Far-away war brought home

SUN JOURNAL

Chechnya: The fighting in Russia's breakaway republic has divided Chechens living in Jordan.

March 04, 2002|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ZARQA, Jordan -- When the wounded Chechen fighters arrived in this desert kingdom, everything changed for Younis Ashab.

In 1994, as the first Chechen war against Russia was beginning, television reports showed the young rebels in a hospital in Amman. Seventy rebels injured in the breakaway republic's revolt had been brought to Jordan by an Islamic charity.

They inspired Ashab, a 53-year-old Quranic judge. He sought out the young fighters, married off his daughter to one and even ended up moving to Chechnya for a while.

"They are our people, and they speak our language," he says. "We welcomed them and supported them through every means we could."

Ashab is one of 8,000 ethnic Chechens living in this Middle Eastern nation. A minority in a sea of Arabs, Jordan's Chechens have retained their language and customs over more than a century since their ancestors first fled czarist repression in the Caucasus.

The fighting in Russia's rebellious south has divided Chechens here as it divides their kin at home. Some blame Chechen leaders for provoking Russian brutality. Some support the cause by collecting money and lobbying foreign governments. Some send their sons to fight.

Chechens first came to Jordan from 1895 to 1905, settling in the towns of Zarqa, Sweileh, Azraq Janoobi and Sukhna. Like Jordan's 80,000 Circassians, who began fleeing Russia's southward expansion in 1879, the historically Muslim peoples of the Caucasus found a home among fellow Muslims in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Chechens retained their language and customs. But over time, they became Jordanians, serving as police officers, career army officers and government ministers. By law, one of Jordan's 80 elected parliamentary seats is reserved for Chechens.

"The purest Chechen language is spoken in Jordan," insists Abdul Baki-Jamu, 75, an ethnic Chechen who has served as a senator and Cabinet minister during his 45 years in politics. "We've kept the culture and traditions. I've been in Chechnya itself, and the Chechen language they speak has been mixed with Russian words."

Baki-Jamu considers the rebellion against Moscow a hopeless cause. He delivered a series of lectures in Chechnya in 1991, and he said he urged separatists not to seek independence. "I advised [Chechen leader Dzhokhar] Dudayev and the rest of the leadership not to get involved in any war. I said, `You will be destroyed, and you will go backward 100 years, and it will take you 100 years to recover.' But they didn't listen."

Yet many Jordanian Chechens say Baki-Jamu's conservatism is out of touch. Bader Al-Deen Izzedeen Bino Shishani is a Jordanian professor who serves as the roving ambassador for Chechnya's rebel leadership (the surname Shishani, shared by most Chechens in Jordan, is the Arabic word for Chechen). He has traveled the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco, raising what he estimates to be $2 million in "humanitarian aid" for Chechnya.

Asked whether the money buys weapons for the rebels, Bader Shishani says no. His brother, Rifat Shishani, adds: "Weapons [aren't] what they really need anyway because they can capture them or buy them from the Russians."

Bader Shishani persuaded Lal Malika, the Moroccan king's sister, to donate a $250,000 field hospital. It still sits in Rabat; Malika hasn't figured out how to get it to Chechnya amid the fighting. Shishani helps bring wounded soldiers and civilians to be fitted with prostheses in Jordan. He is trying to find a world body that will try Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as a war criminal.

To cover his costs and raise money, Bader Shishani sells a $3 tape that recounts Chechen history. The cover urges listeners to donate to the Waqfu'l Waqifin Foundation "to assist the people of Chechnya."

The tape opens with the sounds of automatic weapons and mortar fire. A narrator says in English: "From the burning ruins of Grozny came what may be a final, heartbreaking message from its Chechen defenders, asking Muslims around the world not to forget the ordeal of its brothers in Chechnya, fighting the jihad holy war against Russian oppression. In the words of one combat soldier, he had never seen anything that equals the heroism and boundless heroism of the Chechen mujahedeen."

Putin has blamed foreign "terrorists" for joining the battle against Russia, but despite the tape's talk of holy war, Bader Shishani insists that he doesn't recruit fighters abroad. The foreign guerrillas are mainly ethnic Arabs who subscribe to the strict Wahhabi branch of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

"Any of these people who comes to me to volunteer to fight, I report them to the Jordanian authorities, simply due to the fact that they do more harm than good," Bader Shishani says.

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