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Chechen soldiers join Ukraine's fight against Russia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are thousands of foreign mercenaries and soldiers fighting for Ukraine against Russia. And among them is a group that has fought Russia for a long time - Chechens. NPR's Emily Feng has this story.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Mansur was 13 when Russian soldiers destroyed his village of Samashki during Chechnya's first war for independence against Russia. Wielding flamethrowers, the Russians burned Mansur's neighbors alive in their homes, threw grenades into basements and executed men. Four years later, a peace truce disintegrated. And Mansur was back at war. He says he was never the same after.

MANSUR: (Through interpreter) Russia ruined everything I had. I grew up with war, and the war shaped me in all respects.

FENG: More than 200,000 Chechens, including Mansur, fled to Turkey and Europe throughout the 2000s. But leaving his home didn't mean giving up on his fight against Russia.

MANSUR: (Through interpreter) If I had been born in America or Canada, I wouldn't come here to Ukraine. But because Russia took everything from me, I have to resist. Nothing else matters.

FENG: Today, Mansur is the deputy commander of one of at least two Chechen battalions fighting in Ukraine against Russia. Chechens are among the 20,000 estimated foreign fighters fighting for Ukraine. The Chechens we spoke to refused to disclose their numbers in Ukraine, citing security concerns. That's also why all the Chechens in this piece gave only their first names or no name at all. But they do say their battalion numbers, at least in the hundreds, all shaped by trauma and driven by hatred for Russia. Here's a second soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Through interpreter) The tragedies of Ukraine in Bucha and Mariupol are nothing compared to what we experienced growing up. The Russians leveled our cities and villages to the ground.

FENG: The Chechens say they are eager to pass on their experience fighting Russia for the last 20 years to the Ukrainian army. Unlike the U.S., they say, they have no howitzers or heavy weapons to give Ukraine. They can only give their bodies. And this second soldier says their lives as individuals matter little.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Through interpreter) We lost our homeland. What more does a person have to lose? Our family or children are not important when we've lost our home, and the whole world was silent.

FENG: This soldier says all that matters is settling a 400-year-old blood feud, beginning in the 1700s, when Russian tsars pushed into the North Caucasus where Chechens live.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Through interpreter) This is our dream. And we will pass this dream on from one generation to the next generations until this evil is destroyed.

FENG: Chechens themselves are divided on whether to fight for or against Russia. There are reports that Chechen fighters loyal to Russia have been sent to Ukraine on behalf of Russia, meaning it is entirely possible Chechens are now fighting on both sides of this conflict. No matter, says Mansur, they're playing the long game here.

MANSUR: (Through interpreter) In Tsarist Russia, General Yermolov stole everything from us. But we survived him. Stalin died. Putin will die. We will outlive these people.

FENG: Mansur says their purpose in life is to take up arms against Russia, wherever that might be. Emily Feng, NPR News, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.