Saturday, 9 April 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 7- Makhachkala to Kizilyurt

A car bomb had ripped into the local FSB building two days before.

We turned up at the Dagestan police headquarters on a sunny morning and went to meet a couple of the officers there. The sea breeze wafting in from the Caspian makes Makhachkala's air fresher than Grozny's. My colleague remarked that I may be have been the first Brit ever to enter the police HQ. The secretary of some apparently important policeman spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make us feel they were doing us a huge favour and listing how little they would let us see. In that Caucasus bureaucrat way she was reasonable but infuriatingly useless at the same time. We expected the usual pattern, a lot of promises leading to a long wait and no filming or interview at the end of it.

When our two officers walked in, both besuited and admittedly looking like experienced professionals on the outside, we could tell instantly they had not thought for a second about our coming. One left to check whether they could even let us go anywhere interesting at all while the other and the secretary smoked and relaxed. A policewoman sauntered in, and sauntered out again when she saw the secretary was busy. "My friend," remarked the secretary to the policeman leant against the wall behind her chair. We waited. He left. We waited more. Eventually a man came and showed out the cameraman and assistant to film the police building. At least we'd have their Romanesque pillared turquoise HQ on tape.

They said they would take us to Kizilyurt, a town to the west whose police station was attacked two days before, wounding seven police officers. More waiting. Then suddenly we were off, trotting out onto the noisy, hectic streets of Makhachkala. We passed a checkpoint to the police HQ, attacked regularly with automatic weapons, even once by a man on a bicycle with an rocket propelled grenade in his backpack. Police work here is certainly dangerous. Though many accuse the police here of brutality, they take it as well as dish it out.

The two plain clothes officers drove us out in a typical lada, busily speaking a mixture of one of the local dialects and Russian. There is no real Dagestani language, like there is Chechen or Ingush. This territory mixes a lot of different ethnicities, their customs and their languages. All the signs are in Russian, but the gabble on the streets is a patchwork of convenience.

The Sunday before there had been local elections here. Unsurprisingly Putin's party, United Russia won 66% of the vote. 40% of people supposedly voted, reflecting people’s response to the official encouragement to place one's ballot. Many people here are disenchanted with what they see as a sham of an electoral process. Who knows whether this vote was rigged or only United Russia supporters were pressured to vote. But the next opposition party was far behind.

After an hour’s drive we arrived at the town of Kizilyurt. In one of the central streets we saw the aftermath of the attack. Huge chucks have been gauged from the walls of the local FSB (Federal Security Service) building and the roof so badly damaged it was having to be replaced. Around it a police building, a house and a shop had had their windows blasted out and were blackened by fire. Pieces of glass and metal still littered the pavement.

One of the bullets had passed straight through the front door,
whizzed past the face of a policeman behind and hit the far wall

The commander of the local police came to greet us. Askhabali Zairbekov was a busy man with a grey crew cut and sharp eyes. He spoke fast and shouted a lot, but smiled and laughed equally quickly. "It’s virtually a partisan war here," he said. I could see what he meant stood in front of the bomb blast. We left a crane in the street lifting concrete blocks to reinforce the approaches to the building and went inside. In his office we watched the CCTV footage of the attack. A bomb in a second car left behind was deliberately timed to explode five minutes after the policemen ran out in response to the gunfire from the first car which sped off. Mr Zairbekov was keen to point out that his men ran straight out even though they were running into the path of the bullets. He emphasised, “they’re not cowards.”

 Local police commander Askhabali Zairbekov surveys the damage and
shouts at police and workers to reinforce the station.

Speaking to locals we heard of their anger at the disruption of everyday life. At the local train station one policeman, Akhmed Magomedov, told us the town was ringed with villages whose inhabitants support the hardline Wahhabi form of Islam, and those who wanted to launch attacks. "They proclaim they are doing the work of Allah but most of our policemen are Muslims too,” he adds.

He joined the police at 21. Then it was just a job. Now, eight years later, he's more thoughtful. He says that someone with brains would set off on a secular track, making money for themselves and their family. Those who are idiots do nothing with their talents and fall for the promise of religion which offers them paradise. "How do you fight people who don't value their own lives?" he says with a shrug.

Akhmed Magomedov talking to local taxi drivers in the market.

As the sun set over Kizilyurt, it didn't seem a hopeless or brooding place. It felt like a town trying to bustle and busy its way along, all the time pestered by vicious and hurtful setbacks. The people here are in a difficult situation. Their response is summed nicely by Akhmed himself. "What to do," he says, "if I didn't do it who would?"

Outside the station they were reinforcing the barricades
so the same thing couldn't happen again.

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