Taliban No Pasaran
Dmitry Balburov

The mother of Ruslan Odizhev, a Russian Taliban member, does not want her son to ever return home

Unhappy Ending

The eight Russian Taliban members, detained by U.S. military in Afghanistan last spring and placed in custody at the Guantanamo base, are eagerly awaited in their home country - both by law enforcement agencies, which charged them with mercenary soldiery, and by their families, who can only indulge in guesswork as to the circumstances behind their arrest or their holding conditions.

Yet Nina Odizheva, the mother of Ruslan Odizhev, a 29-year-old native of Kabardino-Balkaria, does not want her son to return to Russia. In fact, she keeps writing letters to the U.S. ambassador asking him not to extradite Ruslan.

Nina Odizheva always wears a hijab (a Muslim head scarf) and tries to follow all Sharia regulations. She says that she did not adopt Islam until three years ago, when her son's odyssey began. We are drinking tea with jam in her modest two-room apartment in the city of Nalchik.

"Why do you think that news of Ruslan Odizhev came later than of the other Russian Taliban members?"

"Maybe because Ruslan did not fight, was not captured carrying arms, and so no particular interest was taken in him."

On November 6, 2002, Nina received a phone call from the city prosecutor's office telling her that Ruslan had turned out to be a member of the Afghan Taliban. It was like a bolt out of the blue: Nina had had no information about her son for 18 months. An investigator said that Ruslan had been identified on Cuba among imprisoned Taliban members, and showed her some interrogation records. A couple of days later Nina had a nervous breakdown and was taken to the hospital.

Climax

Nina Odizheva shows me a bundle of documents, including the medical records on Ruslan's chronic condition and a forensic examination report testifying to bodily injuries inflicted on Ruslan by "persons unknown" in May 2000. Also, replies from the Federal Security Service (FSB) Administration for the Minvody district and the Kabardino-Balkar Prosecutor's Office. Prosecutor D.N. Shogenova writes: "Your son, R.A. Odizhev, on May 3, 2000, was detained by FSB officers on suspicion of committing a crime"; while A.M. Fedorov, acting head of the FSB Administration for Minvody, notes that "FSB officers did not detain Odizhev, nor was Odizhev interrogated by FSB investigators."

In the evening of May 3, 2000, four hefty men came for Odizhev. They called him out of his apartment, overpowered him, pushed him into their car, and took him away in an unknown direction. His mother, together with his friend, Anzor Astemirov, tried to help, but one of the men was holding the door.

Then Nina called the police. A police patrol that arrived at the scene said that Ruslan had been taken by FSB officers.

As she recalls this, Nina trembles visibly. She does not cry, but she is clearly angry:

"It was not a detention, but a real abduction. They broke in, showed no IDs, offered no explanation, but started beating him at once: I could hear through the door Ruslan begging them not to beat him."

Ruslan was not released until mid-May. He had been beaten severely and was in a state of depression. He said that he was first taken to a forest where they threatened to sell him into Chechen slavery. Then he was sent to a pre-trial detention center in Kislovodsk, where he was subjected to interrogation under what amounted to torture. This is a version of Ruslan's account from his friend, Anzor Astemirov.

"So they pretended to be gangsters?"

"Looks like they wanted first to break him."

The formal charge was alleged involvement in the Achimez Gochiyaev group [that blew up the buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk]. In the forest, they questioned him about Musa Mukozhev, the imam of the village of Volny Aul: Police believed that the village was a breeding pool of Wahhabism in Kabardino-Balkaria.

It was his mother who insisted that Ruslan leave Kabardino-Balkaria as soon as he was released from the detention center. She thought that now law enforcement agencies would either send him to prison for a long time or kill him. "Get out of here, it doesn't matter where you go, and be happy, only don't let me know where you are, or I am not sure I will be able to keep it a secret," she said. In June 2000, Ruslan went away with just a plastic bag with his personal belongings.

Action

Ruslan Odizhev was a person well known in the republic's Muslim circles. After his detention in Kislovodsk, he went to an Islamic college in Zelenograd and was closely associated with Nafigullah Ashirov, the mufti of the Asian part of Russia. Then, according to Odizhev's friends, the fugitive was spotted in Tehran, from where he most likely moved to Afghanistan.

All of these connections - with Ashirov, Mukozhev, and other Islamic leaders - became possible because Odizhev was considered to be one of the best educated Muslims in Kabardino-Balkaria. In the 1990s, he had taken a course in religious ideology at Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh.

Riding the wave of interest in Islam in the Caucasus, Odizhev soon became a respected figure, hosting discussions and giving lectures at the local university.

Ruslan Odizhev's authority among the young Muslims stemmed not only from his training in Saudi Arabia but also the fact that he was a veteran of the war in Abkhazia. The latter circumstance strengthened the suspicions of the secret services about his involvement in terrorist activity as part of the Gochiyaev gang. Especially considering that Odizhev had served in the Confederation of Caucasus Peoples' Kabardin Battalion, acquiring combat engineering and mine-warfare skills.

It was most likely his mother who influenced his decision to help the Abkhaz at the time. Nina Odizheva was an activist in the Congress of the Kabardin People that, among other public organizations, was sending volunteers to the war.

Now she realizes that the war with Georgia in fact decided her son's fate. It was there that he learned to handle explosives, gaining combat experience, and seriously damaging his health (the barge that his platoon was on, sank, and Ruslan had to spend several hours in ice-cold water); as a result, he had to discontinue his studies in Riyadh. Most important, though, he became a suspicious person for law enforcement agencies and security services in Kabardino-Balkaria itself.

"How justified are Nina Odizheva's concerns about her son's fate?" I asked the Prosecutor General's Office for the North Caucasus. All cases of Russian Taliban members are handled by investigator Igor Tkachev, who has been to Guantanamo. According to him, Ruslan Odizhev is facing charges under three provisions of the RF Criminal Code: participation in a criminal group (the Taliban movement), mercenary soldiery, and illegal border crossing. He is not facing any charges of possible crimes he may have committed in Russia or the CIS.

"So there are no charges of participation in combat operations in Abkhazia while suspicions of his involvement with the Gochiyaev group have been dropped?"

"There is some evidence, but it is being investigated right now."

"His mother is worried that after extradition Ruslan Odizhev could have other crimes nailed on him."

"She should have worried earlier - before he engaged in illegal activity."

Nina Odizheva often plays TV footage of Russian Taliban members on her VCR. There has been no mention of her son in any programs shown on federal or local television. But there is one frame that she puts on pause control, peering into it with a magnifying glass: Two servicemen are leading a prisoner in red garb.

"Ruslan. That's his gait, the shape of his head, the curve of his neck," Nina says. Then, for the umpteenth time, she rereads the four letters and two postcards with an arcane return address: 160 Camp X-Ray, Washington, DC 20353 USA. Her son writes, in his February 21 letter:

"I am studying a little; there are plenty of books in Arabic, Russian and English: I can already speak English. The conditions are good: There are three meals a day and two to three medical checkups a day - like in a sanitarium. We are not getting any news: We just sit around, telling each other our night dreams. Halyal food (fit to be eaten according to the ceremonial laws of Islam. - Ed.) - mainly fish. Walks and showers are twice a week. Recently we were taken to a hospital to be checked for TB: Thank Allah, they found no trace of it. Every day is just like any other day, but it is exciting all the same: You can meet people from all over the world here."

Prologue

Here is one family secret. Of course I have Nina Odizheva's permission to reveal it. She divorced Ruslan's father, Anatoly Seleznev, more than 20 years ago; Anatoly died several years ago. He was an alcoholic. Before leaving school, Ruslan's family name was Seleznev. He was afraid that he would not be admitted to an Islamic university with a Russian surname, and so he became Odizhev.

"Anatoly was a very good and kind man; he loved me and our children: I also have a daughter. We also loved him. When we lived in Prokhladny, all neighbors saw us as a model family. When he grew up a little, Ruslan began to resent his father's endless drinking binges. That must have forever put him off alcohol and this kind of lifestyle. That must be why he chose Islam. My only dream now is that any Muslim country could grant Ruslan asylum. Even if I never see him again."