Adallo Aliyev has been ostracised for his alleged sympathies with rebel leaders in the 1990s

Dagestan, a province in Russia's volatile North Caucasus, has been the scene of a low-level insurgency, ethnic tensions and deadly attacks since the 1990s.

According to the International Crisis Group, Shariat Jamaat, an armed Islamist organisation, is responsible for much of the violence. 

They are a wing of a united organisation called the Caucasian Front established in  2005 and fighting to create an emirate throughout the North Caucasus.

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In Dagestan, the shadow of violence and lawlessness has created the ideal breeding ground for organised crime. 

Oil and caviar mafias reportedly flourish. Firearms are ubiquitous and assassinations are a regular occurrence. The province is also plagued by inter-ethnic disputes. 

The region is made up of seven main ethnic groupings, with only seven per cent of the population ethnic Russians. Striking a balance is difficult, but Moscow manages to hold on to power via the regional authorities under the leadership of Mukhu Aliyev, Dagestan's president. 

In the eyes of the Kremlin, separatist movements stemming from Chechnya, Dagestan's neighbour and the scene of two brutal wars starting in the 1990s, is the route of instability in the North Caucasus. 

In recent years suicide bombings, armed attacks on the authorities and the bloody counter-insurgency have left people caught in the crossfire and increasingly desperate.

Insurgency 'idealogue'

We went to meet someone who has seen it all first hand - a man once hailed as a patriot by the state but later condemned and ostracised for his alleged sympathies with the rebel fighters.

Adallo Aliyev has been called an "ideologue", even the "spiritual conscience" of the insurgency and while he claims he has never picked up a gun to fight, he possesses an unprecedented insight into the minds and motivations of the country's most notorious rebel leaders.

"In the 1990's Aliyev rubbed shoulders with a catalogue of rebel commanders, men Moscow spent millions trying to kill, leaders blamed by Moscow for sparking two wars of independence in Chechnya"

Neave Barker

It's a dismal evening. Dark rain clouds hang oppressively over Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. In the gloom we drive along pot-holed roads to a crumbling but well-appointed apartment overlooking the murky waters of the Caspian Sea. 

It's early evening and the call to prayer echoes across the city. When we arrive at the 77-year old's apartment he is hunched over on the floor of his dark study, deep in prayer.

Aliyev is the author of more than 30 books in the Avarian, Russian and Turkish languages.

His poetry is regarded as some of the finest in the Caucasus and even inspired Dagestan's national anthem. 

But his works are no longer studied in schools, and the poet's verses were deleted from all textbooks in 1999. At the republic's radio audio-library all recordings of the poet's songs have been erased.

In the 1990s Aliyev rubbed shoulders with a catalogue of rebel commanders, men Moscow spent millions trying to kill, leaders blamed by Moscow for sparking two wars of independence in Chechnya, the legacy of which is still felt across the entire region. All of Aliyev's former friends are now dead, killed in a series of special operations.

"They all sat on the sofa where you are now," he says.

Chechen poet

He recalls the time when Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first president of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (now divided into Chechnya and the Republic of Ingushetia), came to visit.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dudayev and his supporters overthrew the communist leadership in the region. After a controversial referendum, Dudayev was confirmed president, unilaterally declaring independence from the Soviet Union.

"They were all good men, well educated, wise, respectful, modest ... If I could find any more adjectives then I would"

Adallo Aliyev

Russia refused to recognise the republic's sovereignty and by December 1994 the Russians began bombing Grozny. The first Chechen war had started. 

Jihad was declared on Russia by the Dudayev-appointed Mufti of Ichkeria, Akmed Kadyrov, father of current Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. When the call to arms was made, foreign fighters began pouring into the republic from neighbouring North Caucasian republics, many from Dagestan.

Dudayev was eventually killed in 1996 when two laser-guided missiles locked on to his satellite phone.

"He loved to write poetry and his wife was a very good artist," Aliyev tells us.

"We never talked about politics. The conversation was dominated by literature and culture."

Dudayev's death was announced by Shamil Basayev, Dudayev's guerrilla commander and another close friend of our host.

Basayev became the supreme leader of the Mujahadeen forces of the Caucasus, the more radical wing of the Chechen insurgency.

He was responsible for a number of guerrilla attacks, most notoriously that of the Beslan seige, which led to the deaths of 385 people - most of them children. He was killed during a Russian counter-insurgency operation in 2007.

'Good men'

Aliyev is in full swing now happily stroking his long beard as he lists his former associates. His wife darts silently in and out of the room laden with trays of tea and sweet meats.

"I knew Maskhadov too," he says. Aslan Khalid Alieyevich Maskhadov was the third president of the Republic of Chechnya Ichkeria. He is credited with finishing the work Dudayev started, namely victory in the first Chechen war. 

Dagestan has seen deadly fighting between separatist fighters and state forces [Reuters]
In September and October 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Russia blamed on Chechen rebels were used by Moscow as a pretext for launching another conflict. At the start of the second Chechen war, Maskhadov returned to leading a guerrilla resistance against the Russian army, but within a year the Russians had seized the Chechen capital and established direct rule.

Like those who had led the bloody independence movement before him, Maskhadov was killed by Russian forces in northern Chechnya in 2005.

"They were all good men, well educated, wise, respectful, modest ... If I could find any more adjectives, then I would," Aliyev tells us.

The ghosts of Chechen separatists' failed bid for independence still haunt the poet. Counter-terrorism operations in the Caucasus are centuries old, he reminds us. 

The Turks, Cossacks and Bolsheviks all attempted to impose their own rule on the region and were all met with fierce resistance.

Ghosts of the past

"Can the current insurgency still be regarded a 'resistance' movement?" I ask.  Aliyev pauses in thought. He knows all too well how dangerous it is to give answers that could expose sympathies with today's fighters. A few years ago he was given an eight-year suspended sentence for having "rebel connections".

I question him again.

"You can only see the ground from a distance. In the same way it's difficult for us to see clearly what's happened most recently. Only time will judge Vladimir Putin and the Chechen rebels"

Adallo Aliyev

What motivates today's fighters? Is it the desire to impose sharia law in the Caucasus? Is it the hope of establishing an independent Islamic state? Or something else?

Aliyev purses his lips to answer. Suddenly all the lights in the apartment go out. We're in pitch darkness. The heavy rain has short-circuited the power. Within seconds Aliyev’s wife breezes in with a candle and puts it in front of her husband, the light flickering on his wrinkled face.

I ask the question again. What are the insurgents fighting for? Again he begins to form an answer, but before he can utter a word the phone rings loudly, startling us all. It's for Aliyev. When he returns he is in no mood for politics. It's time for a candlelit poetry session.

He launches into a verse about the ghosts of the past, ghosts that have the power to heal, ghosts that possess the "medicine of freedom".

His words reveal more about centuries of conflict than any political discussion, but the sad fact is that not one of the poet's ghosts, none of the catalogue of dead rebel fighters, had the power to heal wounds and bring peace to the Caucasus. 

The violent independence movement unleashed more violence; a bitter cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency, repression and resistance.

"I'm a proud person," Aliyev says. "Why after 100 years do Russians need to feed us? I'm ashamed they have been providing for us. I would rather eat my bread and live on my own.

"Face to face you can't see a face," he continues, quoting the Russian poet, Yesenin.

"You can only see the ground from a distance. In the same way it's difficult for us to see clearly what's happened most recently. Only time will judge Vladimir Putin [Russia's prime minister] and the Chechen rebels."

But the truth is history, and Russian state history at least, has already judged the rebels as criminals deserving nothing short of death.

Source: Al Jazeera