From Dismal Chechnya, Women Turn to Bombs
GROZNY, Russia, Sept. 8 – Mariyam Taburova and three of her roommates left the cramped, dismal apartment they shared here in Chechnya on Aug. 22. She has not been seen or heard from since. The others, however, have been.
Amanat Nagayeva and Satsita Dzhbirkhanova checked in two days later for two flights leaving Domodedovo Airport near Moscow and, according to Russian officials, detonated explosives that brought down both airliners, killing 90 people. A week after those bombings, a woman believed to be Ms. Nagayeva’s younger sister, Roza, blew herself up outside a Moscow subway, killing at least 10 people.
The women – known to their neighbors here as decent people making what they could of life in a place marred by appalling destitution – are suspected of involvement in one of the deadliest waves of terror ever in Russia. With Ms. Taburova’s whereabouts still unknown, the terror may not yet be over.
They are not the first women linked to the terrorism spawned by the war in Chechnya, nor were they the last. At least two women, perhaps four, were among the attackers in the brutal siege of Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, to the west, in North Ossetia, though they have not been identified.
In Russia, such women are known as shakhidki, the feminine Russian variant for the Arabic word meaning holy warriors who sacrifice their lives. In the media, they are known more luridly as black widows, prepared to kill and to die to avenge the deaths of fathers, husbands, brothers and sons in Chechnya. But the circumstances that bring women to suicidal attacks are not so simple.
Their participation – despite Chechnya’s deeply patriarchal society, or perhaps because of it – reflects the radicalization of a war that began as a separatist struggle but has turned increasingly nihilistic.
It has also exposed the deep schisms that are tearing apart Chechnya, where few people interviewed here spoke warmly of Russia or the Kremlin, but where all expressed horror at the bombings, the school siege and other attacks carried out for the sake of Chechnya’s independence. “We were so shocked,” one woman who worked beside Ms. Dzhbirkhanova in Grozny’s central market said, speaking only if she were identified by her first name, Yana. Her eyes reddened with tears. “How could she?”
Chechens themselves have not embraced a cult of religious martyrdom, as have, for example, many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, insurgents in Iraq or militant groups like Al Qaeda.
Here in Grozny, there are neither posters nor graffiti celebrating shakhidki. Chechnya’s imams, leaders of a moderate Islam in an outwardly secular society, do not preach fiery sermons revering them. And those who knew the four women said they simply could not believe they were involved in any way.
Instead, rumors swirl. Some other fate has befallen them, their neighbors said: kidnapping, arrest, death perhaps – anything but suicide.
“It is not normal,” said Khozh-Akhmed Israilov, a security guard in Grozny’s market who knew Ms. Dzhbirkhanova, echoing many others interviewed here. “How could someone do this to themselves? Only Allah can take life. She knew very well that to take her life was a sin.”
Unheard of when war ravaged Chechnya the first time, from 1994 to 1996, female suicide bombers have taken part in at least 15 attacks since the war erupted again, in 1999. Among those were the hostage siege of a Moscow theater in October 2002, where 19 of 41 captors were women. The women apparently involved in the plane bombings were not, technically, black widows. Ms. Dzhbirkhanova, said to be in her early 40’s, was divorced. So were the Nagayeva sisters, 26 and 24. All three divorced, neighbors said, because they could not have children, something deeply stigmatized in Chechen life.
The Nagayeva sisters did lose a brother, Uvays Nagayev. On April 27, 2001, he and a friend were badly beaten by Russian soldiers, according to a report compiled by Memorial, a human rights organization. He escaped, but on May 2, he was arrested at the family’s home by soldiers in a Russian armored vehicle. He has not been heard from since.
A neighbor of the sisters, who said she feared the kind of retribution that is all too common in Chechnya and would only speak on condition of anonymity, said she discounted that loss as a possible source for revenge.
“Amanat would not seek revenge after three years,” she said of the older Nagayeva sister, who in other accounts has been called Aminat, Amnat and Amanta. “Such things are never delayed.”
Whatever their motivation, it was clear that all four women, like virtually everyone else here, led lives mired in squalor and devastation.
More than a year ago, three neighbors here said, the four women moved into an apartment on the fourth floor of a building on Ulitsa Mira, which means Street of Peace. They shared the apartment with at least two other women, Ms. Taburova’s mother and her aunt, dividing the rent of $30 a month.
They lived in two bedrooms, sleeping on beds, some of which were simply matting or blankets on top of boxes. The windows are covered with plastic film; few panes have been replaced in the building, or anywhere else in Grozny for that matter. The fifth floor is open to the sky, its wall and roof punched out by one of the shells that pounded the city as Russian forces returned in 1999.
Their apartment faces a cratered courtyard that is fetid, strewn with trash and muddied by a constantly running pipe, the only source of water for the entire block.
All four worked in the central market, selling clothes, shoes and other goods they shuttled in from Azerbaijan. A stall costs 30 cents a day to rent.
Some people here say a decade of war and destruction, including atrocities by Russian forces, have driven women to desperate acts.
“The war has created the favorable soil for such extremists,” Natalya K. Estemirova, director of Memorial, the rights organization, said in an interview in her office here. “That’s why, with each step, it gets harder and harder.
“When traditional links have been destroyed, when society is destroyed, when so many people have been thrown apart, when morally it is impossible to understand such conditions, it is difficult to establish the forces of social unity” – forces, she said, that once held Chechen society together.
Officials in Russia have called the women’s role evidence of the growing influence of Islamic extremists, suggesting the women had been coerced, brainwashed and even drugged by Chechen terrorists in order to carry out the attacks.
Support for such theories came from one of the bombers, Zarema Muzhikhoyeva. In July 2003, she botched – deliberately, she later told investigators – an attempt to blow herself up at a cafe in Moscow. She was arrested, but an explosives expert died trying to defuse the bomb.
In February, the newspaper Izvestia published an interview with her in which she claimed she had been recruited to terrorism out of shame and debt. Her handlers gave her orange juice that made her dizzy and dispatched her to bomb the cafe, she said. But she lost her will to die. She cooperated with investigators, leading them to a cache of “suicide belts” buried outside Moscow.
In April, a court convicted her and handed down a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, despite her cooperation. According to Russian news accounts, she lashed out when the sentence was read, shouting, “Now I know why everyone hates Russians!” She said she would “come back and blow you all up.”
That anger simmers in Grozny today. It remains a ruin, but a ruin where thousands must survive, with few jobs outside of the government, the security forces and the black market. One of the few buildings newly renovated, an incongruously pink House of Culture, was burned when rebels staged a raid the night before the four women left Grozny.
“Every day we feel some injustice,” said the neighbor who insisted on anonymity.
Alone among those interviewed, she expressed support for some of the suicide attacks attributed to women, though she said she condemned terrorism against civilians.
She cited one of the first known suicide bombings during the second round of war: In November 2001, Elza Gazuyeva killed herself and a Russian commander, Geidar Gadzhiyev, the man she believed ordered the death of her husband. “They are understood here,” the woman said of suicide bombers like Ms. Gazuyeva. “They are adored. She was, is and will remain a heroine for us.”
She and the other neighbors and co-workers in the market said they did not believe that the women could be involved in the latest attacks because they did not openly express any more feelings of anger or bitterness than anyone else. They were described as religious, but not deeply so. They wore head scarves, but not veils, which are rare in Chechnya. They dressed in clothes that would be unacceptable in any stricter Muslim society. “They talked about war, about life, about cosmetics, like all normal women,” the neighbor said.
They also did not disappear for long periods, as did others who have later showed up in suicide attacks. “The girls who seek revenge go to the mountains,” the neighbor said. “They do not trade in the market.”
The four women left together on that Sunday, telling their neighbors they were headed to Azerbaijan. A woman who worked beside Ms. Dzhbirkhanova said she had told her she needed to replenish her supplies of children’s clothes, shoes and accessories before the new school year began on Sept. 1. Another neighbor said Ms. Taburova’s sister was planning to be married on Aug. 29 and, as is customary here, Ms. Taburova wanted to buy linens and other clothes for her wedding present.
Officials cited in Russian news reports have offered conflicting accounts of the women’s route after leaving Grozny. Some have said they boarded a bus in Khasavyurt, a border town in neighboring Dagestan, or flew from its capital, Makhachkala. Still another version had them flying to Moscow from the Azeri capital, Baku, hours before Amanat Nagayeva and Ms. Dzhbirkhanova boarded the doomed flights at Domodedovo.
Officials at the Federal Security Service, the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s office declined to discuss the investigation into the attacks.
Ms. Dzhbirkhanova told those who worked beside her that during a previous trip in the spring someone stole her goods, as well as her passport. That was evidence enough for those who knew her that it was someone else who blew up the plane, though the neighbor said the pictures of the women broadcast on state television appeared to be theirs.
Mr. Israilov believes the four women might yet turn up, unharmed and uninvolved. “If her name was announced on television, how could she come back?” Mr. Israilov said of Ms. Dzhbirkhanova. “She might be afraid.” Autor: Steven Lee Myers