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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On the Border, A Village Uprooted by Fear

News TeamState Duma Deputy Gadzhi Makhachev speaking at a rally Tuesday, where he called for retaliation against Chechens.
KIZLYAR, Dagestan -- On a clearing the size of a soccer field, more than 1,000 former residents of Borozdinovskaya, a largely ethnic Dagestani village just across the border in Chechnya, are camped out in tents amid a jumble of furniture and other belongings.

They began moving here last Thursday, when they found charred human remains they suspected were those of four men taken away from their village in a June 4 raid by masked gunmen.

In this makeshift camp, a few dozen meters from the checkpoint that separates Dagestan from Chechnya, the villagers are caught in the middle of a potentially explosive situation that threatens to sour already-uneasy relations between the neighboring republics as officials on both sides appear to be ready to stoke ethnic tensions.

The Dagestani exodus was triggered by a raid on Borozdinovskaya late in the evening of June 4, when more than 200 masked gunmen raided the village, which is inhabited predominantly by Avars, Dagestan's biggest ethnic group, and took away 11 men.

The men, 10 Dagestanis and one ethnic Russian, have not been seen since.

Residents claim that the gunmen were from the Vostok, or East, special forces battalion, which is commanded by Sulim Yamadayev, a former Chechen rebel leader turned pro-Moscow strongman. The battalion is not part of the Chechen government's security forces, but answers to the General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.

But Sergei Surovikin, the commander of the 42nd motorized infantry division to which Yamadayev's militia belongs, last week denied that any of his men had participated in the raid on Borozdinovskaya.

The allegations were "groundless and aimed at destabilizing the political situation and staining the honor and name of the honest career officer and Hero of Russia, Sulim Yamadayev," Surovikin said in comments on Dagestani television.

The masked raiders herded about 200 Dagestani men into the village school, forced them to lie down in the mud and fired rounds over their heads, beating and insulting them, residents said. The gunmen raided homes, taking away cars and other valuables from the villagers, forcing even teenagers to empty their pockets of cell phones and cash, the villagers said.

Then, they said, the attackers gunned down a 77-year-old resident of the village, set fire to three houses and fled, taking 11 villagers with them.

To protest the raid, on June 8 and June 11 villagers set up roadblocks on the nearby highway separating Chechnya and Dagestan and called for the return of the missing men.

Chechen and Dagestani officials met with the protesters and promised to help find the men. But last Wednesday, when a stray dog found charred human remains in one of the houses that the raiders burned down, the frightened villagers decided to pack up and leave.

The raid, and the outcry against it from the villagers, has prompted Dagestanis to rally in support of the residents now camped out in Kizlyar, and has also led President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District, Dmitry Kozak, to express his concern about the incident.

"If what the residents of Borozdinovskaya are saying matches reality, than what was done to this village is a direct sabotage against Russia, Dagestan and Chechnya," Kozak said Wednesday on a visit to Grozny.

After meeting with Kozak and relatives of the kidnapped men in Grozny on Wednesday, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov fired Khusein Nutayev, head of the Shelkovskoi district, which includes Borozdinovskaya.

Nutayev last week conceded that "violations of the law" had taken place.

"Regretfully, special services and federal structures have not worked that well. Those who headed the operation allowed violations of the law," he told NTV television.

Mukhtar Yunusov, a disabled man who suffers from severe asthma, was among those who were kept in the school by the gunmen.

"Six men raided my house on that day, beat me with rifle butts and brought me into the school yard where other villagers were already laid in the mud," he said in stumbling Russian. "They pulled my shirt over my head, forced me onto the ground and began stomping on me with their feet." Twice during the beating he lost consciousness, Yunusov said.

"I served in the Soviet Army in Germany and saw Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp," Yunusov said. "But I believe these men treated us worse than in the concentration camp. The attackers said they would turn us into ashes."

Ten of the 11 villagers taken away by the gunmen were ethnic Avars, mostly young men, and the 11th was a 19-year-old Kizlyar resident, an ethnic Russian who was visiting with friends in Borozdinovskaya.

"According to our information, not a single law enforcement agency operating in Chechnya has any of these 11 men in detention," Magomedrasul Isayev, deputy head of the Kizlyar region, said Monday. "I believe that they are either being kept in a private basement or have been killed."

Dmitry Nikiforov / News Team

Two Borozdinovskaya residents sitting on chairs at the tent camp in Kizlyar.

"Most probably, the kidnapped people were not taken anywhere but killed right there," said Borozdinovskaya resident Magomed Magomedov, adding that the remains of what appeared to be four people were collected by villagers and passed to Chechen officials for forensic examination.

The villagers say that the raiders arrived in Borozdinovskaya in armored personnel carriers, a form of military hardware used by Yamadayev's men in their operations in eastern Chechnya.

Some villagers said that they recognized Yamadayev's head of intelligence, Khamzat Gairbekov, a Chechen resident of Borozdinovskaya, among the attackers.

"Every stray dog here knows this cockroach," said Nazarbek Magomedov, whose two sons were taken away by the raiders, referring to Gairbekov. "Many of us recognized him and reported this to investigators from the Military Prosecutor's Office. But the investigators left the village and tossed away the complaints we filed in a field."

Yamadayev and his four brothers actively fought against Russian troops during the 1994-96 Chechen war. After the war ended, the Yamadayevs, along with Akhmad Kadyrov, the future Chechen president, based themselves in Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city, and refused to submit to the authority of Chechnya's separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, or his rival, Shamil Basayev.

In 1999, the Yamadayevs switched sides and joined federal troops as they advanced into Chechnya from Dagestan. Since then, they have been active in fighting the rebels.

Yamadayev's brother, Ruslan, a State Duma deputy from Chechnya, has vowed in an interview with the Dagestani newspaper Chernovik that his brother had nothing to do with the raid.

The chairman of Dagestan's Security Council, Akhmednabi Magdigadzhiyev, said Tuesday in televised remarks that the raiders were part of a federal militia that was not answerable to the Chechen government. He refrained, however, from naming the unit or commander responsible for the raid.

In the exodus from Borozdinovskaya last Thursday, relatives came from Dagestan on trucks, and more vehicles were rented in nearby Kizlyar to relocate the angry Dagestanis.

The trucks shuttled between the village and a clearing just across the highway that divides the Kizlyar plains into Dagestan and Chechnya. A total of 210 families, including 387 men, 413 women and 272 children, had moved there as of Monday afternoon, said Isayev, the Kizlyar official.

With only a few battered tents provided by the local authorities in Kizlyar, the camp makes for an eerie sight: Among the tents are refrigerators and wardrobes, beds and television sets, most of them covered by plastic sheeting. After the villagers arrived, they built two outhouses out of planks on the outskirts of the camp.

Villagers have brought piles of construction materials to the camp from Borozdinovskaya, an indication that they do not plan to return.

"We will destroy our houses in Borozdinovskaya; we will burn them so that nothing will be left for the Chechens," said one villager, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal.

On Tuesday, Borozdinovskaya residents and ethnic Avar politicians from Dagestan held a rally near the tent camp. A State Duma member from Dagestan, Gadzhi Makhachev, called at the rally for the eviction of ethnic Chechens from Dagestan in retribution, but other Dagestani officials and Borozdinovskaya residents did not support him in his call.

The meeting adopted a declaration demanding that the Chechen government compensate Borozdinovskaya residents for their abandoned houses, and calling on the Dagestani government to give the villagers land to settle on. If their demands were not met, the villagers said they would go to the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, and rally in front of government buildings.

Tensions have run high between the Chechens and Dagestanis living in Chechnya since the early 1990s. Many Dagestanis and ethnic Russians, who had been made to settle on Chechen lands after Josef Stalin exiled the Chechens to Kazakhstan in 1944, found themselves forcibly evicted, this time by the Chechens. But in Borozdinovskaya, where the Avars were in the majority, local Avar strongman Shapi Mikatov created an armed militia that effectively protected the village from the Chechen gangs, the residents said.

The strongest clashes Mikatov had were with Sulim Yamadayev, who was the most powerful rebel warlord in eastern Chechnya during its de facto independence in 1991-94 and 1996-99.

After Mikatov was killed in a shootout in 1998, the Dagestani residents of Borozdinovskaya began to be targeted by pro-Moscow Chechen police and militias. Residents recall kidnappings for ransom, beating and insults at hands of Chechen officials.

They increasingly turned to Dagestani authorities to help them to relocate to Dagestan, but were flatly denied any support, they said.

Since the setting up of the tent camp in Kizlyar, Magdigadzhiyev, the Dagestani security official, has said the villagers' place is in their home village, not in Dagestan. "They are citizens of Chechnya and must live where their homes are," he said, insisting that there was no conflict between the Chechens and Dagestanis living in Chechnya.

But many of the villagers believe their Chechen neighbors played a part in the June 4 raid, possibly by telling Yamadayev's men that Dagestanis were hiding weapons or rebel fighters in their homes. The Dagestanis accuse Chechens of wanting to clear them out of the village, in the same way that many Russian families were pressured to leave villages in northern Chechnya.

"These men told us that next time our children will suffer if we don't leave. This is our land, they kept saying," Borozdinovskaya resident Aminat Magomedova said, recalling the day of the raid. "The worst thing is that the children saw this. They saw how our houses were set on fire, how people were beaten and insulted. They are still very scared."

Another villager, Shamil Magomedov, said that Chechens from other places had been coming to Borozdinovskaya for three weeks before the raid, and said they had already occupied many houses abandoned by Dagestanis.

"They knew this would happen, it was a planned action," he said, adding that Chechen policemen were not allowing the Dagestanis leaving the village to take construction materials with them.

"The usually busy road to Dagestan was clear when we began moving our belongings out, there was nothing to block our departure," said another villager, who refused to give his name.