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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – Mansur was 13 when Russian soldiers destroyed his village of Samashki during Chechnya’s first war of independence from Russia.
Armed with flamethrowers, the Russians burned Mansur’s neighbors alive in their homes, threw grenades into basements, and executed men. Four years later, a truce disintegrated and Mansur was back at war. He says he was never the same after.
“Russia ruined everything I had. I grew up with the war, and the war shaped me in every way,” said Mansur, 40.
Mansur is one of more than 200,000 Chechens who fled to Turkey and Europe throughout the 2000s during a second war between Russian federal forces and fighters in Chechnya, a republic located in the extreme south of Russia.
Leaving his home did not mean giving up his fight against Russia. “If I was born in America or Canada, I wouldn’t come here to Ukraine. But because Russia took everything from me, I have to resist. Nothing else matters,” Mansur says.
Today, Mansur is the Deputy Commander of the Sheikh Mansur Battalion (no relation), one of at least two all-Chechen battalions fighting in Ukraine against Russia. These Chechens are among the 20,000 foreign fighters the Ukrainian government estimates joined its forces in early March, around the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Chechens say they are ready to fight the Russian forces as well as the other Chechen soldiers who have been sent to fight on behalf of Russia.
Pro-Kyiv Chechen fighters who spoke to NPR declined to disclose their numbers in Ukraine, citing security concerns, particularly from Kremlin-backed Chechens. This is also why they only gave their first names or no names at all. But they say their battalion numbers at least hundreds of men – all shaped by trauma and driven by hatred of Russia.
In Ukraine, Russian soldiers fired on civilians, indiscriminately bombed schools and apartment buildings, and terrorized the towns and villages they occupied. However, Chechen soldiers say they were unimpressed by these horrors. They believe they have already been through much worse.
“Ukraine’s tragedies in Bucha and Mariupol are nothing compared to what we experienced growing up. The Russians razed our towns and villages,” says a second soldier from Mansur’s battalion, who was born and raised in the Chechen capital of Grozny. before being destroyed by Russian bombing in the early 2000s.
Chechens have a history of clashes with Russians
Ethnic Russians and Chechens have clashed bitterly since the 18th century in periodic border disputes. Imperial Russian troops routinely looted Chechen settlements in bloody ethnic cleansings against Chechen civilians. During Josef Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union, around 400,000 ethnic Chechens and Ingush were forcibly expelled from their homeland in the North Caucasus. As many as 30% of people died from the hardships and violence of resettlement, until survivors were allowed to return to their countries under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev 13 years later.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia brutally crushed a fledgling Chechen republic. The First War of Independence ended in a peace armistice, only to dissolve in 1999 after Vladimir Putin, then Russian Prime Minister, waged a new military campaign in Chechnya ostensibly to fight terrorists. Historians now say the allegation may have been exaggerated or fabricated.
“We have always been betrayed and sold,” says another Chechen soldier from Mansur’s battalion. He did not give his name for security reasons. “Since our very first liberation and the building of our state, no one has ever helped us and they will not help us.”
They cannot offer howitzers; only themselves, and years of experience in the fight against the Russians
The Chechens say they want to pass on to the Ukrainian army the know-how of this experience of combat against Russia for 20 years. Unlike the United States, they say, they have no howitzers or heavy weapons to give Ukraine. They can only give their bodies. Their lives as individuals don’t matter, says the second soldier.
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“We lost our homeland. What more does a person have to lose? Our family or our children are not important when we lost our home, and the whole world was silent,” he said.
Members of the Sheikh Mansur Battalion say it matters in settling a 400-year-old blood feud that began in the 1700s when Russian czars entered the North Caucasus where Chechens live.
“This is our dream. And we will pass this dream on from generation to generation until this evil is destroyed,” the soldier says.
Overall, Chechens are divided on whether to fight for or against Russia. In 2006, Moscow appointed pro-Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov to govern Chechnya, and Kadyrov pledged his support and loyalty to Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. Kadyrov claimed that Chechen fighters loyal to Russia were sent to Ukraine to fight for Putin, which means it is entirely possible that Chechens are now fighting Chechens.
Regardless, Mansur says, they’re playing the long game here.
“In Tsarist Russia, General Yermolov stole everything from us. But we survived him. Stalin is dead. Putin will die. We will outlive these people,” he says.
He hopes to live long enough to see Kadyrov, 45, perish as well.
Wherever Russia fights a war in the world, Mansur says, his battalion would follow to fight it. Their sole purpose in life now is to take up arms against Russia – wherever that may be.