One group of Chechen fighters coordinates its actions with Ukrainian forces but remains outside of the official armed forces, supporting itself through donations, volunteers and trophies: the Sheikh Mansur Battalion.
Arby: "In Bakhmut, there is no possibility of taking captives."
We talk to Arby in Zaporizhzhya, as an air raid siren sounds. Far from the front lines, the city is still bombarded frequently by Russian missiles.
Arby has been living in Ukraine since 2019. He moved while hiding from mercenaries hired by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. One of his brothers died in the first Chechen war, and the other in the second. He hasn't told his family he's fighting with the Sheikh Mansur Battalion. His mother believes he is in Kyiv.
Now, the battalion is mostly near Bakhmut, site of the fiercest fighting.
I want to live in my land the way I want, not the way someone dictates.
"There is round-the-clock shelling. We fight according to the will of the almighty. It's close-contact street fighting. In one building are our fighters; in another, a hundred meters away, the Russians. It's not possible to take prisoners. The Russians have dragged convicts there and are throwing them at us in waves. The convicts are there to die, because their command sends them to our positions where we have machine guns. The group retreats, and those who survived return again with another wave."
Arby had already fought against Russia in the second Chechen war. He notes the difference between the Chechen war and the Ukrainian war: in Chechnya, the territory was smaller, and the concentration of the enemy higher. But the tactics of the Russians are similar. They fight as they did in the Second World War. Only now, they also have drones, which they use to direct artillery strikes.
Arby, like many Chechen fighters, hopes they will go to liberate their homeland after Ukraine's victory. "We hope that Ukraine will help us. I want to live in my land the way I want, not the way someone dictates," he says.
Sabah: "I will spend my life fighting against Russia."
Sabah is 36 years old, and came to Ukraine from Europe. He remembers the first Chechen war. He was eight years old when it began.
Sabah's home village, Samashki, has become a symbol of the senseless massacre by the security forces. "The Russian military said that if the villagers would remove those who could resist, they gave their word that they would check their passports and leave without touching anyone," Sabah recalls. "They believed the Russians. And the Russians came in and committed atrocities. Our family survived because they were sitting in a cellar under the ruins of a house. I remember Russian soldiers walking right over our heads and looking for people," he says. "They marauded just like they do now in Ukraine."
During the second Chechen war, he became a scout. At the age of 14, he went to the forest during school vacations to help the guerrillas. As a boy, he traveled to neighboring towns and republics to gather information about the location and numbers of Russian forces.
Chechnya lost the second war, and in 2005, Sabah went by train to Ukraine. The border guards wouldn't let him in and sent him back to Russia. On the way back, he left the train on neutral territory and crossed the border on foot. From Ukraine, Sabah traveled to Slovakia and from there to Austria. "I thought it was to Australia — I got mixed up," he recalls. The Chechens surrendered to the police, received refugee status and stayed in Europe. "I didn't care where I lived. After years of guerrilla life, I just dreamed of taking off my clothes and going to bed. That was my only dream for a long time."
After Sabah left, the Kadyrov mercenaries repeatedly came to his home, threatened his relatives and kidnapped his mother and brother.
Sabah was called to Ukraine by his cousin, the deputy commander of the Sheikh Mansur battalion. "I hesitated for several years. How can you leave a posh life, where you can come home, eat and sleep, and your biggest concern is getting up and going to work? It was hard for me to return to the war, the deaths, and the tears of women and children. I knew it very well, and I didn't want to. But in 2019, I came to Mariupol, to the battalion base. And the first days of a full-scale war also met there."
Sabah is not going back: "I am a resident of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and have always felt that way. Our fathers taught us to shoot with hunting rifles when we were children. I will fight against Russia all my life. I will avenge the Chechens they killed. I will never forgive them. If I have sons, they will continue to do so."
Cadets of the Ichkeria Chechen National Guard in 1999.
Natalia Medvedeva / Wikicommons
Aslan: "He said he was going to this new war against Russia."
Aslan Malsagov is from the Chechen village of Vedeno. In his youth, he served in the Soviet army in Ukraine, and he says he would have stayed there, if it had not been for the war in Chechnya. In 1994, he went back to defend his homeland.
"My whole family died. My parents and my sister, at their home in Vedeno in 2000. A shell hit the house. My brothers fought together with me. They both died in different years, defending Grozny," he says.
My comrades knew: I'm with them to the end.
In 2001, after he was wounded, his wife helped Malsagov leave for Azerbaijan. A year later, he moved to Ukraine and stayed there.
In 2014, his longtime comrade-in-arms, Isa Munayev, the former commander of Chechen fighters in Grozny, came to visit him.
"I saw him standing, crying. We had not seen each other for so many years. We had been through so much together," Malsagov says. "He said he was going to join the new war against Russia. I wanted to go with him; we went to a base near the Dnipro. Muslim Cheberloevsky, the present commander of the Sheikh Mansur battalion, was there. I tore up and threw away my Russian passport in front of everyone, so my comrades knew: I'm with them to the end."
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