Sword or Samovar

Blood Relations

The families of suspected Islamist guerrillas in the North Caucasus have always faced harassment from Russian security forces. Now a shadowy vigilante group has started targeting them as well.

View a slide show of the North Caucasus's bloody history here.

VOLNY AUL, Russia — What happens to the family of a suspected killer?

On Feb. 6 in a shabby suburb of Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, Marina Mamisheva found out. Around 3 a.m., she told me, she heard a "big bang" and her bedroom windows burst. Someone had tossed four Molotov cocktails into her front yard. When she ran outside, flames were licking up her porch. One of the bottles had hit its target, setting fire to the plastic siding of her house.

Inside, Marina's eldest son Kantemir, 30, scooped his two children off their bed onto the floor, awaiting more explosions. When none came, he and his pregnant wife followed Marina into the yard and helped her douse the blaze. In the chaos, they didn't find the note glued to their steel gate until later: "If your son kills another resident of the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, you will be destroyed," it read in typed letters. The letter was signed, "The Black Hawks -- Anti-Wahhabis."

"We are living in some kind of nightmare," said Marina.

Marina's 22-year-old son, Astemir, is a suspected Islamist guerrilla whom she says she hasn't seen for two and a half years, since he set out for work with a friend in fall 2008 and never came home. He is wanted by police for the recent murder of the republic's mufti, a moderate who had spoken out against Muslim fundamentalists and was shot dead on the doorstep of his home on Dec. 15.

Investigators believe Astemir also killed a prominent businessman six weeks earlier (a surveillance camera recorded him at the scene, they say) and may be linked to the fatal shooting of a prison official at the end of November. Newspapers in Nalchik call him the rebels' "No. 1 assassin" in Kabardino-Balkaria.

Marina and her two other sons don't dispute this may be true, though they're shocked to think it. They told me Astemir had shown no signs of sympathizing with the militants -- often called Wahhabis -- who have terrorized Russia's North Caucasus, a sweep of hills and steppe in the south of the country that is home to Europe's most determined Islamist insurgency. He had a girlfriend and had just started a small business refitting balconies in Soviet-era apartments. It was a successful venture: Many people in Russia like to close off their balconies, creating a small room for junk or drying clothes.

"Astemir was a very trusting boy," said Marina. "Maybe that's why he fell into their clutches." She heard on television that the militants pump their recruits with drugs so they become "zombies."

Whatever it was that drove him away, Astemir is lost to his family. "We have disowned him," said Marina with tears in her eyes. "If he came back now, his brothers would deal with him before he even got to the police, the trouble he's brought them. He will always be my boy, but I have never sought to justify his actions. If he's guilty of all these horrors, then I utterly condemn it. So why pick on us?"

Marina's words have been echoed again and again by the relatives of suspected rebel fighters, or boyeviki, across the North Caucasus.

Human rights groups have cataloged thousands of abuses of civilians by Russian security forces since the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, when soldiers beat and tortured Chechen men at temporary filtration camps. Often the aim was to force innocent victims to confess the names and whereabouts of relatives among the separatist fighters.

In recent years, a more common tactic has been to try to persuade guerrillas to give themselves up by abducting their family members. In December 2004, pro-Kremlin Chechen militia seized seven relatives of Aslan Maskhadov, then the rebels' leader, and held them for six months. Doku Umarov, the militants' current chief who ordered the Domodedovo airport bombing in Moscow last month, is said to have swerved toward more radical Islam in 2007 after security operatives kidnapped and later reportedly killed his father.

In 2008, Ramzan Kadyrov -- the president of Chechnya whose militia was accused of most such abductions -- went a step further. His men began burning the homes of fighters' families (there were 25 cases in less than a year). "Those families that have relatives in the woods are all collaborators in the crime; they are terrorists, extremists, Wahhabis, and devils," Kadyrov explained in a meeting with his cabinet. Such people should be "cursed and ousted," he said.

There are, of course, better ways to approach the families of young men who have "gone to the forest," as locals euphemistically put it. Dagestan, for example, recently set up a commission for the rehabilitation of fighters that co-opts relatives in negotiating the surrender of boyeviki, who can then expect softened sentences for their crimes.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, Valery Khatazhukov, a well-known human rights advocate, is supporting a group of alleged militants' parents who have asked for a meeting with the republic's Kremlin-appointed president, Arsen Kanokov. "They want to see what they can do to help return their children and ensure they get a fair trial," said Khatazhukov when I met him.

Kanokov has indicated he is ready to meet the group, but it already seems clear he holds little sympathy for hard-pressed relatives. "We need to work with parents and families," he said on Feb. 1. "If they haven't brought up their children right, let them also take responsibility. Someone is running around in the forest, while his relative works in a shop. That can't go on; we will find measures for that."

He added: "Of course, we're not going to burn down houses in the places [fighters] were born, like they do in Chechnya.... But if [parents] have given birth to a monster, then they should answer for it, not the state."

The president's ill-judged comments were compounded when he said the violence in Kabardino-Balkaria has gotten so bad that groups of athletic young men should be armed to create anti-Islamist village militia units. ("Absurd idea," Khatazhukov told me. "It's the security services who should provide us security, not some amateur sportsmen with guns in their hands.")

Now, vigilantes like the previously unheard of Black Hawks appear to be taking this task to hand. In the last few days, a fuzzy video has gone viral here, as young people across the republic pass it between cell phones. Titled "Address from the Black Hawks," it features a man in a black balaclava and a military jacket clutching an automatic weapon and talking to the camera. "You have a 2 million [ruble] price on your heads," says the man, apparently addressing local leaders of the Islamist guerrillas. "We don't need the money; we'll liquidate you for free."

The masked man later mentions Umarov as well as Marina's missing son, Astemir, and Ratmir Shameyev, another young rebel, known for his eye patch.

"Umarov betrayed his people -- he delivers young people to the slaughter and then proclaims them martyrs," he says. "Why is he himself not hurrying to the Gardens of Paradise? You, killers, Mamishev and Shameyev. Your time is running out. We are on your trail and the reprisal will be short."

It is unclear yet how serious the Black Hawks are about their threats and whether they have the wherewithal to carry them out. But the very fact that such a group has announced itself poses the threat of a widening civil conflict, where neighbor attacks neighbor on the base of rumor and fear.

Marina Mamisheva says she is not sure how much more she can take. Since November, police have carried out five searches in her house. In December, Kantemir, a welder, was stopped on his way to work by police who -- he claims -- planted two clips of ammunition in his pockets and then arrested him for carrying them. (A judge found Kantemir not guilty this week.) Now there are the Black Hawks to contend with.

"All the time the pressure on my sons is growing," said Marina. "What do these people want, that two more of my boys go to the forest?"

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Sword or Samovar

Sword or Samovar

The first installment from a monthlong journey through Russia's killing zone.

NALCHIK, Russia — Three years ago, at a time when Russian politics was reduced to the anointing of a new czar and the dead hand of state patriotism lay on everything, I got bored of my life as a journalist in Moscow and decided to go for a walk.

It was less of a stroll, more of a trek -- a four-month journey from the Black Sea to the Caspian, across the northern flanks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, which rise in a palisade on Russia's border with Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In popular Slavic imagination, this 700-mile belt of country below the snowy peaks is a domain of warriors and bandits, a stereotype that owes at least something to fact. I met a murderer on the run, got arrested on suspicion of being a spy, and saw more Kalashnikovs than you could shake a stick at. Violence felt like it was always just around the corner. But I was lucky; my journey coincided with a relative lull in the guerrilla war that has gripped the region since the end of full-scale fighting in Chechnya in 2001.

Sadly, the peace turned out to be illusory, a mere interlude in the battle between Islamist militants and the Russian state that has since roared up with renewed intensity, spreading further and further through the North Caucasus and bringing terror back to the streets of Moscow.

This is why I've returned to the region for a monthlong trip (this time, not on foot) through the same territory I walked across three years ago. I plan to visit five republics -- regions of the Russian Federation equivalent to U.S. states -- where the conflict is most keenly felt: Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Four are majority Muslim; one (North Ossetia) is Orthodox Christian. Chechnya is now the calmest of the four Muslim republics under its satrap, Ramzan Kadyrov. Ingushetia, a scrap of plain and craggy summits, has gained a capable president, but shootings and bombings remain common. Dagestan, a highland region of at least 30 nationalities, is awash with cruelty, compounded by its delicate ethnic balance, and Kabardino-Balkaria has suffered a spate of senseless murders by the extremists.

I've quickly found out that the war has spread faster and farther than I expected. To start, there was the corpse I saw on one of my first nights here. I was walking back to my hotel in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, when I passed an apartment block cordoned off by armed police. In the yard behind it, a detective was leaning over and shining a flashlight on a dead body. According to news reports on Sunday, Feb. 13, the victim had been shot half an hour before I passed by; his name was Ilyas Tramov, 42, a father of four who wore the long beard associated with Muslim radicals. His killers, the media suggested, were most likely vigilantes, taking vengeance for real or perceived involvement in the Islamist militia that has ravaged this republic -- once a peaceful backwater.

Yes, war is here in the North Caucasus, though it may not have the international resonance of the hostilities in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is a grinding, incremental war that only troubles Russian TV screens -- let alone those in the West -- when the odd, devastating attack hits Moscow. But make no mistake: It is a killing zone on the fringe of Europe.

A few days before my arrival in Kabardino-Balkaria, the rebels' Chechen leader, Doku Umarov, took responsibility for ordering a suicide bombing in Moscow's Domodedovo airport that ended 36 lives last month. The attack -- which left the city's gleaming international arrivals terminal strewn with bodies -- has once again resurrected the debate over the Kremlin's dilemma in the Caucasus, a dilemma that stretches back to the czarist 1800s when it was framed as a choice between "Sword or Samovar": Should one slash the enemy to death or invite him for a cup of tea?

Alexei Yermolov, the Russian general who led the fight to conquer the Chechen and Dagestani highlands in the first part of that century, preferred the punitive route, declaring, "I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses ... that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death." Yermolov was true to his promise, sending troops to kill civilians, annihilate villages, and trample crops in revenge for raids by the tribesmen.

Yet it was his successor, Mikhail Vorontsov, the first imperial viceroy in the Caucasus, who brought Russia closer to victory with a hearts-and-minds strategy that had him building roads and hospitals while cultivating highland rebels fed up with their leader, the legendary fighter Imam Shamil.

Since then, however, the sword has often been unsheathed in Russia's fight to keep control of the North Caucasus. At the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin deported the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, and several other nations en masse to Central Asia for allegedly supporting the German invaders of the Soviet Union. Those who survived -- and tens of thousands did not -- were pardoned and returned 13 years later, but the trauma of deracination still remains a crucial one in the Caucasian psyche, especially because Russia has done little to recognize it. The two post-Soviet wars in Chechnya started out as largely secular fights for independence from Russia -- and were met with tactics of terror, which peaked in the carpet-bombing of the Chechen capital of Grozny. That, in turn, gave rise to a whole series of spectacular and bloody terrorist acts by the rebels, from the 2002 Moscow theater siege to the 2004 Beslan school massacre that killed hundreds, and beyond. Today, the conflict in the North Caucasus has mutated into a regionwide Islamist insurgency bent on establishing a caliphate to be ruled by sharia law.

And still, as I set out on this latest trip, I can't help thinking that bloodshed here is not inevitable. I remember the kindness of the shepherds who fed me before, the Dagestani villagers who sheltered me, even the bafflingly polite and unsuspicious FSB (Federal Security Service) border guards I met just a few years ago. Surely the Caucasus is not cursed with the sword, and only the sword?

***

The brief easing of violence that I saw in 2008 is now a distant memory. Then, it appeared that Russia's military strength might yet bring the guerrillas to their knees. There had been no major terrorist attacks in Moscow for four years, and during that period Russian forces eradicated several key rebel figures: Shamil Basayev, the talismanic field commander and terrorist; Aslan Maskhadov, the former president of Chechnya who headed the rebels' moderate wing; and Abdul Khalim Sadulayev, an imam who was Maskhadov's successor.

But in 2009, Umarov announced he was re-forming the Riyadus-Salikhin martyrs' brigade -- a training unit for suicide bombers. A wave of kamikaze attacks ensued, culminating in the two-woman suicide attack on Moscow's metro last year that took 40 lives and last month's airport bombing.

Although few in number (less than 1,000 by most estimates) and lacking in popular support, the militant fighters -- known in Russian as boyeviki -- have shown they can project their threat deep into the Russian heartland. The Domodedovo bomber, a 20-year-old dropout from Ingushetia, had no trouble reaching the capital and traveling to his target with 15 pounds of explosives strapped to his body.

The brunt of the war, however, is borne some 900 miles south. Here, at home in the Caucasus, the boyeviki -- a loose, multinational coalition of fighting groups called jamaats -- carry out almost daily attacks on policemen, government officials, and even traditional healers, whom they consider pagans. The militants control no permanently held territory, but have proved adept at moving between safe houses and forest hideouts from which they launch guerrilla strikes, bombings, and assassinations.

In turn, Russian security forces have used a brutal mix of kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial killing in an attempt to subdue the rebels, a tactic that only exacerbates the problem. After the Moscow metro bombings, Umarov said he had ordered the attacks in revenge for Russian commandos murdering a group of innocent young Ingush garlic-pickers in a forest.

Although police and FSB operatives have shown signs of curbing some of their worst excesses, they still act with impunity, persecuting relatives of the fighters as well as conservative Muslims who may have nothing to do with the underground militia.  

Overall, the death toll is on the rise. Caucasian Knot, a website that monitors casualties, wrote in a report last month that 754 people were killed in the conflict in 2010, including 178 civilians (the figures exclude victims of attacks outside the region). In Kabardino-Balkaria alone, there was a fivefold increase in terrorist attacks compared with 2009, according to Russia's Interior Ministry.

And yet the common portrayal of the region as a place hard-wired for savagery and insurrection seems to me deeply unfair. I'm here to interview victims on both sides of the conflict, and I know already part of what I will find: that the huge majority of people here are sick of what's happening and want only to live in peace, inside a united Russia.

So what drives the hatred -- and how do we combat it? I hope to find out, but some broad motivators already suggest themselves: corrupt, incompetent leaders; rapacious business interests; misguided nationalists and fanatics; poor education, poverty and humiliation. I plan to explore how these evils might be combated as well. Bringing peace is an urgent priority, not least because the guerrilla war is creeping west toward the Black Sea coast where Russia will host the Winter Olympics in three years. No one wants to see a repeat of Munich.

***

These days, belatedly, there seems to be a recognition in Moscow that force alone is not the solution. In January 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appointed a new envoy to the North Caucasus: Alexander Khloponin, a successful businessman and former governor of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Khloponin has promised to stimulate the region's flagging economy and cut high unemployment rates, in theory reducing the breeding ground of disaffected youth that provides recruits to the militants.

So far, here in Kabardino-Balkaria, a Muslim republic at the center of the North Caucasus, the story of the last few months is of aggression and horror, not rebuilding. Nalchik is famous for a failed raid by scores of militants in 2005, in which 142 people died. Six years on, it is convulsed by a new wave of violence.

In December, the Islamists shot dead the mufti of the republic and a celebrated ethnographer who they claimed was promoting paganism. Last month they struck again, killing five policemen as they sat eating lunch in a cafe and assassinating the head of a town near Nalchik, among other attacks.

Kabardino-Balkaria's president, Arsen Kanokov, has talked of arming former sportsmen with weapons and creating volunteer forces to defend villages. Relatives of boyeviki should "answer for the monster they gave birth to," he said on Feb. 1.

A few days later, someone appeared to take his advice. Four Molotov cocktails were tossed into a yard in Volny Aul, on the edge of Nalchik. The home belongs to the family of Astemir Mamishev, a young man who is on the run and is suspected of taking part in the mufti's murder. A shadowy group calling itself "The Black Hawks" took responsibility in a note posted on the house's gate.

On Saturday evening, as I stared into the yard where Ilyas Tramov's corpse lay stretched out, it appeared the Hawks might have gone one step further. Police denied any link to the killing, but said Tramov was suspected of terrorism. An acquaintance of his whom I met on Monday rejected that accusation, saying he was simply a convinced, observant Muslim.

Tramov was, no matter who actually killed him or why, a victim of the sword, of the war that continues to play out in these mountainous republics. Just this week, two suicide bombers -- one man and one woman -- blew themselves up in a Dagestani village, killing two policemen and injuring 30 other people. Meanwhile, five militants and three police officers just died in a Feb. 15 gun battle in Stavropol region, a few score miles northwest of where I sit in Nalchik.

Over the next month, as I continue my journey through these bloody highlands, I'll endeavor to understand why this madness continues -- and how it might be finally brought to a halt.

KURBAN LABAZANOV/AFP/Getty Images