The Black Widows of Chechnya

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ONE DAY last summer, Zarema Muzhak-hoyeva was given her first ever mobile phone - a Nokia model of the latest design. It was not the only present from her handlers in a cramped Moscow apartment. Along with it came a baseball cap, also the first she had ever worn, and a shopping bag containing a bomb.

Her instructions were simple. She was to go to a city centre caf and blow herself up. The 23-year-old was about to join the ranks of the so-called Black Widows, the Chechen female suicide bombers behind the recent downing of two airliners and the carnage in Beslan.

Muzhakhoyeva’s path to suicide bomber began when, aged ten months, she was sent to live with her grandparents. Her father, working in far-away Siberia, died in a construction accident when she was seven. Her mother refused to see her and Muzhakhoyeva grew up to marry young, aged 19. She fell pregnant almost immediately, but two months later her husband was shot dead, not as a result of the guerrilla war by now raging around them, but due to a business dispute.

At first Muzhakhoyeva was taken in by her husband’s family, but when her daughter, Rashana, was seven months old the family announced their hospitality was at an end. Her grandparents agreed to take her back, but said they had no money to look after Rashana, who was taken in by her late husband’s childless brother.

In a remarkable interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia, Muzhakhoyeva, speaking from prison, said: "Everything would have been all right if I would not love Rashana very much." Her options were limited: she could not hope to find work or a place to live in a Chechen village as a single mother. There was by now no prospect of work in the war-ravaged province.

She begged her grandparents to change their mind and, when they refused, she stole their jewellery, selling it for $600 in the market. Then she went to her in-laws, asking to be allowed to take Rashana out for one last time. She fled to the local airport, hoping to fly to Moscow and stay with an aunt, but she had left a letter behind explaining her actions and six aunts were at the airport waiting for her. They dragged her back home, separating her again from Rashana. Now she faced disgrace from her outraged grandparents.

"They beat me," she said. "All the time they kept repeating, ‘It would be better if you die’, so I thought, ‘Why not?’"

By now, Chechen suicide bombers had begun to make headlines with bomb blasts in Moscow, so she contacted a woman known to be in touch with the rebels and offered herself as a bomber. The woman accepted and Muzhakhoyeva was taken into the mountains, where she met a guerrilla leader she believes was Shamil Basaev, a Chechen rebel commander.

Muzhakhoyeva told the man she wanted to be a bomber because she had heard martyrs were given $1,000, enough to pay back her grandparents and cancel out some of her shame. He told her that was not a reason to die. But she stayed, befriending one of the rebels. She convinced them she was serious about being a shakhid, the name Chechens give to the suicide bombers.

In June last year, Muzhak-hoyeva was taken down from the mountains for her mission: an attack on the bus that ferried Russian pilots around the Mozdok airbase. For courage, the rebels gave her literature promoting martyrdom - plus two bottles of tranquillisers.

She was fitted with two bomb belts, making her look pregnant, and was told to wait by the stop. However, when the bus arrived, Muzhakhoyeva, confused and sick, decided she did not want to die. Instead she sat down on a wall, being comforted by an airman, and was later picked up by the rebels. Her sickness gave her an excuse for not pressing head with the mission. A few days later a second suicide bomber was given the task, hurling herself at the bus and killing 16 airmen.

Muzhakhoyeva was taken to Moscow and installed in a safe house, with two fellow suicide bombers: Zulikhan Elikhadzhieva, 19, and Zinaida Alieva, 26. She was given good food, western jeans and a T-shirt. On 4 July, she stayed up all night chatting with the two other women. In the morning, the others were driven away, and hours later detonated themselves in the middle of packed crowds of teenagers at the Tushino rock festival. Fourteen youngsters died and another 48 were wounded.

NOW IT WAS her turn. Four days after the Tushino blast, with Moscow on edge, she woke early, bathed, dressed, prayed and was given the phone and the baseball cap to help her blend in with the young Moscow crowd. She took some tranquillisers, having finished the first bottle she was given in less than a week. With her bomb in a black shopping bag, she went by taxi to Mon Caf in the busy Tverskaya Street. It was then she began to panic.

Ever since the Mozdoc failure, Muzhakhoyeva had decided she did not want to die, but her handlers were insistent, and besides, she had no friends or family to turn to. Her handlers had sent her away that morning with a warning: someone would be watching her. If she refused to detonate her bomb, if she did not turn up, if she walked away, or even went inside the caf to alert people, the bomb would be detonated immediately.

Scanning the street in front of her she decided to buy time, walking across the street, ignoring the squealing brakes and honking horns on what is one of Moscow’s busiest thoroughfares. Then she very visibly removed the safety cap from the bomb trigger, hoping she would be seen by whoever was watching her, and slowly walked back across the road.

Now she was out of excuses. Still she delayed, frozen to her seat. Inside the caf, she noticed three men watching her. So she stuck our her tongue. Then she smiled. The men got up and walked towards her. One asked if she was Russian; another what was in her bag. She told him she had a bomb, then opened the bag to show them. They stepped backwards, shouting for her to go away from the caf. She did as she was told, turning and walking up the street with two men following while the third shouted for help.

She was sure she had only seconds left to live and kept walking, followed by the men. After several minutes, a police car arrived, siren blaring, and an officer in a flak jacket jumped out and told her to freeze.

Her career as a Black Widow was over. Her handlers had not had any observer present, there was no remote-control mechanism. Later that night, a bomb disposal officer was killed trying to defuse the device.

Muzhakhoyeva’s surrender was a rare shaft of light for the security forces. She agreed to co-operate with investigators, after which the Moscow safe house was raided and the woman who had recruited her in Chechnya arrested. With the rolling-up of her network, there were hopes that the era of the Black Widows was over. However, in December came two more savage blasts, one killing six people outside the Kremlin, the other, involving three Black Widows, killing 44 commuters on a train near the southern city of Mineralni Voda.

This year had passed with- out incident until 24 August, when two women detonated themselves in passenger jets flying over Russia. Early investigations showed that at least one of the bombers fitted the classic Black Widow profile. Amanta Nagaeva, 27, had seen one of her three brothers abducted three years ago, apparently by security forces during fighting in Chechnya. She never saw him again. Early this month, at least two suicide bombers took part in the massacre of 326 adults and children in Beslan high school. Russia is once more on edge.

ALL THE BOMBERS, apart from Muzhakhoeva, have suffered at the hands of Russian security forces. Some have lost husbands and brothers. Zuliahan Yelihodzhaev, 26, one of the Tushino rock concert bombers, turned to the rebels after her father was arrested and interrogated, later fleeing the province for a refugee camp rather than return home. Sisters Aishat and Hadishat Ganiev came from a family of ten children, in which two boys had died fighting the Russians, one daughter had gone missing and another son was jailed as a rebel. They were among six Black Widows filmed with so-called shakhid belts around their waists during the siege of the Nord Ost theatre in 2002, a siege which ended with the death of 129 hostages and all 41 rebels.

Russia insists the bombers are indoctrinated by foreign fanatics and, certainly, links between Chechen rebels and groups of Saudi Arabian fundamentalists are strong - the former deputy commander of Chechen forces, reportedly killed, was a Saudi named Khattab. But this is cold comfort to ordinary Russians, who are now wondering where the next bomb is coming from. More than 10,000 Chechens are dead and much of their country laid waste by the war, five years old this month.

Memorial, a Moscow human rights group, says Russian forces have committed widespread human rights violations, including torture, murder and abduction. The suicide bombers have almost all suffered from the loss of loved ones, and the fear is that there may be hundreds more potential bombers out there.

One survivor of the Beslan massacre told how, when she tried to give water to the children, a Black Widow told her to stop or she would be shot, adding: "For you, this is an uncomfortable few days. We have had an uncomfortable ten years". The rebels, who communicate through websites, recently justified the Black Widows campaign this way: "The pilot of a low-flying warplane shelling a bus with women and children is just as unscrupulous a use of force."

MUZHAKHOYEVA’S decision to co-operate was no help in her trial. On 6 April, she was sentenced to 20 years for terrorist offences. From the dock, she screamed: "Until now I didn’t hate you. But now I hate you and when I come back, I will blow you all up." She is shunned by friends and family, and said her only visitor, until the end of the trial, was her lawyer.

One day, shortly before the trial, her lawyer brought a bottle of French perfume to the prison and gave Zarema a spray. "Look how our little shakhid smells," she said the guards told her. "Like she is just from Paris."