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February 02, 2011

Police Targeted by Islamists in Ingushetia

Abzulit Shauxalov, 31, sinks into the soft blue cushions of his living room sofa. He breathes deeply to quiet his pounding heart. His body is shaking and covered with sweat. With support from two metal poles, he has just walked six feet across his living room.

“I did better today,” said Shauxalov, a former policeman, whose legs were paralyzed after he was shot while on duty in Russia’s volatile Caucasus republic of Ingushetia.

Shauxalov, now 31, was stationed at a checkpoint near his home in Karabulak, just 20 kilometers from the Ingush capital of Magas, when someone shot him in the back. It was his 28th birthday.

“I fell to the ground, and then noticed my legs couldn't move,” he said.

Shauxalov and his colleagues are victims to Islamic militant violence in Ingushetia, which has killed 400 police officers over the past five years.This revolt flared into world headlines two weeks ago when, police say a young man from the Caucasus detonated a massive bomb in a Moscow airport, killing and wounding a total of 200 people.

“Police are targets,” said Magomed Mutsolgov, head of the Ingush human rights organization, MARSH. “My cousin was killed a few years ago. He was a policeman. When they shot him, he was sitting in his car with his baby.”

“His wife went to the shop to buy medicine. She put her 6 month old baby in the back seat. When she came back, she said: “Let’s go, let’s go.” When she looked over, she noticed blood all over him. The situation here is out of control.”

Slide show reflecting on the culture of Ingushetia Republic

Abzulit Shauxalov’s brother, Ruslan, is also a police officer.

"I tell people not to go out unless they have to,” says Shauxalov, whose younger brother was shot in front of him. “I am scared for my family. I sleep with a gun, in a separate room from my family. If someone shoots at me, they won't kill my family.”

Abzulit who is now wheelchair bound with a spinal injury says he believes in being a police officer.

"It is a dangerous job, but if I don’t do it, who will? I have a responsibility,” he said.
Financial reasons also compel Shauxalov brothers and his colleagues to put their lives on the line. While salaries for officers are low (around $230 a month), Ingushetia suffers a 50-percent unemployment rate and is one of the poorest republics in Russia.  For many, a gun, a badge and uniform are the only options.

Russian security forces respond to attacks on police and officials by carrying out special operations in towns and villages across the North Caucasus.

As rights-activist Mutsolgov explains it, they act on intelligence, seal off streets, and fire on anyone in sight.

Despite the constant violence, Ingush leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov believes the situation is improving.

"The situation in the North Caucasus has become much better,” he told reporters recently. “Life gets better and better every year."

In August, a temporary moratorium on killing police officers was announced by the Ingushetian wing of Caucasus emirate, the regional umbrella group for the Islamic Insurgency.

The Caucasus Emirate website said that the moratorium was called, “Not because we do not have the strength to kill them in their homes, but because we hope that they will reconsider and show understanding for our position.”

In 2009, Islamic militants killed 75 police officers in this tiny republic. In 2010 the figure fell to 30.

But behind the figures and positive statements there are ruined lives. For Shauxalov and hundreds of his fellow police officers, it is simply too late.

“War is easier than life in Ingushetia,” said Shauxalov. “There you know who your enemy and friend is. Here any civilian can kill you for any reason. You can't be prepared."