Muslim freedom fighter stirs pride, fear in Russia
Saturday, April 21, 2007
GHIMRI – AFP
One of the fiercest enemies Russia ever saw, Dagestani resistance leader Imam Shamil helped launch a holy war in this mountain village in 1829 — and from the shouting in the street, the struggle is not yet over.
“If you want a war, declare a war, but this is mockery!” cried Patima, a woman in her 50s who appeared on a cobbled lane beside the mosque that villagers said Imam Shamil had helped build with his own hands.
Elite police troops had raided the town two nights before, demonstrating that in Imam Shamil’s birthplace, his anti-Russian battle was as fresh to the authorities as it was to the villagers.
Magomed Ibraimov, the pot-bellied deputy head of the village administration, first denied there had been a raid, then relented as villagers accosted him.
Special forces targeted Ghimri “because Imam Shamil and Imam Gazimagomed grew up here,” he told AFP, referring to the village’s most famous son and his childhood friend and fellow “freedom fighter.”
“They began the very first war against Russia, they started it all, and that’s why everybody wants to find something here.”
Today’s Russian authorities say they are combating separatists and Muslim radicals in the North Caucasus, all the way from Kabardino-Balkaria to Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan.
But the modern issues are fueled by a passion that dates back to the bitter resistance in these mountains to Russian imperial conquest.
Imam Shamil led Chechen and Dagestani volunteers against vastly superior numbers of Russian troops from 1829 until his surrender in 1859, earning renown as far as Victorian Britain as “the Lion of Dagestan.”
Villagers’ pride in him today is as keen as their fright over the raid.
Residents said special forces had filled the night with machinegun fire and dragged three young men out into the steep, winding lanes of the village of 3,600. They said the three hadn’t been heard from since.
“There was no reason for it, no evidence, and it wasn’t the first time. We’re sick of this!” Fatima said. “Three grandmothers — forgive me for saying this — pissed themselves from fear at the sound of the machine guns. My 72-year-old mother nearly died of fright.”
Ibraimov insisted that the radical Islam advocated by Imam Shamil had not taken root, as did Ruslan Dzhamalov, a federal migration service official based in Ghimri. But Dzhamalov also said Imam Shamil cast a long shadow there.
“It’s historical,” he said. “We Dagestanis never forget our history.”
That history, at least in the 19th century, is dominated by the figure whose imposing portrait stares out from the walls of homes and offices all over this North Caucasus republic.
About 1,000 people a day come to pray at a tiny mosque on the outskirts of Ghimri where Shamil pulled off the first miraculous escape that helped spread his fame and unite the mountains’ vast array of clans and ethnic groups against the invaders.
Leaping from a stone house where he and Gazimagomed had taken refuge, Shamil slashed his way through rows of Russian soldiers. A sign posted impossibly far from the ruins of the house shows the distance he supposedly cleared in one jump.
“He did it by stepping on to the shoulders of the first line of soldiers, then he flew 16 meters (52 feet) to that spot. Could anyone do that today?” beamed the site’s caretaker, Magomed. “He did it with the help of Allah.”
Gazimagomed, then the first imam of Dagestan, was killed on the site.
Shamil later followed in his footsteps to become the region’s third imam, and the two remain deeply beloved here.
“There’s a joke about Dagestan,” said the present imam of Ghimri, Gazimagomed Abakarov, a trim, smiling figure in a tall Caucasian fur hat. “A programmer types into a computer: How many Magomeds are there in Dagestan? And the computer explodes. It’s the same thing here with Shamils and Gazimagomeds.”
A more serious issue is whether Imam Shamil’s example is still inspiring Islamic extremists to violence.
While Dagestan never saw the separatist fighting in the post-Soviet era that engulfed Chechnya from 1994-96 and again from 1999, guerrillas still carry out dozens of attacks each year, mostly against police.
A Chechen namesake of the 19th century imam, Shamil Basayev, often crossed the border into the Dagestani mountains before his death last year.
Officials and residents in Ghimri denied there were guerrillas there, referring cryptically to “two or three bad seeds.”
A source close to law enforcement in the regional capital Makhachkala, however, said Islamist groups were deeply rooted in Ghimri, and that the raid had been ordered to secure the area before a delegation of foreign journalists were brought to the region.
“They are there,” he said of the guerrillas. “They haven’t all been caught, and they won’t be.”
And while most Dagestanis say they cannot imagine a life independent from Moscow, which provides 70 percent of the poverty-stricken region’s budget, many grow uneasy when asked whether Imam Shamil was right to surrender in 1859 and cede control of the region to Russia.
“We’re not saying he struggled in vain,” said Eduard Urazayev, the region’s minister for nationalities, choosing his words carefully. “But in the end, life is quieter and more stable for us under Russia’s wing. We put our confidence in that.”
© 2005 Dogan Daily News Inc.