Commentary / World

War 'back home' divides Jordan's Chechen community

by Russell Working

ZARQA, Jordan — When the wounded Chechen fighters arrived in Jordan in 1994, everything changed for Younis Ashab.

TV reports showed the young rebels in a hospital in Amman — 70 guerrillas who were injured in the breakaway republic’s revolt against Moscow and brought to Jordan by an Islamic charity — and they inspired Ashab, a 53-year-old Koranic judge. He sought out the young fighters, married off his daughter to one of them and even ended up moving to Chechnya for a time.

“They are our people and they speak our language,” he said. “We supported them through every means we could.”

A minority in a sea of Arabs, Jordan’s 8,000 Chechens have retained their language and customs over more than a century since their ancestors first fled czarist repressions in the Caucasus.

The current war in Russia’s rebellious south has divided Chechens here, as it divides their kinsmen at home. Some blame Chechen leaders for provoking Russian brutality. Some support the cause by collecting money and lobbying foreign governments. Some even send their sons to fight.

Chechens came to Jordan from 1895-1905, settling in the towns of Zarqa, Sweileh, Azraq Janoobi and Sukhna. Like Jordan’s 80,000 Circassians, who began fleeing Russia’s southward expansion in 1879, the peoples of the Caucasus found a home among fellow Muslims in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Chechens were a people apart, known for their strange ways. They wore astrakhan hats, not the Bedouin headgear. Their men and women danced together, and even today some Chechens don’t invite Arab friends to weddings, lest the conservative Jordanians get the wrong idea. Yet Chechens became Jordanians, serving as policemen, army officers and government ministers. By law, one of Jordan’s 80 parliamentary seats is reserved for a Chechen.

“The purest Chechen language is spoken in Jordan,” insisted Abdul Baki-Jamu, 75, a Chechen who has repeatedly served as a senator and Cabinet minister during his 45-year political career. “We’ve kept the culture and traditions. I’ve been in Chechnya itself, and the Chechen language they speak has been mixed with Russian words.”

The Chechens were cut off from their homeland by the Russian revolution, and only in 1962 did the first delegation of Jordanian Chechens visit the Soviet Union, according to Emad Arslan, head of International Cooperation Section of the Jordanian Customs Department. But the fall of the Iron Curtain allowed Jordanian Chechens to renew their ties.

Baki-Jamu is a philosophical man given to discourses on the role of women in Islam and the traditional Chechen requirement of respect for elders. His home in Zarqa is spacious and well-appointed, with leather-bound tomes of law lining the walls. A recent interview took place during Ramadan — the Islamic month of fasting from dawn to sunset — but the smell of cooking food filled the house one afternoon as his wife prepared the evening breakfast.

Baki-Jamu considers the rebellion against Moscow a hopeless cause. He delivered lectures in Chechnya in 1991, and he says he urged separatists not to seek independence. “I advised the leadership not to get involved in any war. I said, ‘You will be destroyed and you will go backward 100 years, and it will take you 100 years to recover.’ But they didn’t listen.”

Yet many Jordanian Chechens say Baki-Jamu’s conservatism is out of touch. Bader Al-Deen Izzedeen Bino Shishani is a Jordanian professor who serves as the roving ambassador for Chechnya’s rebel leadership (the last name Shishani, shared by most Chechens in Jordan, is the Arabic word for Chechen), he says. He has traveled the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco, raising what he estimates to be $2 million in “humanitarian aid” for Chechnya.

Asked if the money buys weapons for the rebels, Bader Shishani bristled and said no. His brother, Rifat Shishani, who was present for the interview, added: “Weapons aren’t what they need, anyway, because they can capture or buy them from the Russians.”

Bader Shishani persuaded Lal Malika, sister of the king of Morocco, to donate a field hospital. It still sits in Rabat; Malika hasn’t figured out how to get it to Chechnya amid the war. Shishani helps bring wounded Chechens to be fitted with prostheses in Jordan. He is attempting to find a world body that will try Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal.

In his talks, he passes out shocking photos of war dead and details legal and historical arguments for Chechen independence. The Chechen people exercised their right under Article 64 of the Soviet Constitution to withdraw from the Union in 1991, as Russia also did, Bader Shishani says. Why can’t Russia accept that?

To cover his costs and raise money, Bader Shishani sells a $3 tape that recounts history from a Chechen perspective. The cover urges listeners to donate “to assist the people of Chechnya.”

The tape opens with the sounds of automatic weapons and mortar fire. A narrator states in English: “From the burning ruins of Grozny came what may be a final, heartbreaking message from its Chechen defenders, asking Muslims around the world not to forget the ordeal of its brothers in Chechnya, fighting the jihad holy war against Russian oppression. In the words of one combat soldier, he had never seen anything that equals the heroism of the Chechen mujahedin.

“For the past four months, 5,000 lightly armed Chechen warriors fighting on flat, open terrain that favors air, armor and artillery, have held up 160,000 Russian troops backed by regiments of heavy guns and rockets, helicopter gunships, ground-attack aircraft and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles. Chechnya is cut off from the outside world. The only nations to recognize Chechnya’s declaration of independence from Russia are brave little Estonia and Afghanistan, both of which know full well the terror of Russian occupation.”

Putin has blamed foreign “terrorists” for joining the battle against Russia, but despite the tape’s talk of holy war, Bader Shishani insists he doesn’t recruit fighters abroad. The foreign guerrillas are mainly ethnic Arabs who subscribe to the strict Wahhabi branch of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

“Any of these people who comes to me to volunteer to fight, I report them to the Jordanian authorities, simply due to the fact that they do more harm than good,” Bader Shishani said.

The authorities then cancel that person’s passport and refuse him permission to travel, he explained.

For some Jordanian Chechens, the war became personal. Ashab, whose daughter married the Chechen veteran, wears the skullcap of a devout Muslim, and he recoiled when a woman who was introduced to him offered her hand. Ashab and his wife moved to Chechnya in 1998, a year after his daughter and her veteran husband moved there. The land was beautiful and lush to eyes accustomed to the stony hills and crowded markets. He translated, taught English and Arabic in the schools, and served as a judge enforcing Shariah, or Islamic law. The cases were mostly minor: drug dealers, drunks, wife-beaters.

While Ashab remembers this period as idyllic, many have darker memories of Chechnya between the wars. Stung by its defeat in the 1994-96 conflict, Russia was relieved to wash its hands of Chechnya. But the breakaway republic became a Lebanon of the 1990s. Kidnappers snatched children from neighboring Russian regions and sold them back to their families. A slave trade flourished. Armed goons captured and beheaded foreign aid workers — a crime that Ashab defends. “It is justified,” he said. “The Chechens who killed them believed they were spies.” He also argues the remarkable position that Chechnya’s entire kidnapping problem was created by Federal Security Service agents.

In any case, Chechnya’s meltdown spilled into Russia in 1999. Some 300 people were killed in string of apartment bombings. Chechen guerrillas invaded the bordering Russian republic of Dagestan in an attempt to bring holy war to a fellow Muslim region that wanted nothing to do with it. Moscow had had enough, and President Boris Yeltsin launched a second war.

Trapped in Chechnya, Ashab, his wife and a 17-year-old son moved between the towns of Urus-Martan and Shali and lived with his daughter’s in-laws. They hid in a root cellar from bombardment by Russian jets that began every day at 2 a.m.

For a year there was no electricity, no gas, no water in the tap. Small details linger in Ashab mind. A son of the desert, he recalls admiring the lovely old chestnut trees felled as firewood.

During those violent days, Jordanian Chechens used to seek out the white-bearded Ashab. He was countryman with a reputation of sorts. “Most of them used to come to me in Shali because they wanted to meet a Jordanian,” he said. “Most of them are dead now.”

Ashab’s war veteran son-in-law, Visskhal, tried to re-enlist with the rebels, but they turned him down. “You’ve done your duty,” they said. During the first war, he had been wounded in the head and lost an eye when a Russian soldier beat him with a rifle butt as he lay injured, he told his family. Visskhal and 30 other rebel prisoners were blindfolded, herded into a mechanic’s garage and crammed into the underground repair pit. A concrete slab was placed on top with only a small opening at one end. Russian soldiers used to urinate into the hole. If anyone spoke, he was taken out and tortured.

The Ashab family eventually escaped to Turkey and returned to Jordan. Now 24, Visskhal was a student at an oil institute in Grozny when the first war started. He is living in Jordan, and smoldering at Russia.

“I am outraged when the Russian politicians say, ‘Chechnya is a cancer on the body of Russia, so we should cut it out,’ ” he said. “They want Chechnya without Chechens.”

Visskhal’s father, Lyoma, also fled Chechnya for Jordan. He was born in Almaty, Kazakstan, in 1944 to parents whom Stalin had had exiled from Chechnya. In 1961 he moved to Chechnya and built what he felt was a good life for himself: a house, a garden, a decent job as a radio engineer. All that vanished with the war.

“During the second war, in the month of Ramadan, on Jan. 9, 2000, Putin gave us a surprise: A bomb blew off in the downtown,” Lyoma said. “Its fragments were poisonous, so many people died. Two of my sons were killed, and my wife was wounded in both legs.

“In our village, Shali, the Russian soldiers rounded up people for a ‘holiday,’ but instead they started shooting them. They killed 427 people, including about 100 young girls.”

Lyoma and the rest of the extended family escaped by going to the southern Russian city of Nalchik, then heading to Istanbul as tourists. Despite his bitterness, he rages not against the Russian people, but their leadership. Some Chechens helped wounded Russian soldiers, he said, and he wouldn’t have escaped from Chechnya without the help of ethnic Russians along the way.

For the past 1 1/2 years, Lyoma’s family has lived in Jordan with Ashab. If Lyoma can find forgiveness for some Russians, the Jordanian Ashab has only contempt for the way the enemy fought his war.

“The Chechen believes if you give a Russian a bottle of vodka and something to eat, they would sell you anything,” he said. “Even you can buy a tank.”

As dusk fell after an interview, Bader Shishani’s son brought him a pack of cigarettes and a tall mug of water. Today’s Ramadan fast had ended. He drank deeply and lit up a smoke. Rifat Shishani — a blond man of 45 who speaks English well after years of living in Detroit — told a pair of reporters and their Arabic translator, “There’s no way we’ll let you go without having dinner with us.”

The table was crowded with relatives and laden with food — a spicy Pakistani beef dish, a meat and sour cream pie, roasted chicken, sausages, salads, pita bread. In contrast to many households in the Middle East, the men and women ate together. When a Russian reporter was introduced, someone joked, “The enemy!”

But the Chechens here could pass for Russians. One young man expressed his anger at the treatment of Middle Easterners in London, then admitted he faced no problems personally; his features were so European, nobody took him for a Jordanian. Bader Shishani’s daughter-in-law, Gita, has dyed her hair the clown-red color popular across the former Soviet empire (her father was Chechen and her mother Ingushetian, and she grew up speaking Russian).

Several members of the younger generation studied or worked in the United States or Britain, and in deference to the guests, the conversation was in English. Somehow there should be peace, the young man said passionately. War is an abomination, killing a human being is absurd and heinous.

Perhaps the latest war has driven this point home for some Chechen Jordanians. But it has also raised the profile of Chechnya by casting its people as heroes in a lost cause.

“Some small villages in Jordan — they never even heard about people called Chechens until the war started,” Rifat Shishani said. “Now they’ve heard about us. The writers started writing about the struggle we have been through for 300 years.”

As the latest battle in the Chechen struggle enters its third winter, it shows no sign of winding down. And in a distant desert kingdom, there is discord.