Russia’s bitter harvest

The last time Patimat Magomedova saw her daughter, she was puttering around the house, manicuring her nails and using henna to dye her hair bright red.

It’s high time we take care of the garden, the mother remembers Mariyam Sharipova saying that Friday. Let’s plant raspberries, cucumbers, greens. And we have to do something about the kitchen, maybe get some pretty new dishes.

By evening, the young woman had vanished from the house in this remote mountain village in the Russian republic of Dagestan. Magomedova didn’t see her daughter’s face again until somebody showed her a photograph of a severed head. At that moment, she said, “I knew there was no mistake.”

Sharipova, 27, had traveled a thousand miles to Moscow and climbed onto a crowded subway train at rush hour with an explosives-packed belt strapped around her waist. She was accompanied by a 17-year-old girl, also from Dagestan, who blew herself up at another station.

In the Russian news media, the women were immediately dubbed “black widows.” Their assault on the subway was taken as proof that the country had been shuttled back to the fearsome days when hollow-eyed female militants stalked Moscow and other cities far from the wars where their men fought Russian forces.

The subway bombings also sent ripples of unease across the turbulent, mostly Muslim republics strung along Russia’s southern edge. There was angst over the slaying of civilians and fear of retaliation.

But it came as slim surprise that women were ready to die. This, after all, is a landscape of damaged women, grieving losses they dare not dwell upon.

The closer you get to the fighting in the Caucasus, the murkier it appears. The violence in Dagestan, and in neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia, is not easy to classify -- it’s a mix of rebels who want independence from Russia, Islamist extremists bent on waging jihad, local clan and gang warfare and sectarian strife.

And as the fighting intensifies, it is the men who disappear. Masked agents pound on the door and cart them off for questioning. They come back beaten, or not at all. Sometimes the men are rebels; other times, their affiliations are bafflingly vague.

It’s the women who are left behind, their status and material comforts tangled up in the choices of their fathers, sons and husbands.

Sharipova lived in a spacious, gated house with grape trellises and dizzying views up the mountainsides. Her mother teaches biology; her father is a self-described “patriot of the motherland” who teaches Russian literature.

She was a serious young woman who studied mathematics, psychology and computers. She was also a homebody who, in the words of her mother, “didn’t mix well.” When not working as the deputy principal of the village school, she busied herself with home improvement projects, cooked pilaf and fussed over clothes.

The fighting crept into the village. Security forces periodically staged “cleanup operations,” swarming Balakhani with armored personnel carriers, helicopters and legions of ground troops, cutting off access to the mosque and searching house by house for signs of rebels.

Sharipova’s two older brothers were accused of supporting the rebels. They were close to her; the three had shared an apartment when their parents sent them to study at the university in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala.

Her elder brother was in a dentist’s waiting room in 2004 when masked men burst in, threw an overcoat over his face and carried him away. He was held all night, tortured and finally dumped, beaten and bruised, in the forest, his parents say.

The men never identified themselves, he told his family, but they were security agents of some stripe.

“Our problems started from that kidnapping,” said the father, Rasul Magomedova.

Security forces came after midnight or at dawn to ransack the family’s rooms, looking for the brothers. The extended family took turns staying up all night to keep watch for troops.

The older son eventually fled to Moscow. The younger is also in hiding. The family says neither is tied to the rebels.

Sharipova, meanwhile, withdrew deeper into Islam. A madrasa,or religious school, opened in the village mosque two months ago, and she spent hours there. She set herself the task of memorizing the entire Koran.

A few weeks ago, police warned her father that Sharipova had secretly married a notorious rebel commander. It was a rumor they had heard before, floating around the village, but had not taken seriously. After all, they reasoned, she was still in the house with them. Nevertheless, the parents confronted her -- and were unnerved by her reaction.

“She was very uneasy. She didn’t like it,” Patimat Magomedova said. “She became very nervous and very frightened, and turned away from us.”

Some of Sharipova’s friends refuse to believe she set out to kill. They insist that she was kidnapped, that she was drugged.

Her parents make no such justifications. They are grieving their daughter, and grieving what she did. They are indignant that Russian state television refused to air their condolences to the families of the dead.

“I’m ashamed. People died because of her, and that hurts me,” her mother said. “And it hurts me that I lost my daughter. I have this double hurt on me.”

There’s a tendency in Moscow to describe the troubles in the Caucasus as black and white -- either a righteous battle against terrorists or an indiscriminate campaign of human rights abuses from the security forces.

In truth, it is a war of attrition, with dirty fighting and civilian deaths on both sides. And there is a swelling group of widows, too, whose husbands were police officers killed by rebels.

But if Moscow’s goal is stability, its methods appear to be falling short. The kidnappings, torture sessions, extrajudicial executions and secret prisons documented by human rights groups throughout the region are breeding a new depth of animosity -- and, critics say, sowing the seeds for a fresh bout of war.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has made little apology for its hard-line anti-terrorism tactics. Only in the wake of the recent bombings have some voices in the government begun to raise the question of whether abuses and economic despair need to be addressed in order to quell the rise of extremism.

In Dagestan, as in Chechnya and Ingushetia, there is a sense of being hemmed in to Russia, and yet rejected by the state. Prime Minister Putin’s face shines down on the town square in the capital, emblazoned with words of love for Dagestan. But people here tend to remember the time he said he’d hunt terrorists down into the toilet.

Once Russian security forces target a man, family members may be stripped of their jobs and wind up struggling to put food on the table, human rights workers say.

“Here they persecute the whole family,” said Gulnara Rustamova, head of Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights, who advocates for families in their clashes with security services.

If the husband dies in a “special operation,” she said, authorities often refuse to give the widow a death certificate, so she cannot collect welfare for the children.

Corrupt investigators also force the families to buy back the bodies of their men, human rights monitors say. In a land where Muslim funeral rites are highly important, many families are forced to pay as much as $14,000 to claim the bodies.

Rustamova said she has spent hours persuading grief-stricken women not to take bloody revenge.

“They talk about hanging explosives on themselves . . . and blowing themselves up,” she said. “These women are really driven to the point of despair.”

Asiyat Aliyeva used to moon over love stories on television. They spun out in the corners of the house she was building for her only son, his wife and the five children he promised to have. Melodramas, she calls the programs. Light, romantic trifles.

Now she has patience only for war movies. Ever since security troops killed her son, she wants to see blood.

“I would like to see the blood of the person who killed him,” she said. “Let them tell me why they killed him. If they can say to me that he did something and that’s why they killed him, I can forgive them.”

Aliyeva is a successful businesswoman who, with her sisters, imports and sells fashionable clothing to the Dagestani elite.

Her family is secular. She travels to France and Italy to choose fashions. The house she was building for her son was to stand three stories tall, with high ceilings and airy views over the rooftops of Makhachkala.

Aliyeva has little in common with the black widows of the Russian imagination, but she too is damaged.

Her son, Kerim Asadulayev, was 27, tall and baby-faced, the father of a 9-month-old girl. He and his wife were studying law in Moscow.

Asadulayev was home on a school break in January. The morning he died, he drank coffee with his mother, dropped her off at work and then went to meet a friend from Moscow in a cafe.

As the two young men left the restaurant and headed for Asadulayev’s car, the shooting began. Asadulayev had just started the engine, and the friend was heading for the passenger door, when masked gunmen appeared on all sides, firing into their bodies.

A man whose windows overlooked the street recorded the attack on his cellphone. The video shows gunmen drawing closer and closer, shooting point blank into already prone bodies.

Then it shows them rearranging the bodies. They planted a hand grenade and a gun in their hands, Aliyeva says.

Police later said the two were terrorists, and that they were killed in a shootout. Aliyeva said her son’s body was riddled by 42 bullets.

She paused, and started to cry again.

“They should tell us, don’t give birth to boys. They should tell us, we will kill your boys.”

Stack was recently on assignment in Balakhani.