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.