'I Must Punish You'

Destroyed Grozny
Russian soldiers patrol a suburb of the Chechen capital, Grozny, March 21, 2003. The destruction of Chechnya has left many bitter and seeking revenge (Photo: Yuri Kochetkov/AFP-Getty Images).

The road slowly meanders down to the Vvedeno Valley. At a certain point, I catch myself thinking I have been catapulted into the past: It was the same kind of sunny day in the summer of 1996 when we first came here.

In the first war, Russian troops had heavily fortified checkpoints at each village, and, in order to get past them, I had to disguise myself and go on foot through Vvedeno. Buses were hardly ever let through.

Now it was all being repeated—even the bullet-ridden signs with the crooked Russian letters “OMON: Don’t Shoot” were still hanging on the gates [OMON was the acronym for the police special forces]. Beyond them, visible through the trees, was a remote little village.

Outside the house nearest the edge of town were some pleasant-looking elderly Caucasian people sitting on a bench. Each of them clutched walking sticks covered with intricate carvings. The Chechens who were accompanying me embarked on a long exchange of news with the old folks. Somehow, all the men in the village began to emerge and stream toward them from every direction. They greeted us politely and silently and squatted on the ground nearby. Suddenly, somebody recognized me.

“I remember you, you came looking for a soldier in the first war.” The old man gave the name of the village and the field commander. It was all true. After that, it was as if they forgot about me. Half an hour later, a young woman appeared, the woman whom I had come there to meet. The conversations died away. I got out my camera.

“No, you can’t,” said the same gentle old man who had recognized me. “Or else you’ll talk for a while, and then forget about us again.” We walked away from the old men, and I gazed into the eyes of the young woman. I understood that I had driven for a week all over Chechnya essentially only to have a look into those eyes. And perhaps ask only one question.

People began to think about female suicide bombers after Nord-Ost [the hostage crisis in a Moscow theater on Dubrovka Street in October 2002 that began during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost—WPR]. The whole world saw the young women in black outfits. A terrorist act committed by young female mountain villagers was clearly a deliberate public relations move by the Chechen resistance. In the end, there were hundreds of asphyxiated people and broken black-clad bodies in the foreground. The Chechens were publicly executed by Russian forces as a visible lesson to terrorists, as if to say, “You kamikazes came to die, well, take this.” All of this was brought home to Russians on their TV screens.

Women committed terrorist acts in Russia even before the hostage drama at Dubrovka. But people began to talk of it as a “phenomenon” and as “the Palestinian option” when these “black widows” killed more than 200 people within six months. It became obvious that these Chechen women had declared war on us—all of us, including infants, old people, and the disabled. And we began to think about it, and journalists began to look for them to ask why these girls were suddenly deciding to kill themselves.

But that isn’t a secret. Asya Gilshurkaeva, a Nord-Ost suicide bomber, lost two husbands during two wars, and her 13-year-old brother was taken away in the middle of the night by soldiers and is still “missing.” Aishat and Hadishat Ganiev (who were also at Nord-Ost) lost two brothers in bomb attacks, and their older sister, Fatima, also disappeared without a trace. Once, soldiers arrested them at night and then released them four days later. What was done with them isn’t known—the women do not talk about it, but when they disappeared the next time, they were seen again only when their bodies were found in the Dubrovka Street theater. Zulihan Yelihodzhaev was detained by the Russian military twice before she committed the terrorist act at the rock concert at the Tushino airfield in Moscow [in early July 2003].

In two wars, Zarema Muzhuhoeva lost almost her entire family. Leaving her young daughter with her grandmother, she headed off to Moscow to blow up a restaurant on Tverskaya Street. And so on. All of the more than 20 suicide bombers who have blown themselves up since 2000—the year when a 10th-grader named Fatima began the war of the black widows—have had very similar fates. That is why it is strange to read the revelations of the security services that claim these women took drugs or were mentally retarded and were recruited to become suicide bombers.

I was not in this remote village looking for Malika to hear the usual chronology of a nightmare. I wanted to understand what all of us had to prepare for. That is why we had traveled through one village after another, trying to find the threads that would lead us here to mountainous Chechnya, where women, who are the source of life, are turned into women-bombs delivering death.

It is frightening to be in Chechnya at night. You lie awake, listening to every sound beyond the gates. They come to pick up people at night—they leave the cars outside the village; anonymous people with black kerchiefs over their faces (like cowboys in Hollywood) steal up to houses and abduct the owners. They used to take only men; now there are women, too. That’s how it was with Malika. She grew up without a father. There were only women in her home—a mother and two younger sisters. Once, in early July, they woke up to find masked, armed people groping around their house.

Malika was taken away because she did not remain silent. As her mother told the story, Malika tried to shame one of the intruders who was stealing her younger sister’s CD player. She was taken away and then released a few days later. She didn’t talk about it, but then several days later, a “nephew” came and took her away.

I couldn’t sleep, listening hard to each rustling noise. We had to wait until our hosts fell asleep, and then we would leave. There were girls in the room—they
didn’t look to be more than 20 years old. The exception was a young man clearly no more than 30. That was their “nephew.” For the most part, he was silent, attentively following the conversation. One of the girls agreed to be taped on video, but only with her back to the camera.

She described how she looked on as two of her friends were murdered. They had once fought on the side of [Dzhokhar] Dudayev, the president of Chechnya during the first war, and then they had supposedly laid down their arms. The young men were pressured to join the “special forces” of [Akhmad] Kadyrov, [Moscow’s handpicked leader who was recently elected president of Chechnya]. When they refused, they were killed in broad daylight in a Dagestani village. “I would go myself, but I’m not ready yet,” said one of them, when asked about the black widows. “What would it mean to be ready?” I asked. “It would mean not to be afraid anymore,” she said.

In this village, which is hardly in the mountains and situated in a district that is considered “loyal” to the authorities, a 15-year-old girl is being “trained.” “Training” consists of late-night conversations under the watchful eye of a nephew. At a certain point they decide the future terrorist is ready, and they send her into the mountains. “They go to one of Khattab’s camps.” [Ibn-ul-Khattab is the alias of a warlord said to be a Jordanian Chechen who was killed in 2002.—WPR] “They say he was killed, but his camps are still operating. There, they read the Quran and learn how to handle weapons. After that, they become so calm.” This was the nephew and mentor who was talking.

I look at the nephew and for some reason it seems to me that there is mockery hidden in his eyes. We talk with the girls for a long time, almost the entire night. They are pretty much typical young people, polite in the Caucasian manner. And they probably have not told me anything new.

Our newspapers have been writing regularly for a long time about all the horrors of their lives; about how an entire generation has grown up in the war; how these young people have not known any other way of life. On the whole, we’ve known all this for a long time. Except for one thing—that these young people, most of whose eyes shine with intelligence, have been spending several hours discussing how to arrange a public bombing, how to kill themselves and take with them as many civilians as possible. Just like in the Japanese “quality circles,” each one tries to give an account of how she would be most effective—in dying. That is exactly how it was. And in the shadows sits a silent nephew, listening, listening, and listening.

The Vvedeno hunting preserve was created in 1963, comprising almost 45,000 hectares of virgin forest. Only the top bosses would come here to hunt in the Soviet era. For more ordinary people, along the valley of the Khua Khulim River, numerous tourist spots and vacation homes have been built. The Shatoi reserve adjoins the Vvedeno reserve: It is more than 20,000 hectares of impenetrable forest. You can drive around the perimeter of these reserves in about half a day, but you could spend months lost in them. You can fight the people who have settled there only with air power, helicopters, and heavy artillery.

The Olympic skiing facility, built in the 1970s on Lake Kezenoi-Am, is located at an altitude of almost 2,000 meters. This facility could be captured, but it would be impossible to hold it while surrounded by an enemy population. As far as I know, it is now in relatively good condition: The sun shines brightly on Lake Kezenoi-Am during most of the winter, and you can live safely and comfortably there.

The air force has essentially stopped bothering the Chechen fighters—people armed with antiaircraft weapons obtained from the Russians who guard the flight paths approaching the periphery of the area. The ancient Mi helicopters and the Sukhoi bombers often cannot even make their way through the heavy cloud cover. Not to mention that the only effective way to attack these targets would be through carpet-bombing with depth charges (and that would eat up the air force budget in a week). The only road into the area has long ago been destroyed.

It would be suicide to go in there on a tank. Mountain peaks surround the lake and protect it. To wage a firefight against it effectively, you would have
to drag cannon up to these nearby snowy peaks.

Lake Kezenoi-Am is only one example of the natural fortresses in the area. There are also the famous Bamut caves—four tunnels dug out ages ago, 20 meters deep, with interconnecting passages. That was even before the war. What has been dug since in the “soft” Andi mountain ridge is hard to imagine. All of this is what makes up these famous “Khattab camps” where Malika is supposed to go. And while she is waiting for someone to guide her there, she is living in the little mountain village. She isn’t yet a suicide bomber, but she has already passed through the selection process. And according to the nephews, Malika will have a choice after she passes through the course in the mountains. But I doubt it.

Today, the suicide bomber is the most effective weapon of the Chechen fighters. These are the ones who are called the “Wahabbists,” those who, in the grander scheme of things, have not laid down their arms and who in Chechnya are feared no less than the Kadyrov henchmen. This is especially felt in such villages as Yermolovka or Komsomolskoye—people crushed between two horrors. But the fighters have the better “image”—they do not conduct “cleansings,” the security sweeps performed by the Russians and Kadyrov’s people.

That’s why the young girls go to their side. That’s why all Chechens believe it is their duty to hide them; it is a new secret weapon.

Malika is truly calm. To be sure, she is still far from the prescribed “enlightenment.” Moreover, even from her clothing it’s obvious that she does not adhere to any radical Islamist tendencies.

Now it was time for my question. “Malika, you’re going to commit murder after all. What if a completely innocent infant winds up being killed by your bomb?” It is only at this moment that Malika lifts her eyes to look at me. “Then it means it is predestined.”

“Then, probably everything that has happened to you is predestined also.”

“Yes, I have to punish them.”

“Who are they?”

The girl looked me in the eyes and spoke clearly: “All of you.”

At first, it felt like a slap in the face.

I kept trying to talk to the girl, asking about the extent of her religious belief, what her training consisted of, who would teach her and where. Malika was reluctant to answer.

Only several days later did I understand that she had in fact answered my main question: Why she had made up her mind not only to commit suicide but also to murder innocent people.

We are all innocent only in our own personal understanding. Just as Malika considered herself absolutely innocent when soldiers broke into her home, took her away, and raped her.

Thousands of such Chechens, not guilty of anything, are subjected now for the 10th year [since the beginning of the first Chechen war in 1994] to such collective responsibility for the fact that politicians could not agree among themselves. And in the end, some of them, those that had undergone particularly brutal punishment, decided that all of us, to the last one, must also bear such collective responsibility for the fact that we did not protect, for example, Malika. That is how she thinks.

This is just what we were taught in our literature classes in school. It is what those who are customarily called “the conscience of the nation” have said and are continuing to say—writers, scientists, and philosophers. It is what the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran say. It is a well-known truth: The most terrible criminal is the one who looks silently on as a crime is committed before his eyes.

Is that why Malika is coming to kill us? She believes that for this most terrible crime—silence—we must pay.

“Will the world be saved through bloodshed?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer the question.