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

Dagestan's Forgotten Villagers

Residents of four settlements destroyed during the 1999 Chechen incursion are still waiting for compensation.
By Musa Musayev

Four years ago, the Dagestan mountain village of Tando was briefly at the centre of world attention, as the then Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin publicly praised the residents for their spirited resistance to Chechen militants.


Those clashes in the west of Dagestan marked the beginning of the second war in Chechnya in October 1999 - and also the swift political rise of Putin, who was elected Russian president soon after.


However, Tando still lies in ruins. The village was destroyed in the fighting and only a few piles of stones mark its former location in a mountain gorge. And, along with the residents of a further three villages which suffered during the clashes, its people complain that they have been forgotten.


Today, 126 families live in the new village of Tando, built from scratch near what used to be the orchard of a collective farm. It was too dangerous to rebuild in the old location, as locals still give a wide berth to the ruins of their former homes for fear of mines.


Five people - some of them children - have been killed by ordnance in the Botlikh district in the past two years.


The lives of the villagers here were turned upside down in August 1999, when groups of heavily armed Chechen guerrillas led by warlord Shamil Basaev and his Saudi comrade-in-arms Khattab invaded. Brandishing the banner of fundamentalist Islam, they declared Dagestan an independent Islamic state.


Russian troops, backed by heavy artillery and warplanes, drove the Chechens out in September. Putin personally took charge of the operation, and within a month, federal forces were moving back into Chechnya.


Three more villages - Rakhata, Ansalta and Shodroda - are around a kilometre away from the district administrative centre Botlikh, which found itself in the thick of fighting in 1999. Unlike Tando, these villages survived, but the damage was very heavy and life has not yet returned to normal.


More than a thousand families live in Rakhata. Aside from a few crippled armoured personnel carriers littering the streets, there is little reminder of the fierce fighting that took place here four years ago. In Ansalta, which has a similar population, many houses are still in ruins.


The government promised to compensate the local residents whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged. However, many families affected say they have only received small sums for repairs. In Shodroda, 83 people were never compensated for their lost property. In Ansalta the figure is 60 and in Rakhata, 42.


One Botlikh district official, who would give his name only as Abdurakhman, told IWPR, "The district court has been flooded with claims from the local villagers, and I have been personally involved in 150 hearings."


Majid Gamzatov from Rakhata used to keep a shop, but this was looted and destroyed during the fighting - and he's now out on the street.


He claimed that the lists of villagers entitled to compensation were drawn up clandestinely by local officials, saying, "They told us nothing, and did not show us any papers."


"No one knew what they were entitled to. Many villagers were gullible enough to trust the officials and no one claimed anything," he said, adding that he and his five brothers were eventually granted a one-off compensation sum.


Some villagers in the district lost their entire apricot harvest - for many, their only form on income - in the fighting, but the government has not compensated private businessmen such as fruit farmers.


Junaud Omargajiev from Ansalta is a tractor driver with five children who worked hard to provide two houses for his extended family. All of his property - including four cows - was destroyed in the fighting. While one home remained standing after the initial assault, the guerrillas seized it for use as a field hospital, and later wrecked in completely.


He received around 1,300 US dollars per family member in damages for the lost house, and only around 40 dollars for the cattle. "I never even tried to claim compensation for my second house," he said. "A government official warned us that each family would be compensated for only one."


Villagers who believe that they have been cheated besiege government offices every day to press their claims, which are believed to exceed 1.7 million dollars. But in most cases, officials simply shrug their shoulders and say they are unable to help.


Musa Musaev is a correspondent for the daily Dagestanskaya Pravda newspaper in Makhachkala.