Shamil Basayev's home village of Dyshne-Vedeno stretches for a kilometer or two along a dusty road in the mountainous Vedeno district of Chechnya, 55 km southeast of the capital, Grozny. Cattle and sheep graze around the village, and the local cream is fresh and delicious. If the villagers are right, Russia's most-wanted man is hiding only a few kilometers away. Perhaps in the hamlet of Dargo, about 10 km to the east; or in Ersanoi, just up the road; or even right here in Dyshne-Vedeno itself, within sight of the ruins of his once sumptuous red-brick house, blown up by the Russians in 2000.
The Kremlin says it has launched a massive manhunt for Basayev, the Chechen guerrilla leader who has orchestrated a grisly terror campaign that includes, among other atrocities, hijackings, suicide bombings, the 2002 Moscow theater siege and the seizure last month of a school in Beslan, where the final death toll is expected to reach 500. But here in Dyshne-Vedeno, where the Russians have few friends and a senior army officer describes his troops' main role as "protecting themselves," there's little sign that the search is on.
Basayev's former neighbors, comrades-in-arms and friends say he hides during the day in the thick, impenetrable forests that carpet the mountains. At night he descends into one of the region's many tiny villages, where he recharges the batteries for his computers and satellite phones [an error occurred while processing this directive] and sleeps secure in the knowledge that locals won't betray him, despite Moscow's $10 million reward for information leading to his capture. Asked if she would report Basayev to the Russians if she spotted him, one woman shot back: "Are you out of your mind?" According to Sharip, a Chechen police officer and childhood playmate of Basayev's, "If someone did inform on Shamil, it would be last thing they ever did. The very same person who took the call would phone Basayev straight away. The informant would be a dead man."
Basayev maintains his protective bubble through fear, but also by infiltrating the Russian security services. According to Supyan Taramov, a Moscow-based property developer from Vedeno, Basayev has all the Russian military and intelligence installations in the region under surveillance. "Some of his relatives are in the police here," says Taramov, who once employed Basayev but in 2000 formed a pro-Russian military unit to hunt him down. Taramov claims Basayev's men routinely buy weapons, information and equipment from the Russians and even get local officials to ferry him around. For their part, Russian élite units seem to have other priorities besides finding Basayev. Human-rights groups allege that this year alone, hundreds of Chechen civilians have been kidnapped and held for ransom, mostly by Russian troops or their Chechen auxiliaries. Many have never been seen again.