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November 03, 1991|A. Craig Copetas | A. Craig Copetas is a writer living in Paris. This article is adapted from his book, "Bear Hunting with the Politburo," just published by Simon & Schuster.

IBRAGIMOV HAJIBAU ISAK OGLU HEARD THE GUNFIRE FIRST. Involuntarily, his large body began to shudder as if the slug and buckshot were coming off the mountain and into the cab of the Niva 1600 jeep. The buckshot zipped off the rocks outside, dartlike, and Hajibau watched as his sheep fell into the river that dropped down into the Azerbaijani valley. Some died in the gunfire, others drowned in the clear, rushing water. The force of the river knocked over two of Hajibau's shepherds, coating their clothing with sheep blood.

Hajibau jumped underneath the battered Niva that had taken us the 12 miles up the center of the shallow river from Zakatala. The night was clear, with a full moon; the distressed and dusty voices spat out a garbled patois of Russian and Azerbaijan. Hajibau, looking up, realized that the pellets were still coming. The shots were landing perhaps no more than three feet from the jeep, and slowly coming closer, as if the kolkhozniki (people who work on a state-owned farm) were purposefully aiming at him. A shepherd dived into the Niva to cut the headlight beam.

Dead and dying sheep were scattered on the rocks or floating down the river, their heads broken and bleeding. Other sheep, exhausted from being chased 20 miles across the mountains by the kolkhozniki, cascaded off a seven-foot cliff, crashing into the water. Some took the fall alive. Others were impaled on sunken rocks. Only the goats made it down in one piece.

Makmakhod Zhakanzher, Cooperative Lazat's chief shepherd, shouted that more of Hajibau's 100-head flock had been stoned to death by kolkhozniki who did not want cooperative sheep grazing on state-controlled pastures. Makmakhod, his thick black hair caked in dry blood from a vertical gash on his forehead, had been hit by the stones, too. "I'm sorry, Hajibau," Makmakhod repeated over and over, with a feeble grip on his own shotgun. "There was nothing we could do. To shoot back would've meant death." Hajibau screamed something to him in Azerbaijani. "He told his shepherd to be strong," said Sabina, my translator and guide, as she tried to lift one of the wounded animals out of the current and onto a small rock island.

Matvei, another shepherd, appeared, sliding through the Niva's open passenger door, pressing against the side of the jeep for projection. There was more gunfire this time. Isolated shots. Shepherds were taking cover behind the carcasses of dead sheep, while others tried to dredge the animals out of the rushing water and onto the rocks. Hajibau crawled from under the jeep on his fat belly to one of the fallen animals, shouting wildly into the moonlight, sheep blood flowing into his hands.

Sheep continued to pour down the mountain and into the river, an avalanche of fur. When the level of the dead and injured had risen high enough, the rest of the flock stumbled over them to the safety of one of the river's small rock islands. The gunfire stopped. Hajibau wanted to ferry his sheep out of the water and onto the largest rock island, where they would be safe until dawn, when he would return with a fresh set of the official documents that allowed the flock to graze on government land. But those grasslands were 20 miles away. What was left of the Lazat sheep would be dead before they made it that far.

Matvei, running through 30 yards of knee-deep water from the cliff to the outcrop of rock in the middle of the river, said he heard laughter from the hills. It was Matvei who had driven the 12 miles down the river to tell Hajibau of the chase that had started 24 hours before. Wounded from the hurled stones, Matvei had stumbled into Hajibau's office at midnight, his eyes glazed with fright, his small and gaunt body exhausted. He was sputtering wildly.

"Twenty men with papers from the Zakatala city council, signed by chairman Asim Samadov. Said it was forbidden for cooperative sheep to be on state land. Told them we had permission. Hajibau has documents. They attack us. We have only four shepherds, two dogs and one gun. They drove us off, chased us over two mountains. Many animals dead."

"This was not supposed to happen!" Hajibau had shrieked, running with Matvei to the jeep, clutching a fistful of cheap onionskin documents that guaranteed Lazat's cooperative sheep and cattle the right to forage on state pastures.

Hajibau cursed himself after the gunfire subsided. It was 1 a.m., and, looking at the 27 dead animals, Hajibau began to cry. While he sat sobbing into the night, the specter of Samadov appeared to him--a figure that tormented his life. Hajibau had made up his mind to be a cooperator, and the dead sheep were part of the cost. But now the worst had happened, and Samadov would feel retribution. Somehow Hajibau would see to it. "Samadov. Ahee ," Hajibau said, spitting out the Azerbaijani word for bear, which is used to describe bureaucrats. "Vicious ahee. There is no way yet to slaughter the bears."

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