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Russia's bitter harvest

As the Moscow bombings remind, the simmering insurgency and brutal crackdown in the Caucasus have left a landscape of damaged women, some all too ready to spread their pain to Russia's heartland.

April 13, 2010|By Megan K. Stack
  • Mariyam Sharipova, one of the two women who carried out the attack in Moscow, is seen in a photo on the cellphone of her mother, Patimat Magomedova.
Mariyam Sharipova, one of the two women who carried out the attack in Moscow,…

Reporting from Balakhani, Russia — 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.

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