Late last summer, several massive explosions rocked Russia, killing over 300 innocent civilians while they slept. While no one claimed responsibility for the atrocity, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin placed the blame squarely on "Chechen terrorists." Chechnya, a tiny landlocked nation of less than one million people located in the remote Caucauses Mountains, denied any involvement. Nevertheless, Russia began an air and ground assault in September, aimed at retaking the nation and eliminating the terrorists.
This war, and its effects on civilian Chechens, was the subject of Nafees Shams' presentation "War in Chechnya--Want to learn the Truth?" which took place March 23 in the Ballroom at noon. The event was sponsored by the Muslim Students Association, which also held a fundraising dinner for Chechen orphans that evening.
"[Russia's] goal was to get into Chechnya, and wipe out the terrorists by whatever means necessary," said Shams in his introduction.
Shams began the presentation with clips taken with a home video camera. He showed shaky footage of Chechen capital Grozny after a bombing raid, and the treacherous escape routes used by refugees through the mountains. One student likened the quick-panning, out-of-focus clips to "the Blair Witch Project, but real."
Shams, a Universty of Calgary electrical engineering graduate, has worked for international relief organizations since he graduated in 1992.
"I came to get a perspective from someone who's been in Chechnya, and hear what they have to say on what's going on there," said first-year Mt. Royal Political Science student Anya Davis. Davis attended the almost two-hour presentation with about 100 other people, mostly students and staff.
"The presentation was pretty enlightening," said third-year Biology student Mischa Fox. "You don't really see a lot of the first-hand stuff which [Shams] had on tape. The Western media, it's all sort of watered-down, and [the presentation] was actually pretty shocking."
While many in attendance admitted to learning much, others were critical of Shams, claiming the presentation was reverse propaganda.
"It was a good technical presentation, well shown," said law graduate student Dmitri Borissovski, formerly of Moscow. "But I think that the presentation was very biased in favour of Chechnya, probably [because] his guides were Muslim, and he's a Muslim himself. It's difficult sometimes to take a position objective enough to present to [an] auditorium."
"It turned out to be a propaganda session, which is fair enough; there's been plenty from the [Russian] side," said U of C Polical Science. Professor Dr. Bohdan Harasymiw. "It was sponsored by the MSA, but this was played down by the advertisements."
Borissovski justified the attacks, claiming Chechnya carried out terrorist chemical and nuclear attacks in Moscow not reported by the Western media.
"Something [had to] be done about the possible chemical attacks that took place in Moscow [not made public]," explained Borissovski. He cited many examples of purported Chechen criminal acts in Chechnya and Russia during and after the presentation. He also mentioned that Russia was fighting "Islamic fundamentalists," funded by Osama bin Laden and other outsiders, not common Chechens.
Shams' response to all such allegations were the same.
"Even if that is the case, you don't bomb civilians," said Shams. Shams distributed news articles about the apartment bombings in Russia, claiming the bombings were self-inflicted to justify a war.
"There's no proof whatsoever that the Chechens [placed the bombs]," claimed Shams. "Secondly, there's evidence that the Russians did it themselves."
Shams believes this is more of a race issue than a religious issue
"Islamic [terrorism] is a buzz-word in the West," he said. "'If you're going after Islamic terrorists, then we'll give you the go-ahead.' But are they fundamentalist? They have a very vague understanding of Islam. Under Communism for 75 years, they've been separated from the rest of the Islamic world."
"When people raise religious issues, and what we're trying to solve are humanitarian issues, the two should not even be put together," said first-year General Studies student Bilques Sayed. "Like Nafees said, it's not just the Chechen soldiers people should have sympathy for, there are innocent people on the other side, like the Russian mothers who do not know what their sons are being sent for."
Currently, Shams is not part of any humanitarian organization.
"I really want to take a more political stance on [the issue], not just a humanitarian [one]," he said. "We've drawn out this war long enough, but it's the political things that haven't been done."
With the recent presidential election victory of Putin in Russia, the world is watching the region closely to see how the crisis will play itself out.
"Putin seems to be stuck on a 'hardliner' image," said Shams. "If casualties on the Russian side increase, then the Russians might reconsider. It very much depends on international pressure to unearth the atrocities."
Based on the conflicting evidence presented by Shams and some audience members, it is doubtful the entire truth will ever emerge from this conflict. Nevertheless students emerged feeling more informed than when they went in.
"If the media is being controlled, if the people over there aren't finding out the truth, then I don't think that either side is winning," said Sayed. "Both sides are losing."
For more information, visit: www.ucalgary.ca/~muslim.