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

Portrait of a Warlord

Russian troops locked in the "final assault" on Grozny have been astonished by the ferocity of the rebel resistance. In the heart of the Chechen capital, they are coming up against the cream of the guerrilla forces, led by battle-hardened veterans of the

At the age of 39, Khizir Khachukaev boasts the kind of war record that older men envy and younger men dream of. Dubbed the "Hero of Bamut" during the first Chechen war, Khachukaev was awarded the republic's highest bravery medal, the Honour of the Nation, and promoted to the rank of full general in Aslan Maskhadov's militia. Early on in the conflict, he pioneered the anti-tank tactics later adopted by rebel fighters across the warzone and became a legend in his own time.

In the wake of the Russian invasion last September, Khachukaev was among the veteran field commanders charged with the defence of Grozny. His and other detachments spent four months turning the capital into a virtual fortress, building the "multi-layered" fortifications which the Russian generals have since found to be almost impregnable.

Khachukaev's crack unit of 300 fighters is currently defending the south-east of the city, including the Staropromyslovsky District, City Hospital No. 9 and Druzhba Narodov (Friendship of Nations) Square. They have withstood nearly a month of heavy bombardments from ground and air. Now they face repeated infantry attacks supported by light armour and mortars. They are fighting with their backs to the wall.

But Khachukaev remains determined. "I have enough food and supplies to hold out," he said in a telephone interview. "It's chaos here and this is the fiercest fighting we have seen. But Grozny is a symbol of Chechen independence - and to abandon the fight for independence is to betray our comrades who have given their lives for the cause."

A short distance from his headquarters, his wife, 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter are living in a basement, unable to leave the city, surviving on the meagre rations that the rebels can spare. The instinctive need to defend home and family could not be more immediate.

Khachukaev was born in Kazakhstan where his parents were exiled by Stalin in February 1944. The family returned to Chechnya in the late 1960s, settling in the Sernovodsk region, near the Ingushetian border. On the eve of the Russian invasion in December 1994, Khachukaev found himself in Bamut, a settlement of 3,000 people, 18km south of Sernovodsk. It was here that the Russians launched their first armoured assault against makeshift positions manned by around 120 local irregulars.

Before the war, Bamut had been a Russian military rocket base boasting vast underground rocket silos set to the south of the village. The rebel units used the silos to shelter from the Russian bombardment before emerging to launch vicious raids on advancing armoured columns. Khachukaev won enduring respect among the fighters by demonstrating the effectiveness of rocket-propelled grenades against Russian armoured personnel carriers - nicknamed "coffins on wheels" by federal troops.

Voted commander of the local garrison, Khachukaev beat off four attacks on the settlement over a period of 18 months and Bamut became a symbol of Chechen resistance in the western part of the republic. His unit was made up of relatives and friends as well as 40 members of President Aslan Maskhadov's Army of Ichkeria (the Chechen name for the republic). His brother was killed during the defence of the village.

Khachukaev later extended his area of operations north to Sernovodsk and Samashki where he resisted federal assaults until August 1996. Then he led a rebel unit of 300 fighters to Grozny, wresting the Leninsky and Staropromyslovsky regions away from the occupying forces. According to popular mythology, Khachukaev succeeded in breaking through Russian lines without a single casualty, losing only three dead and eight wounded in the ensuing fighting.

This was the first time I met Khachukaev, a quiet, modest man who shuns publicity. He had organised a ceasefire in order to allow wounded civilians out of Grozny under the auspices of the Red Cross: journalists were allowed into the city to report on the humanitarian operation. I was struck by his liberal views and his vision of an independent Chechen state where disparate religious factions were free to observe their faith. He spoke of his distrust for radical Wahhabi militants whose beliefs rejected the traditions of their ancestors.

In the aftermath of the first Chechen war, Khachukaev volunteered to join National Guard units which had been deployed to crush a Wahhabi uprising in Gudermes. In the event, both sides agreed to resolve the dispute in a sharia court but Khachukaev was later involved in several operations to free hostages taken by Wahhabi warlords. "After the war is over, whatever its outcome, the extremists should stand trial for their actions," he says. "There will be a reckoning."

Like most rebel field commanders, Khachukaev believes in leading from the front. As a rule, the guerrilla leaders enjoy few privileges, preferring to gain respect through their own actions. "In our army, you could see a colonel digging a trench or a general laying down sniper fire," he says. But his authority remains absolute.

Khachukaev's unit is divided up into smaller "gruppirovki" numbering seven or eight men. Each group has a machine-gunner, a sniper and a bombardier armed with rocket-propelled grenades as well as four or five riflemen. They are highly mobile, foraging for food and ammunition on the battlefields, remaining independent of tenuous supply lines.

In the ruins of the shattered city, they are in their element, outflanking direct Russian assaults with deadly efficiency. The most common tactic is to lure the federal troops into open ground by feinting a retreat, then to pour machine-gun fire on them from surrounding buildings.

Khachukaev said the dramatic capture of Major General Mikhail Malofeyev on January 18 was orchestrated during a similar manoeuvre. The general had been leading his regiment into the attack when they stumbled into a deadly crossfire. "The smoke cleared, the general looked round, and his entire regiment had vanished," said Khachukaev. "None of his men were prepared to walk into that meat-grinder. He was left there on his own."

Khachukaev claims that the general, who is deputy commander of Army Group North, was later taken to a rebel hideout in the southern foothills. Russian military sources are adamant that Malofeyev was killed by sniper fire.

Since federal troops launched their "final assault" on Grozny on January 18, Russian generals have been mystified by the rebels' ability to move rapidly from one part of the city to another. Russian media reports suggest the "spirits" are using the city's sewage system to outmanoeuvre the enemy - even that they have dug a tunnel 10km long between the city centre and the southern suburbs.

Khachukaev dismissed the theories as "nonsense", explaining that there was barely enough room in the sewers for rats, let alone armed men. Since the beginning of the siege, he said, rebel forces had been able to pass through the Russian blockade with impunity, relying on their knowledge of local terrain and the cover offered by gullies, ravines and ruined buildings.

Khizir Khachukaev belongs to the old school of rebel fighters. His goal is Chechen independence, rather than the victory of Islam or revenge against the Russian aggressors. After the first war, he was appointed head of a government taskforce formed to reconstruct areas destroyed by the fighting, as Chechnya set out confidently on the road to building a "modern democratic state". But now, as Khachukaev scrambles through the shell-pummelled ruins of the Chechen capital, this vision must seem very distant.

Ruslan Isaev is a regular contributor to IWPR.