MOSCOW — They came to the showdown carrying every weapon they could. On one side stood five dozen men, fingers ready on triggers. Staring back at them across a bleak stretch of grass and sparse shrubs were a couple of hundred warriors, guns raised, holding an emaciated prisoner.
Magomed Keligov waited. His face was gray and gaunt, his hair shaggy, his legs shackled. He had seen the sun just once in nearly 12 months. Most of that time he had been fastened to the wall of a cellar by a yard-long chain.
As he stood that summer day in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, he knew his fate would be decided by the two warring clans: the Chechen group holding him for ransom, and his own family from neighboring Ingushetia, led by his wealthy brother.
When Keligov, 44, was kidnapped in September 1998, the two clans began stalking each other, mounting ambushes, retreating and attacking, picking at each other's flanks like wild mountain wolves. But Aug. 31, the day of the exchange, had come at last. Sixty warriors of the Keligov clan had come to reclaim their kinsman.
It was not just his life that mattered. It was not just the ransom money. Above all, family honor was at stake. And according to the ruling of the clan elders, vengeance must be taken. They would have Keligov returned to them alive. But they would have blood too.
The scene played out before the Russian invasion of Chechnya last fall. But in many ways it tells as much about the brutality of life in the Caucasus as the current dispatches from the besieged Chechen capital, Grozny. The men of the region, the vainakh, live by traditions as immutable as the mountains' sheer, dark peaks. In these parts, bravery in violent combat is revered. When the old men swear a feud, it commits the young warriors to spill the blood that family honor requires or to die trying.
As well as guns on their hips, these mountain warriors carry mobile phones. They make death sentences by fax and use Japanese video cameras to record gun battles or issue ultimatums. They speed to vengeance in boxy Russian cars, as chunky and solid as mountain ponies.
Two fraternal peoples share this severe corner of the Earth, the Ingush and the Chechens, the vainakh. The word means "our people." They are close ethnically and culturally, and bound together by mutual suffering at the hands of Russian czars and Soviet rulers. As neighbors, they were locked in one republic during Soviet times, and all shared the cattle cars when Josef Stalin deported almost the entire population to the arid and hostile steppes of Kazakhstan in 1944. Keligov's father was among the deportees.
Eight years ago, Chechnya declared independence from Russia. Twice since then, Chechens have gone to war with Russia to defend their independence. They defeated Russian forces in 1996. Last September, war broke out again.
The Bandits Became the Rulers
Chechnya was in effect independent between the wars, but it could not be called a state. Like an ancient society torn by rival warlords, there was no rule but the law of bandits. The fighters who drove the Russian army out of Chechnya more than three years ago split into small armies arrayed around different commanders. Some focused on radical Islamic revolution. Others for the most part engaged in violent crime and kidnappings.
Next door, the tiny Russian republic of Ingushetia became a hunting ground for Chechen bandits, who sniffed out rich Ingush families.
The magnet that attracted them to the Keligov clan was brother No. 4, the family success story: Musa Keligov, born nine years after Magomed. The younger Keligov is the Moscow-based vice president of Lukoil International, a subsidiary of Russia's largest oil company.
Magomed was in the same business, on a smaller scale: He ran several gas stations in Ingushetia.
On Sept. 15, 1998, Magomed was ambushed while driving alone to Grozny.
The family heard nothing for weeks. Then came a ransom demand: $5 million.
In Moscow, Musa set aside his suit and tie and took a leave of absence from the company. He and his family never considered paying any ransom. Instead he returned to Ingushetia, formed his own small army of crack commandos and vowed to free his brother.
Musa Keligov looks like the businessman he is. His hair recedes. His fingers are plump and his waist is just round enough, beneath his crisp business shirt, that it defies one to picture him as a commando. Yet, when he is armed and clad in fatigues, it would be equally difficult to picture him in his plush Moscow home. From 1984 to 1986, Keligov fought in a special Soviet reconnaissance unit in the Afghan war. Future Ingush President Ruslan S. Aushev was a close comrade in that unit.
Even amid the telling of his intensely personal story, Musa Keligov gives away little of himself. He is still and collected, almost reticent. The events have to be drawn out of him slowly.
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