Chechen diaspora rallies

Supporters demonstrate in Jordan. And yesterday, Russia asked Iran to

Omar Shishani, a young Chechen who closely watches news of the Russian offensive in Chechnya, says: "I would do anything to go there to fight for our freedom."

But Mr. Shishani is far from the front lines. He is in Jordan. At 15,000 people, his is the second largest community of ethnic Chechens in the world. Instead of taking up arms - because "nobody can get in or out," he says - he works the Internet for the Chechen cause.

The Chechen community staged a demonstration in Amman late last week - held at bay for weeks by the government here - to call the world's attention to Russian actions. They say Russia is waging an "ethnic cleansing" campaign in Chechnya that is largely being ignored by the West.

"They are killing our people, and the whole world has closed its eyes," says Polla Daghestani, a Chechen mother amid a small crowd waving nationalist posters. "The silence is shameful."

Yesterday, Iran's foreign minister, at a press conference with Russia's foreign minister, announced it is sending a delegation to Moscow to discuss the Chechnya crisis. Wire services report that sources close to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov say that Russia has asked Iran to use its influence within the Islamic world to decrease pressure on Russia for killing Muslim fighters.

The Russian advance reportedly bombarded the Chechen capital, Grozny, over the weekend. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, residential areas have been flattened, and the siege of the city is continuing, reports say.

The Russians blame Chechen "bandits and terrorists" for bombings late this summer that killed some 300 people. Chechens here deny that accusation, and - different in language, religion, culture, and with a 140-year history of challenging Russian rule - they say that Russian generals have instead been looking for any excuse to avenge their humiliating defeat in the last war, from 1994 to 1996.

The Chechen families in Jordan began coming here a century ago, to escape Russian pogroms in the Caucasus. The brutality today, they say, is part of that familiar pattern.

"The Russians never change, whether they are czars, communists, or just Russians," says Gali Oda Tealakh, a Chechen professor and expert on Islam in the Caucasus. "The Russian argument is totally false and politically motivated. Any federation that treats its people this way has no right to rule."

Many in the Chechen diaspora see a double standard in the West and question why NATO intervened to save a threatened Muslim minority in Kosovo, but has been slow to pressure Moscow despite actions widely condemned by human rights groups.

French President Jacques Chirac has called the Chechen war "a tragic error," and President Clinton chided Russian leader Boris Yeltsin at a summit in Turkey last week, but has not threatened to cut off Western aid.

"The situation of Kosovo and Chechnya to us look very similar," says Said Beano, a former Cabinet minister and member of the Chechnya-Ingush Friendship Society. "But Russia is not Serbia. It is a nuclear power, and there are economic reasons. We think if the US really wanted, it could have stopped the war weeks ago, by stopping loans."

At the rally, some dressed in traditional square hats called Kalbacks, or large square black coats made of sheepskin. Younger Chechens - chanting "Alahu Akbar," God is great, at the end of each speech - waved banners and wore military uniforms, dark sunglasses, and black jackets.

The decades separated from their ethnic kin in Chechnya have not dimmed traditions in Jordan, where Chechen children are taught their native language first, then Arabic. Customs are preserved in some form, from specialty foods and dancing to wedding rituals.

Most Chechens have made at least one visit to the Caucasus to meet relatives. And during the last Chechnya conflict, people here collected money and sent five shipments of humanitarian aid.

"We feel 100 percent Jordanian, but that doesn't keep us from sympathizing with Chechnya," says Aref Baha-Eddeen, an engineer. "It's like how the Irish in America watch the northern Irish peace process."

Chechens have been easily accepted in Jordan, because Islam is the most "fundamental aspect" says Fakhruddin Daghestani, president of the Friendship Society. "The Koran [Muslim holy book] says that 'tribes are created among you, and the best is the most pious.' So people in Muslim communities are free to preserve their particular customs."

Chechens have been Jordanian Cabinet ministers, advisers to royalty, politicians, and an array of professionals - from teachers to businessmen. So for them, Russian use of the word "terrorist" grates and is evident in a rally sign held by a school girl that reads: "Do I look like a terrorist?"

"This puzzles me. Isn't bombing innocent civilians, and killing women and children ... terrorism?" asks an elderly Chechen man, referring to the Russian campaign. "So who is the terrorist?"

Responsibility for the apartment bombings, which Russia blames for its assault in Chechnya, sparks heated debate among local Chechen leaders. But all say they agree: The bombs were planted by Russian intelligence to pave the way for the crackdown on Chechnya.

"Chechens were very angry about the last war, and there was no bombing, because Islamic teaching prevents such acts," says Youssef Bilto, a biology professor at the University of Jordan.

"The Russians want to be done with Chechens. Our families left 100 years ago to save their culture, to keep a seed alive," adds Ahmed, a Chechen with Jordanian Army experience who fought during the last war.

"This is all politics, talk and talk, and then nothing," he says, waving an arm toward the rally. "What I know is that Chechens will never surrender. So we promise to make their [Russian] mothers cry, like our mothers have. I'm sorry, I talk too much. But that's a promise."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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