When Hamzat Baymuradov killed the local police chief, his brothers and cousins stopped leaving their homes. Some even left the village, without saying goodbye or hinting where they might be found.
Looking out from behind a fence at the cars belonging to the Baymuradov family, loaded down with all of their worldly possessions, neighbours from the Chechen rural locality of Avtury weren’t all that surprised. They knew that the recent killing of the head of police would have to be paid for – in blood. It didn’t matter that the murderer, Hamzat, was shot during his escape, absolving his family from any accountability. This would have been the old way, in line with the sacred obligations of revenge decided by councils of elders, people who knew about life and customs; the learned ones, pious and respected, the sort whose word no one would dare challenge. This is how it might have been once upon a time. But not any more. These days, the question of what is and what isn’t bound by the obligations of ancestral vengeance is decided (just like all other matters) by Chechnya’s young, impetuous president and his hangers-on. In their opinion, conflict resolution has little to do with ancient traditions or justice. Instead, it comes down to the simple question of retaliation. Especially when it involves someone from their ruling clique.
Abubakar Ustarkhanov, the head of the Avtury police, was a member of this clique. His death would have to result in the punishment of not only his murderer, but also the murderer’s family. After Hamzat Baymuradov was found and killed, policemen dumped his bullet-riddled corpse in the village square, so that everyone would know the brutal consequences of challenging their authority. They didn’t hand the body over to the family, nor did they allow it to be buried in the cemetery. Instead, they dumped it in an unmarked grave at an unspecified location – a fate usually reserved for the worst sorts of criminals under Russian law.
His family had every reason to expect further repercussions. Especially since news had spread around Avtury that the murder of the police chief – leaving five children orphaned – could be dealt with in only one way: under the obligations of bloody ancestral revenge.
* * *
“It’s not about retaliation, or even about people murdering each other for generations, but actually about them respecting each other and living side by side in peace and harmony” said Isa Yamadayev, a leader of the elders in the nearby village of Chiri-Yurt, and a host during one of my journalistic trips to Chechnya. He claimed that it was men like him who – in accordance with customary Caucasian law – had the authority to decide who could seek revenge against those who harmed or dishonoured them and their families, and when they were obliged to do so.
“Murder must be punished by death, and those related to the victim have the right to do the punishing. If it is not possible to kill the killer, it is acceptable to choose one of their cousins instead. And if revenge cannot be enacted today, it can wait a day, a year, a decade, a century. You may kill the brother, son, grandson, great-grandson. But this is not about simple tit-for-tat retaliation. If that was the case, we would have all been dead by now. After all, we’re not savages. It is about justice, and above all, respect. To live in disgrace is a thing worse than dying. Affronts are never forgotten and debts must be paid. That is our law and there is none better. Anyone who chooses to live among us has to follow it. And anyone who fails to follow our laws, can no longer be one of us.”
He became animated when I said that the Pashtun of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the Baloch scattered between Pakistan and Iran, live in accordance with similar laws. Mullah Sher Mohammad Stanikzai, one of the leaders of the Afghan Taliban, once explained to me the rules governing ancestral revenge. He even compared them to the nuclear bomb, claiming that no one built such weapons to actually unleash them upon their enemies and kill thousands of innocent people. Rather, he suggested that they were built to frighten opponents; the sheer scale of possible retribution acts to dissuade rivals from resorting to violence. “If, knowing that your son could pay for a crime committed by some distant cousin with his life, would you not do everything in your power to save them?” asked Stanikzai, who himself came from the Pashtun bloodline. “Would you not do everything to stop those distant cousins from committing atrocities? Among my tribes, no one will take such a risk, none of our families. They will watch their own, making sure they do not commit any crimes and thereby bring disaster upon their clan.”
Isa, furious at having been compared to the Pashtuns and Baloch, cut me off. “They are savages, barbarians! We are civilized people, like the Svans from Georgia, Circassians, Dagestani Avars, Kumyks, Lakhovs and our brothers the Ingush. They live like we do.” He also proudly explained a difference between Caucasian ancestral revenge and the customs of those in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Those who fail to follow Caucasian law run the risk of being disgraced and excluded from their community. But if the victim of a crime accepts an apology, some form of compensation and forgives the perpetrator for the loss caused, they will be admired for their graciousness. He also stressed that before the elders vote on an individual’s right to seek revenge, they do everything possible to attempt reconciliation between the relatives of the killer and the victim’s family. They mediate during talks and bargaining, agreeing the size and nature of the compensation.
“It is of greatest importance that permission to seek vengeance is only given by the elders. No one has the right to seek retribution all by themselves,” he stressed.
* * *
Historically, honour codes – of which ancestral retribution was only one of many commandments, including hospitality, solidarity and equality – tended to be followed in distant lands, where the powers of kings, shahs, presidents and parliaments did not reach. Places where officials, policemen and judges did not venture and the only way of ensuring justice was done (as well as maintaining peace, order and communal cohesion) was through laws made sacred by tradition and passed down from generation to generation. The elders were the custodians, the guardians of these laws. Tribal, traditional, village elders. In the Caucasus, the Hindu Kush and the Balkans; in Sicily, Corsica and Scotland.
The elders and their authority were always the prime target (and the first casualty) of those wanting to wage war on the old ways; those trying to establish new orders. Elder councils would be attacked by democrats, liberals, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries – groups who treated the past simply as a relic that hampered progress. In Afghanistan, during a war that has lasted for almost half a century, ancestral elders have been under assault from democrats, communists, the Taliban, and liberals. In the Caucasus, it was not only the Saint Petersburg tsars who objected to ancestral vengeance and other customary laws, but also the Moscow Bolsheviks. Under the Bolsheviks, familial revenge was punished with execution by firing squad, and refusal to accept compensation from a murderer carried a two-year prison sentence. This was nothing new to the elders though. 200 years ago, Imam Shamil himself was close to setting up an independent Muslim state in the Caucasus, ruled by the laws of the Koran. Shamil decreed that murder could only be avenged by punishing the murderer, not by retribution against members of their family. He also tried to convince the highlanders that compensation was a better way of settling accounts than bloodshed.
After the fall and collapse of the Russian empire over 100 years later, Chechnya dared to dream of independence. Its civic and Muslim leaders tried to replace its secular law with one based on the Koran and copied – word for word – Sudan’s Criminal Code, which is based on Sharia law. Only later did they think about how to convert camels (used in Sudan as compensation for murder) into the cows, sheep and canisters of petrol that are much easier to come by in the Caucasus. While dealing with a case involving a deadly traffic accident, a certain judge announced during sentencing that from then on, two heifers would be the equivalent of one camel.
* * *
Isa Yamadayev was one of Chiri-Yurt’s elders. This was not because he had been born into a prominent family or because of personal piety, but thanks to his talent for ingenuity and leadership, which became apparent – likely surprising him as much as anyone else – during the war. If it hadn’t been for the troubled days of battle and historical turmoil in the Caucasus, he would have probably never risen to the rank he managed to attain.
Russian invasions, assaults and persecutions; the Bolshevik-imposed processes of Russification and denationalization; Stalin’s deportations of all Chechens and Ingush from the Caucasus to Siberia and Central Asia; and finally new wars over independence. All of this decimated the Caucasus highlander population and took away the old leaders, their elders. Towards the end of the 20th century, Chechens were faced with the real threat of actual extinction, a repeat of the tragedy that had already befallen the Circassians. In order to survive as a nation and remain in the Caucasus, they gave up on their struggle for freedom. Eventually, the Chechen leaders came up with the idea (keenly adopted by Moscow) to split Chechnya in half. The larger part (the plains) would be handed over to Russia, while any Chechens who did not want to live under Russian rule would have a reservation set up in the high mountains. There, no one would interfere in their affairs and they could live in accordance with their customs and laws, including the law of ancestral revenge.
* * *
Isa left the Caucasus for France and lives with his sons, daughters-in-law and grandsons near Paris. I think he would be heartbroken to hear that the old Chechen customs have been abandoned, and furious to learn that his people today make their own decisions about what sort of vengeance they will seek and against whom. What’s more, they declare vendettas against those who are not Chechen, who maybe don’t even come from the Caucasus; people who should have nothing at all to do with the laws of ancestral justice. The elders are no longer listened to. It’s not even easy to find them, seeing as most of them are now scattered across the globe. Or else are simply too scared to make their presence known, just in case they themselves become the subject of vengeful attacks.
All that happens in Chechnya today – be it of major or minor importance – is the work of its president Ramzan Kadyrov, a man who owes his title and unlimited power to Russia. Not so long ago, the Russians gave him a free hand and a bunch of blank cheques, counting on his ability to suppress the Chechen rebels. The young Kadyrov did just that and, being in their debt, continues to faithfully guard Moscow’s interests in the Caucasus, always willing to do their dirty work. Investigations into most political murders and assassinations in Russia lead, sooner or later, to Chechnya. Kadyrov’s soldiers also take part in Russia’s war games. They fought in Georgia in 2008, as well as in Ukraine and Syria.
In order to make his government more legitimate in the eyes of his fellow countryfolk, he plays the role of providential statesman – an advocate of Islam and its conservative religious customs, and above all, an oracle in all matters of Caucasus tradition.
Citing the laws and obligations of ancestral revenge, he applied the rule of collective responsibility to the relatives of partisan rebel leaders during the war. He chased whole families from their homes and ordered their empty dwellings to be destroyed, their fields and orchards burnt and ploughed over. The relatives of the Mujahideen were imprisoned and subjected to torture, until their cousins gave up their highland guerrilla positions, surrendered their arms and went over to Kadyrov’s side.
The Chechen president still likes to make use of ancestral retribution. He uses it to persecute the families of partisans who remained in their highland hideaways – his powerful rivals – and also as a way of frightening his subjects. Isa would probably say that Kadyrov’s use of ancestral revenge has nothing to do with justice or honour. It is about mere retaliation – and a handy political weapon.
* * *
Although he has tamed and modified it to suit his needs, the Chechen president is still afraid of ancestral vengeance himself. The brothers Yamadayev – who come from the town of Gudermes and belong to the Benoy, the largest Chechen tejp (tribal clan) – have sworn to use it against him. During the first war of independence (1994–1996), they fought against Russia, together with the Kadyrovs. In the second war of independence (1999–2009), they switched allegiances and went over to the Russian side, as did the Kadyrovs. Both family clans counted on being rewarded by the Kremlin by being asked to govern Chechnya. Moscow bet on the Kadyrovs.
The Yamadayev brothers didn’t give up on their dreams of power. Ramzan Kadyrov took control of the capital Grozny, but after his father was assassinated in a bomb attack, he knew that he would have to get rid of his rivals before they wrestled what power he had away from him. The first of the Yamadayev brothers, Dzebrail, died during a hit in 2003. Five years later, unknown assailants killed the eldest brother Ruslan in the centre of Moscow (at the time, he was a deputy in the Duma). This was when the Yamadayev clan swore ancestral revenge against Kadyrov. A year later in Dubai, another Yamadayev brother, Sulim, was killed in yet another assassination. A few weeks later, there was a failed attempt on the third brother Isa, who, out of fears for his safety, instantly left the Caucasus for Dubai. It was Isa who announced that his brothers had been killed on Kadyrov’s orders. In the name of his two surviving brothers, Badruddin and Jamaluddin – as well as his own and the rest of his clan – he promised to use the law of ancestral vengeance to inflict a bloody punishment upon the president.
The Yamadayevs have already tried to exact their revenge a couple of times. And though their plans have, to date, not succeeded, the president knows that they will not rest and more attempts are on the way. They have both the reason and the right to seek revenge. Any elder council would agree. If, of course, there were any such councils left to ask.
Translated from the Polish by Marek Kazmierski
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