One of the main difficulties encountered in reconstructing the history of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria is the lack of reliable historical sources. The destruction of all the main archives, and the seizure of those that have survived by the Russian authorities, means that anyone who approaches the study of this matter has to reconstruct the events day by day, as if assembling a jigsaw puzzle. For this reason the collection of the memories of the protagonists of this story is so important.
Aslanbek Dadaev is the last Chechen journalist to have worked for foreign media in Chechnya. Deputy director of Chechenpress , the independent Chechen news agency, from 1992 to 1995, collaborated with many international and Russian media such as WTN, CNN, Reuter, Al – Jazeera. From 2002 to 2020, he worked as a correspondent for the North Caucasian newsroom of Radio Liberty in the Caucasus. Awarded the David Burke Award by the US Global Media Agency “For taking enormous risks to cover the region and the Beslan tragedy”, he is the author of the documentary “Dada”. As of 2020 he lives in the UK.
Our conversation covered the entire history of ChRI, starting in 1990. Then, as if “the curse of the archives” was haunting us, the first part was lost. This time not because of the Russian bombs, but only because of our “technological seniority”. When I set about setting up the interview, the first snippet of conversation I came across was this joke:
“A Russian soldier returned from Chechnya and went to the hairdresser. He starts combing his hair and asks him to talk about the war in Chechnya. The soldier asks: “Why are you asking me to tell you about it?” The hairdresser replies: “When you talk about the war in Chechnya, your hair stands on end, and I can cut it easier!”
ABOUT WARS WON AND PEACES LOST – FIRST PART
On April 21, Dudayev was killed. Do you remember how the Chechens reacted to the news of his death? What did they say in Grozny? And what did you think?
People were very sad and confused. However, due to the rumors that Dzhokhar was not killed, but hid on purpose so that the Russians could not find him, many calmed down. in the center of Grozny, in front of the presidential palace, independence supporters often held rallies, where one of the slogans was that Dzhokhar would return, things like that. Dzhokhar exuded some kind of strong energy, he calmed people with his mere existence. He knew how to approach the Chechens when he put himself below any Chechen, like his statement that every Chechen is a general and he is the million first. It seemed to come from the recent past of the Chechens, when our traditions were still strong and dignity was valued.
Dudayev ‘s death , Yandarbiev became acting president. What do you think about him? And what did ordinary people think?
Yandarbiev was an ardent patriot, and a supporter of the idea of independence. He didn’t have the resourcefulness needed by real politicians. He has never managed to win public opinion. He was against presidential elections (he believed they would divide Chechen society, which had managed to rally around the idea of independence), and wanted to keep his position as president. When his powers ended, he began actively handing out state awards. And so, in my opinion, he was one of the brightest patriots of Chechnya. And he was a good poet. Even now, in Chechnya, the current authorities don’t forbid his words about a song about his mother.
Do you think Yandarbiev and Dudayev had two different views on the state?
No, they had the same vision of independence. It’s just that at some point the Islamist radicals managed to win Yandarbiev to their side, and his activities went beyond the traditional struggle for independence of the Chechens.
August 6, 1996. Operation Jihad. What do you remember of those days?
I knew in advance about the date when the operation would start and stayed overnight in the center of Grozny. Early in the morning we heard the sounds of a firefight, and on stepping out onto the balcony we saw several of our soldiers under a large tree. They were waiting for a Russian helicopter to fly away, which hovered at a height above this place. It was a detachment of Brigadier General Khizir Khachukaev . I spent 3-4 days in this place, recording videos. With us, among other things, in that position was Sebastian Smith, who then worked for francepress .
At the end of August 1996, Chechnya was free again, but under very difficult conditions. Do you remember what life was like in Grozny at that time? What was the mood of the people? What did they expect from the end of the war?
Life in Chechnya at that time was difficult. However, even in those troubled times, people were much freer. Pro-independence demonstrations often took place in the center of Grozny. The flag of Ichkeria could be seen everywhere. The pro-Moscow authorities sat in fortified buildings lined with concrete blocks. I remember once we accompanied Andrei Babitsky to Moscow. We arrived at the airport and when we got out of the car seeing a Russian tank go by, Andrei ran up to it and shouted at the top of his lungs: ” Alahu Akbar!”. In response, the soldiers laughed and replied “Really Akbar!”. But they got scared and quickly left. In everyday life, people were in critical condition. Problems with water, electricity, work were serious. The pro-Moscow authorities understood that they were temporary…
From September 1996 to January 1997, a provisional government subordinate to Maskhadov operated in Chechnya. How did Chechnya experience during this period? Did you have the opportunity to collaborate with Maskhadov’s government or cover it as a journalist?
Little has changed at that time. The problems remained the same. The people had no money, but they got by as best they could. The main income of the common people was trading in the market. I have always been in contact with the representatives of the government of Ichkeria, even before the August 1996 operation. WTN often needed comments from them and I found them in different locations in the republic. Then, when the Chechens took over the republic, of course I often attended press conferences and other events with the participation of Aslan and others. They had no problems communicating with reporters.
How did you manage to contact Chechen army commanders during the war?
It wasn’t a problem for any reporter. It was enough to come, for example, to the village and anyone could tell you who was there and where he was. The late Kazbek Makhashev was a member of the Chechen government. He was hiding on the territory of an abandoned cattle farm in the village of Novye Atagi, on the roof. That’s where I interviewed him.
Let’s move on to the 1997 election. Do you think it helped that there were so many candidates? And that the anti-independence candidates have been excluded?
I think the electoral race and the election and the election of Maskhadov showed that we really wanted peace. I think Basayev had a higher “score”, but people still chose Maskhadov, yearning for peace and tranquility. Aslan was not a “war hawk” while Shamil, on the contrary, believed that it was necessary to arm oneself and not relax. There were no candidates against independence, because they themselves would not run and would not have any support.
Don’t you think it would have been better if Yandarbiev, Maskhadov and Basayev had agreed on a single candidate?
It would have been better, of course, but people would still have chosen Maskhadov. Yandarbiyev fell under the influence of Islamic radicals, Basayev only knew how to fight. when we won the first war, i began to realize that the real “war” was right in front of us and that we should be united even after the victory over the russians. And so, it turned out we won the war, but lost the peace.
Do you think Maskhadov and Basayev should have cooperated and not fought for power?
Yes. Of course I think. And many thought so. However, I understand why you ask. The fact is that in Chechnya, bombed by war and disoriented, this was impossible. We are democrats from birth, but the level of freedom in those years went off scale, the concepts of freedom and order got confused. Many have interpreted freedom as anarchy. However, if Shamil and Aslan were together, they could have tried to restore order. Again, both Shamil and Aslan knew about the deception of the Russians and understood that the war would not end there. We all understood that. Therefore, we have prepared.
So since January 1997 it was clear to you that the second war is just a matter of time?
It has been since the end of 1996, as the negotiations went. By that time the Chechens had already learned to think like their enemies.