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6 September 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

Chechnya’s deadly ’’black widows’’

Young Chechen women are striking fear in the hearts of Russians by staging suicide missions. But are

By Viv Groskop

Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, 22, had trouble setting off the 1.5kg of plastic explosives in her black shoulder bag. Sitting in a cafe on a hot day in Moscow on 9 July last year, she took a deep breath and reached for the detonator – calm at first, then frantic. “I pushed the button about 20 times to set off the bomb, but it just wasn’t working,” she later said in police interviews. The bomb did go off eventually – a Federal Security Service bomb disposal expert, 29-year-old Major Georgy Trofimov, was killed while attempting to defuse it.

Zarema is not a typical Chechen suicide bomber only in that she is still alive. Captured by the Russian police after her mission failed – uniquely for a Chechen woman – she has since been held in prison in Moscow. Because of her bungled attempt, more is known about Zarema than about any of her predecessors: she has had the chance to tell her story in the Russian media, never in direct interviews but in second-hand reports via the police.

The aeroplanes from Moscow that crashed on Tuesday 24 August had the names of two Chechen women on their passenger lists, one in each plane. Russia is becoming obsessed with these women, and with good reason: almost every suicide bombing connected to Chechnya in the past two years has involved women. Indeed, some of the attacks have been exclusively carried out by women. Last December, two women blew themselves up metres away from the Kremlin, killing five and injuring 12, only days after two other women were seen jumping from a train blast in south Russia that killed 44. In the Dubrovka Theatre siege in Moscow in October 2002, during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost, almost half the terrorists were female. In July 2003, two suicide bombings in Moscow involved women under the age of 30.

Surprisingly, Zarema is not a defiant Islamist desperate for a place in heaven. Her story is one of poverty and desperation typical of a land that has known nothing but war for a decade. From 1994 to 1996, Boris Yeltsin’s troops reined in the break-away republic where she grew up. Chechnya remained unstable throughout the late 1990s, however, and President Vladimir Putin sent the Russian army back in again in 2000, following terrorist bombings in Moscow that were blamed on Chechen extremists.

Zarema’s home region, Achkoi-Martan, where she was brought up by her grandparents, was largely destroyed in the first war. Her own fate was sealed during the Russian troops’ second invasion. She went to school – between ages seven and 15 – leaving to marry when she became pregnant. Her husband died fighting for Chechen independence before she gave birth. According to Chechen tradition, she and her baby daughter then “belonged” to her husband’s family, who treated her as a household slave. She eventually escaped alone (knowing that the family would never let her have custody of her child). She got by however she could, stealing and borrowing money.

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Her debts became so great that a group of men from whom she had taken a loan told her she had no choice but to pay them back with her life: if she would complete a suicide mission, her debts would be repaid and her family would also receive money. She claims she lived in a mountain village for a month with Chechen independence fighters, who fed her stories of Russian atrocities.

Eventually she was “ready” for her mission and sent to a safe house in Moscow where a woman with the code name “Black Fatima” looked after her. Zarema has claimed she wanted to carry out the suicide bombing to avenge her husband’s death, but she also says she was drugged regularly in her orange juice, which gave her headaches. On the designated day, she was sent to a central Moscow cafe: she attempted to detonate the device in three different places before being arrested in a fourth restaurant. Police reported that she was extremely upset by the death of the officer who tried to defuse the bomb.

Was Zarema willing to sacrifice herself, or an exploited victim? Her story perhaps shows that, for many of Chechnya’s “black widows”, their motives lie somewhere between choice and coercion. Until recently, Chechnya’s female suicide bombers have been portrayed as religious martyrs who have made a personal choice to die for their country and their faith – just like Palestinian women whose faces and names are well known: Wafa Idris, the 27-year-old paramedic who became the world’s first female suicide bomber, and 18-year-old Ayat al-Akhras, a student from Bethlehem, the youngest Palestinian woman to blow herself up.

In reality, the Chechen situation is completely different from that in Arab countries, where terrorism is closely linked to Islamist fundamentalism: far from being freedom fighters with an equal right to die for their beliefs, Chechnya’s female martyrs are more likely to be forced, blackmailed or brainwashed to their deaths. Even when they have chosen their mission, it is not because of a religious mission or a political cause, but for personal reasons: to avenge the death of a husband or a brother. More often than not, like Zarema, they are pawns in a man’s game.

From the Dubrovka theatre siege of 2002, in which all 41 terrorists (including 18 women) died, as did 129 hostages, two Chechen suicide bombers in particular stand out: the sisters Fatima and Khadzhad Ganiyeva. It was later reported that their brother Rustam Ganiyev, a Chechen fighter not involved in the siege, had been paid US$1,500 per sister by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev to send them to Moscow for the attack. Since then, a third sister, Raisa, has given herself up to the Russian authorities to avoid being sold into the same fate.

Maria Zhirkova, 40, is agony aunt on Zhizn (Life), the top-selling daily in Moscow. She regularly addresses the subject of female terrorists on her pages and the aftermath of the bombings that Russia has suffered over the past year. Russians are terrified of Chechnya’s “black widows”, but Zhirkova believes many of the women involved are brainwashed into participating: “In Russia, we call it ‘zombification’ – there are various ways of drugging them or enslaving them so they don’t know what they’re doing. I think this has happened to a lot of them . . . It is very difficult for anyone to understand the low position Chechen women hold in their society: their lives are not valued. Rape is a big issue: if a woman is raped and it is filmed, she can be blackmailed into doing anything because it is regarded as a dishonour to her entire family. I believe that this has happened to at least some of the women who became suicide bombers. They are as much victims as the people they set out to kill.”

Zulikhan Elikhadzhiyeva’s story bears this out. Zulikhan, 19, was one of the two female bombers killed in the explosion at a rock concert in Tushino, outside Moscow, on 5 July 2003. Twenty people were killed and 40 others injured. Her family has been interviewed since: they claim she was kidnapped by her half-brother Danilbek, a Chechen fighter, and taken to Moscow. When she disappeared five months before the Moscow blast, she had everything to live for – she was training at medical school to become a midwife. Her father says: “It was [Danilbek] who sent Zulikhan to die. I won’t find peace until I see him dead.”

The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who has met dozens of women in Chechnya claiming that they are ready to take on suicide missions, says that, ironically, the most famous suicide bombers – the 18 women involved in the Dubrovka siege – are regarded as “real heroines”, even though they were most likely forced into their actions. Yet Politkovskaya, herself a negotiator in the Moscow theatre siege, also believes that a major motive for Chechnya’s female terrorists is revenge for the death of loved ones. They rarely have a religious cause: “Thousands of women in Chechnya are ‘zombified’ – but they are ‘zombified’ by their own sorrow and grief.” There is often an element of tailor-made revenge: in 2001 a Chechen widow in her early twenties blew up herself and a Russian officer in a meticulously planned attack. The previous year, that particular officer had ordered the abduction and murder of her husband.

Russian survivors of the theatre siege have said they had some sympathy for the Chechen women. Tamara Starkova, a 42-year-old paediatrician who lost her husband and daughter in the siege, said: “My abiding memory of the Chechen men is of them running around shouting. But the women would say ‘please’ when they asked for something. I related in some small way to the women. One said she had lost her husband and child, and maybe any mother in that position would be capable of that.”

Irina Filipova, 29, a teacher who was another hostage in the siege, also found herself sympathising with some of the female terrorists: “The women all had different motives: some were obviously Muslims and maybe it was a divine mission for them. Others, I thought possibly they had been drugged, I don’t know. I thought the younger ones must have been forced. A Chechen friend told me they must have been raped – which means in Chechnya you can never marry or have children, so you might as well die.”

Andrzej Zaucha, the Polish author of Moscow: Nord-Ost, a book about the theatre siege, has met all the survivors and quizzed them on their relationship with the female terrorists during the four days they were held hostage. “There were female terrorists who helped people,” he says. “They brought medicine, food and water into the theatre. They allowed certain people to go to the toilet without queuing. One hostage said to me: ‘They were like nuns.'” The hostages remembered one woman called “Asya”, most likely Aset Gishnurkayeva, whose home was later blown up by the Chechen administration in retaliation for her participation in the siege. She helped many hostages, and reassured them that the terrorists’ motives were peaceful. She said she was involved in the mission “so that our children can grow up in peace”.

Zaucha is not sure about the stories of coercion, drugging and rape. He believes all the women were there of their own free will – but had personal motives. “It suits the Russian government to say that drugs, brainwashing and blackmail are involved,” he argues. “Officially, according to the Russian authorities, things are not so bad in Chechnya, so they don’t want anyone to believe these women would have their own grounds for committing these crimes – they want us to think they have been forced or brainwashed. The Russian authorities don’t want people to think that these women are so desperate and their living circumstances so awful that they are driven to these lengths.”

Whatever the truth – whether these women choose their fate or are pushed into it – while their country is still at war with Russia, many more are likely to meet the same violent end.