Meet the Chechen battalion joining Ukraine to fight Russia – and fellow Chechens: NPR

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Members of the Sheikh Mansur Volunteer Battalion (L to R) Islam, Mansur and Asadulla talk to an AFP reporter during an interview in Zaporizhzhia on June 9. The Sheikh Mansur Battalion was founded in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and is made up mainly of Chechen veterans. The group was named after a Chechen military commander against Russian expansion into the Caucasus in the 18th century.

Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images


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Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images


Members of the Sheikh Mansur Volunteer Battalion (L to R) Islam, Mansur and Asadulla talk to an AFP reporter during an interview in Zaporizhzhia on June 9. The Sheikh Mansur Battalion was founded in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and is made up mainly of Chechen veterans. The group was named after a Chechen military commander against Russian expansion into the Caucasus in the 18th century.

Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Russian soldiers fire artillery at Chechen positions near the village of Duba-Yurt, 29 km south of Grozny, Chechnya, January 23, 2000.

Maxime Marmur/AP


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Russian soldiers fire artillery at Chechen positions near the village of Duba-Yurt, 29 km south of Grozny, Chechnya, January 23, 2000.

Maxime Marmur/AP

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.

A view of Grozny after more than 22 weeks of bombardment and bombardment by Russian artillery and aircraft February 4, 2000. Russian shelling weighed so heavily on buildings in the Chechen capital that Russian troops struggled to find an intact office for their commander.

Dmitry Belyakov/AP


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A view of Grozny after more than 22 weeks of bombardment and bombardment by Russian artillery and aircraft February 4, 2000. Russian shelling weighed so heavily on buildings in the Chechen capital that Russian troops struggled to find an intact office for their commander.

Dmitry Belyakov/AP

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.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (second from left in the foreground) and Dagestan leader Magomedali Magomedov (left) visit Russian troops at a military base in the mountains of Dagestan’s Botlikh region following the Chechen attacks in Dagestan, August 27, 1999 Russian forces entered Chechnya weeks after the attacks, sparking the second of two post-Soviet wars in the predominantly Muslim region.

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (second from left in the foreground) and Dagestan leader Magomedali Magomedov (left) visit Russian troops at a military base in the mountains of Dagestan’s Botlikh region following the Chechen attacks in Dagestan, August 27, 1999 Russian forces entered Chechnya weeks after the attacks, sparking the second of two post-Soviet wars in the predominantly Muslim region.

PA

“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.

A Chechen volunteer soldier displays a patch with the flags of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and Ukraine at an undisclosed location in Ukraine on July 7.

Serhiy Morgunov/The Washington Post via Getty Images


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A Chechen volunteer soldier displays a patch with the flags of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and Ukraine at an undisclosed location in Ukraine on July 7.

Serhiy Morgunov/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“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.

Chechnya regional head Ramzan Kadyrov speaks to servicemen attending a review of Chechen Republic troops and military equipment in Grozny, capital of the Chechen Republic, Russia, February 25. Kadyrov said that the military of the Chechen Republic is ready to carry out any order of the country’s president.

Musa Sadulaev/AP


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Chechnya regional head Ramzan Kadyrov speaks to servicemen attending a review of Chechen Republic troops and military equipment in Grozny, capital of the Chechen Republic, Russia, February 25. Kadyrov said that the military of the Chechen Republic is ready to carry out any order of the country’s president.

Musa Sadulaev/AP

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.


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