(NYT) Mariyam Taburova and three of her roommates left the cramped, dismal apartment they shared here in Chechnya on Aug. 22. Taburova has not been seen or heard from since. The others, evidently, have.
Amanat Nagayeva and Satsita Dzhebirkhanova checked onto two flights leaving Domodedovo International Airport two days later and, according to Russian officials, detonated explosives that brought down both airliners, killing 90 people. A week later a woman believed to be Nageyeva’s younger sister, Roza, blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing at least 10.
The women – known to their neighbors here as decent people making what they could of life in a place marred by appalling destruction and destitution – are suspected of involvement in one of the deadliest waves of terror in Russian history. With Taburova’s whereabouts unknown, the terror may not yet be over.
They are not the first women linked to the terrorism spawned by the war in Chechnya, but the latest attacks, including the brutal siege of Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, show that Chechen women have become deeply entangled in acts of shocking violence, though for reasons that remain fiercely disputed.
Their participation – despite the deep patriarchy of Chechen society, perhaps because of it – reflects the radicalization of a war that began as a separatist struggle but has now turned increasingly brutal and nihilistic.
It has also exposed the deep schisms that are tearing apart Chechnya, where few interviewed here this week spoke warmly of Russia or the Kremlin, but where all expressed horror at the bombings, the school siege and other attacks that have been carried out for the sake of Chechnya’s independence.
“We were so shocked,” said one woman who worked beside Dzhebirkhanova in Grozny’s central market, speaking only if she were identified by her first name, Yana. Her eyes reddened with tears. “How could she?”
In Russia the women are known as shakhidki, the feminine Russian variant for the Arabic word meaning holy warriors who sacrifice their lives. In the news media they are known more luridly as black widows, women prepared to kill and to die to avenge the deaths of fathers, husbands, brothers and sons in Chechnya. In almost every case, however, the circumstances that led the women to suicidal attacks are not so simplistic.
What is clear here is that Chechens themselves – almost without exception – have not embraced a cult of religious martyrdom, as have, for example, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, insurgents in Iraq and extremist groups like Al Qaeda.
Here in Grozny, where the four women lived and worked, there are neither posters nor graffiti celebrating their fate, nor that of others like them. 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, since they left two and a half weeks ago: kidnapping, arrest, death perhaps, anything but suicide.
“It is not normal,” said Khozh-Akhmed Israilov, a security guard in Grozny’s market who also knew Dzhebirkhanova, 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 during the war that erupted in 1999 – from the hostage siege of a Moscow theater in October 2002, when 19 of 41 captors were women, to the bombing of a Moscow subway car in February, carried out by a woman the authorities have not identified.
At least two women, perhaps four, were among the 32 heavily armed attackers who seized the school in Beslan and held more than 1,200 children, parents and teachers for 52 hours before a violent end left more than 300 hostages dead, more than half of them children. Officials in Russia have cited the women’s role as evidence of the growing influence of Islamic extremists, suggesting the women were coerced, brainwashed and even drugged by Chechen terrorists in order to carry out the attacks. Others in Chechnya and beyond have blamed Russian policies for a broad feeling of alienation among Chechens. They also blame a decade of almost uninterrupted death and destruction, including atrocities committed by Russian forces.
“The war has created the favorable soil for such extremists,” Natalia Estemirova, director of Memorial, a 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,” which she said once held Chechen society together.
Interviews with Memorial’s researchers and with those who knew the four women, as well as statements by Russian officials, left unresolved much of what happened to them in the days after they departed Grozny, as well as what motives they might have had.
What was clear, however, is that the four women, like virtually everyone else here, lived lives scarred by the violence of war and mired in the squalor and devastation of Grozny.
This capital 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 on the city the night before the four women left Grozny.
“Every day we feel some injustice,” said one neighbor, a woman who agreed to speak only if she were not identified, even elliptically. She said she feared the kind of retribution that is all too common in Chechnya.
More than a year ago, she and two other neighbors 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, including Taburova’s mother and her aunt. They lived cramped, 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, since few of the panes have been replaced in the building, or anywhere else in Grozny for that matter. The fifth floor of the building is open to the sky, its walls and roof punched out by one of the shells that pounded the city as Russian forces moved in, again, in 1999. All four worked in Grozny’s nearby central market, selling clothes, shoes and other goods they shuttled in from Azerbaijan. Women are most of the market’s traders, if only because of the difficulty that Chechen men have crossing its heavily guarded frontiers. A stall cost 30 cents a day to rent. None were “black widows.” Dzhebirkhanova, said to be in her early 40s, was divorced. So were the Nagayeva sisters, 26 and 24. All three divorced, the neighbors said, because they could not have children, something deeply stigmatized in Chechen life.
The Nagayevas originally came from Tevzana, a village in Chechnya’s foothills that been the center of fierce battles between Russians and Chechen separatists. Like many, they gravitated to the capital. The two sisters lost a brother, Uvays Nagayev. On April 27, 2001, he and a friend were badly beaten by Russian soldiers in Tevzana, according to a report compiled by Memorial. He escaped, but on May 3, he was arrested at the family’s home by soldiers in a Russian armored vehicle. He has not been heard from since.
The neighbor who spoke on condition of anonymity 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.”