Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestani Students Volunteer for Islamist Groups

By Revaz Alikhanov

If I lived in central Russia, I would undoubtedly be surprised by frequent disappearances of the country’s young people. However, living in Dagestan, neither I nor anybody else is surprised by this occurrence.

In the republic, where for more than a decade there has been conflict between security forces and rebels who divide their time between the high mountains and the capital Makhachkala, such disappearances have become an inevitable reality that one has had to come to terms with.

Probably the most scandalous case was the recent “disappearance” of nine medical students, who according to the authorities have apparently joined up with militant Islamic fighters in the mountains.

This is the latest of a sequence of cases of men going missing that began around the time of the first Chechen war between Russia and Chechnya from 1994 to 1996. During recent years, these events have been attributed to law-enforcement forces.

Often, the police conduct special operations in Dagestan, in which the security forces surround a house or apartment block, lay siege to it and kill the suspected militants inside.

While some accused the authorities of being behind the disappearances of the medical students when I started looking into the case, it seemed obvious that they had escaped to the forests voluntarily.

I am 23, myself, and I have often encountered people of my age, who are very supportive of extremists in the Caucasus.

In my opinion, there are hundreds of these militant “supporters” in Dagestan’s capital of Makhachkala.

Normally, they do not come from deprived sections of society. However, while they do not lack money, they often are without self esteem and the ideas and words to help them feel like real men.

I say this to demonstrate that it is not the corrupt authorities and law enforcers that make them militants. Rather it is their intrinsic problems, their psychology.

A computer loaded with files containing extremist literature was found at home of one of the “lost” students.

There are very few young people in Dagestan whose cell phones do not contain the songs of Timur Murtsaev, in which the singer calls for a true revolution; or downloads of video clips of executed Russian soldiers.

Youths in any country are inclined to certain extremes, and all revolutions have had a contribution from an “infantry” made up of students and young people. This is why I did not start blaming the police forces for these, or many previous cases, of disappearance.

Out of a crowd of hundreds of sympathisers, one will always find a few strong supporters of the so-called “forest brothers” - Islamic fighters - who decide to leave their senseless lives and join up with the militants.

In January 2006, a siege of an apartment in Makhachkala ended with most of those inside being killed. __I have a copy of a videotape which was discovered inside, and it shows a group of young men cleaning automatic weapons inside the apartment and insulting those “cowardly” Muslims who will not stand to the authorities in Dagestan.

Some time after the story was published, I heard that three of the “lost” medical students had been found by law enforcers in the city of Khasavyurt, where they were living in a rented apartment.

It is not so difficult to guess what they were preparing for and what they were doing.

Revaz Alikhanov is a correspondent with Novoe Delo newspaper in Dagestan.