the Dagestani Security Council, dressed in fatigues, moving a pointer across a map of the republic. Next, the deputy prime minister, Gadzhi Makhachev -- now a State Duma deputy -- called on viewers to defend the motherland. The news ticker running across the bottom of the screen announced a special report, from which we learned that the situation was under control.

That was the most terrifying news of all. When the Dagestani authorities say that all is right in the world, it means that they have no idea what's going on. We got the real story from the neighbors, including the fact that everyone was sending their unmarried daughters to the republic's capital, Makhachkala, for safekeeping.

Getting to the capital by bus was complicated. The nearest bus stop was in the town of Kumukh, two kilometers away. In Kumukh, the milling crowds made it look like market day. Around the town's spring the talk was of Basayev and the corruption of the border guards, police, the Dagestani government and the Federal Security Service, who allowed thousands -- that's what everyone thought -- of mercenaries to cross into Dagestan in broad daylight. People said that we should arm ourselves and form a militia.

By force of habit, we stocked up on matches and soap. My mother had filled every available receptacle with water, a lesson learned during her three years in Grozny under Dzhokhar Dudayev. The essential services are the first to go in any revolution, she said. The cost of a bus ticket to Makhachkala doubled, but every bus was stuffed to the gills in the first few days after the raid began. And the buses didn't follow the usual route, which led near the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, best known for their adherence to Wahhabism.

Despite the difficulties, I made it back to Makhachkala. The city was seething with journalists and military personnel. Mayor Said Amirov was handing out guns to the militiamen. The foreign journalists stared in amazement at the elegantly dressed girls in bright makeup who were milling around the new recruits. The bemused local hacks informed them that this was not done to taunt the invading fighters; young women in the city always dressed this way.

A government minister, Magomedsalikh Gusayev, informed the editors of Novoye Delo that further issues would have to clear government censors. There wasn't much to censor, however. So much was happening that the paper barely managed to give a bare-bones account of the news, filling the remaining space with photographs of battle scenes and wounded soldiers.

I made the rounds of the hospitals to interview the wounded soldiers. At the Central Emergency Hospital I was only allowed to speak with the patients in the presence of the attending physician and the department head. They brought me to see three pale boys no older than 20. I asked how they had been wounded. "We were flown in," one said. "They gave us rifles. I started running, I was hit and I fell." They had no idea why they were there or even where they were.

At another hospital I knew one of the doctors, who let me into the ward, where I encountered an enormous hulk of a man with pins in one arm and a scrawny redheaded kid with his ankle in a cast. The strapping special forces cop, named Magomed, told me he had been wounded near the village of Shadroda. In his voice I clearly heard admiration for the fighters' military prowess as well as indignation that they had invaded Dagestan after wreaking havoc in Chechnya.

"But quite a few of them are Dagestanis," I said. To this Magomed replied that back in 1994 he had sympathized with the Chechens, too. "Then I realized that there was no way to join them," he said. "They only truly accept their own. At some point they'll try to turn the Dagestanis into slaves. Isn't that right, Vanya? This is Vanya from Samara," he said, pointing to the redheaded kid in the next bed. "That's right," the redhead agreed indifferently, munching on his fourth apple since my arrival. "Only my name's Vasily and I'm from the Saratov region."

"He eats all the time," Magomed said. "He says that after a year in the Army, this is the first time he's had enough to eat."

"Yep," Vasily said, livening up. "We got fed all the time up there. Bread, meat and fruit every day."

"Who fed you?" I asked. "And where is up there?"

"Up in the mountains," he said. "The local women fed us, too. They were crying their eyes out as they brought us food from their houses."

"Here the women -- the nurses and medics -- bring him food, too," Magomed said. "But not me. They tell me that it's my duty to fight for Dagestan because I'm in the special forces and my name is Magomed."

My next stop was Novolakstroi, 40 kilometers from Makhachkala, where refugees from the embattled Novolak region had been moved temporarily.

A monument to Stalin's monstrous nationalities policy, Novolak has long been contested. In 1944, the Chechen region of Aukhov was erased from the map and renamed the Novolak region of Dagestan. Ethnic Laks from mountain villages were forcibly resettled there.

Now they were displaced again. The rail cars were filled with old people and children. The young had stayed in Novolak to defend what property they still had or were standing in line for humanitarian assistance.

In one of the cars an old woman sat on the only chair, mumbling in the Lak language: "He grew up in my house, and spoke Lak like my son. They went to school together and played football. He called me mama." Others in the car explained that her son had been killed on the first day of the fighting when a childhood friend, an ethnic Chechen, pointed out their house to Basayev's fighters.

"Don't write about this," a tall old man said in Russian. "We've got it hard enough as it is. My mother was a Chechen, and my sister-in-law. And I'm not the only one. All these labels don't do us any good."

Later came the apartment bombings in Buinaksk and Moscow, and the second Chechen war. Vladimir Putin was triumphantly declared a "son of Dagestan," and later he became president.

I don't think that much would have changed in Chechnya if Basayev hadn't staged his raid into Dagestan. It's as obvious to me that the 1996 Khasavyurt treaty was no longer workable as it is that an independent state cannot be established in Chechnya. But the raid took place -- a mountain road, a line of unshaven, armed men and the unanswered questions: Who's to blame and what can be done?

Zaira Abdullaeva, a freelance journalist based in Moscow, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.