Andre Kamenshikov and Umar Khamzatovich, 2008

Andre Kamenshikov and Umar Khamzatovich Interview Moscow May 18, 2008
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

Metta Spencer: I am interviewing Andre and Umar about their work in the Caucasus.

Andre Kamenshikov: Umar works mainly in Dagestan and I work in many other areas. There are many different nationalities in Dagestan. He is a Chechen.

MS: You are working with the police to build trust?

AK: Yes. There is a gap between the police force and other organizations that are supposed to maintain law and order and, on the other hand, many young people. We have been providing police officers with various kinds of assistance, for example, to help them organize sports events for youth. We provide uniforms and soccer balls – things like that – which will enable them, in their own name, not ours, to organize events in their own villages. That’s a tool to develop trust between these groups.

Also we made up brochures describing the various benefits that different individuals are entitled to. Almost every person is entitled to some benefits because of belonging to a specific group, such as a union or because you were born in exile in the last century – there are all sorts of different categories. So there was a need to get information to the public about their possible entitlements. Rather than giving it to them directly ourselves, we give it to them through the local police officer, again as a tool of developing trust between the public and the police. Usually when a police officer comes to your home, there’s some problem. Maybe he will say that your son is in trouble or something, but when the policeman arrives with this useful brochure, it changes people’s perception of him. The local police officer in a village has a duty to communicate with people, but because of the tense situation, they are often being called into some other activities, such as searching for terrorists, rather than doing their direct work on their communities.

MS: And what about these posters that you put out?

UK: The idea is that the police officers took an oath when they assumed their jobs ten or fifteen years ago, but they tend to forget about the purposes they are supposed to serve and the rules they are supposed to observe. For a very small amount of money, we printed up posters to put on their walls as a reminder of that they are supposed to be doing. Usually the only things that were hanging on their wall were the photographs of different outlaws they are hunting. Now they have this nice poster with big letters that you can read from a distance. It may mobilize people a little bit when they see that.

MS: Do they actually put them up on their walls?

UK: Oh, yes. They do.

MS: You mention that they are often pursuing terrorists. Is that still a big concern? I don’t hear much about terrorist activities these days anywhere in Russia.

UK: Twenty years ago in Soviet times, if there was some serious criminal offense, you could send a group of five police officers to investigate and capture the offenders. They might get some small financial benefit, such as a bonus. Sometimes even the guy’s own parents would take him in to the police. But today when there is a situation – and it might not even be a genuine terrorist; it might just be a confused person – they make it into a huge operation. There’s the military involved, and it’s on TV. It gets played up. They surround the house and destroy it. And after all that they miss the guy. He gets away. He becomes a hero – something he never dreamed about, so it’s often in the interests of the terrorists themselves.

MS: I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said “Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.” That’s what they want most. [We laugh.]

So now you are working in Chechnya and Dagestan, training people to become small business owners?

UK: Yes, there’s training of the trainers. Then training in the districts, and obtaining seed money for implementation. We use a program developed by the International Labour Organization called “Starting a Third World Business.” It has eleven modules, which have been adapted to the conditions of the North Caucasus. We specifically engage representatives of these socially vulnerable groups, which are often the breeding grounds for terrorists.

MS: It’s sort of how-to-run-a-business training for beginners?

UK: Yes. Some of them have had some experience, others not. But they are all from vulnerable groups who don’t have a proper education to function in business.

MS: What about the funds to set up a business? Is there anything like a grameen bank available?

UK: Unfortunately, no. We hope to get seed money for, say, forty small projects. But all that we can do is to show a model, and demonstrate how these things can work. If we show that it is effective, the government may take a more active stand in such matters.

MS: How does the government relate to what you’re doing? Do they try to interfere or block it?

UK: They have known us for many years and they see the positive results of what we are doing. They don’t try to control us. But I should say that this is generally an exception today. We keep them informed about what we are doing.

MS: Andre, when we were in touch last there was a war going on in Chechnya and we were worried about your safety because you kept going there even when it was dangerous. What has happened to you since then?

AK: Well, I was doing some humanitarian work during the war. Just about everything I did was in terms of capacity-building. If you want war stories you have to ask Umar here.

MS: Okay.I understand you were doing work with refugees, Umar.

AK: You should find someone who will sit with you and Umar for about three days because it can’t be summarized.

UK: Before the war I was a businessman. I was trained as an agronomist. On the day the war began I opened up a headquarters to deal with refugees. I am a Chechen living in Dagestan. There is a national council of Dagestan Chechens, for there were about 106,000 Chechens living in Dagestan. Our main purpose was to help refugees and present information about their situation to international humanitarian organizations. When the war began Chechens immediately fled from Grozny to live with their relatives but the Russian population didn’t have such options, so they had to cope with bringing out the Russian population because they were in a situation that was almost impossible. The Chechens felt that if the Russians leave Grozny, the bombing would intensify. They thought that but in my opinion the bombing would remain the same even if there were five times as many Russians there. So every day we would send 15 to 20 buses to Grozny to bring people out. It was 80 kilometers from Grozny to my centre.

Then I was involved in negotiating the release of prisoners of war. Mainly it was Russian servicemen who were held by the Chechens.

MS: Not the other way around?

UK: That was later. The Chechens that were released were not actually fighters. Sometimes people were arrested for, say, drugs or because they supposedly found bullets in their pockets. You know when searching someone it is easy to find bullets in their pocket. Usually it was cases like that. During the two military conflicts I was able to secure the release of 251 persons, of whom 136 were servicemen. The rest were civilians, including six who were representatives of humanitarian organizations: the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

Also, in 1996 there was an attack on a hospital in the village of Kizlyar – one of these big hostage crises. I was involved in the negotiations. Finally they agreed on the release of about 2000 hostages. Only two of the hostages from the hospital were killed.

MS: That’s not the Buddenovsk event?

UK: That was the next one. That was the year afterward. It was almost a copycat event. January 9, 1996. But it was a different outcome because in Buddenovsk, the fighters were eventually released. In Kislyar, just as the buses were entering Chechnya, they were attacked, so they went to a neighboring village, where there was a four-day-long military operation, as a result of which quite a few people were killed on both sides. The core group of the hostage-takers was able to escape eventually, and even some of the hostages—some of the military people they had taken.

MS: And you were trying to negotiate an end to that?

AK: He was involved in negotiating when the first attack happened in the hospital. Then he was in the bus that was attacked by helicopters. This was a bus that contained some of the fighters, some of the hostages going into Chechnya. There was this agreement that they would be allowed safe passage, but in fact the Russians had a plan to surround them once they were out of the hospital and attack them. It was poorly organized. They were going to surround the buses in the field, but when they attacked, the buses just turned around and headed for a neighboring village. They took a defensive position there and held out for four days with the hostages. This was one of the biggest failures of the federal ________. They were surrounded for four days. There was a huge military operations and as a result the group escaped anyway.

MS: The crisis a year later wasn’t anything to celebrate.

Audio file

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See also
Andre Kamenshikov (Nonviolence International), 2002

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books