The women with death at their fingertips - martyrs or victims?

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DRINKERS in the Moscow cafe had not noticed Zarema Muzhikhoeva until she frantically tried to set off the explosives in her black shoulder bag.

The 20-year-old took a deep breath and reached for the detonator. She had been calm at first, then frantic as the 1.5kg of explosives failed to detonate.

In the heat of the day, on July 6 last year, sweat began to pour down her face.

"I pushed the button about 20 times to set off the bomb but it just wasn't working," she said later in police interviews.

The bomb did go off eventually, when Moscow police officer Major Gennady Trofimov, 30, was killed attempting to defuse it.

Captured by the Russian police after her mission failed - uniquely for a Chechen woman - Muzhikhoeva has been held in prison in Moscow ever since. Because of the bungled attempt, more is known about her 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.

In the Beslan siege in North Ossetia at least two women were among the 30 terrorists who seized the school on Wednesday. Two weeks ago, the names of two women appeared on the passenger lists for one of the Moscow planes which crashed in southern Russia. The same week a woman exploded a bomb outside a metro station.

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.

In December 2003, two women blew themselves up metres away from the Kremlin, killing five and injuring 12. Only days later two women were seen jumping from a train blast in south Russia which killed 44. In the Nord-Ost theatre siege in Moscow, in October 2002, a third of the terrorists were female. In July 2003, two suicide bombings in Moscow involved women under the age of 30.

Surprisingly, Muzhikhoeva is not a defiant Islamic extremist desperate for her place in heaven. Her story is one of poverty and desperation typical of a country that has known nothing but war for the past decade.

From 1994-1996 Boris Yeltsin's troops reined in the breakaway republic where she grew up. Chechnya remained unstable throughout the late 1990s, however, and President Putin sent the Russian army back in again in 2000, following terrorist bombings in Moscow which were blamed on Chechen extremists. Muzhikhoeva’s regional home, Achkoi-Martan, where she was brought up by her grandparents, was largely destroyed in the first war. Her personal fate was sealed during the second invasion of Russian troops.

She attended school from the age of seven to 15, leaving to marry when she became pregnant with her daughter. Her husband died fighting for Chechen independence before she gave birth. According to Chechen tradition, she and her baby then "belonged" to her husband's family, who treated her as a household slave.

She eventually escaped alone (knowing that her husband's family would never let her have custody of her child) and got by however she could, unable to find work, stealing and borrowing money. At one point her debts became so great that a group of men she had taken a loan from told her she had no choice but to pay them back with her life: if she would complete a suicide mission all her debts would be repaid and her family would also receive a sum of money.

She claims she lived in a mountain village for a month with Chechen independence fighters, who constantly fed her with stories of Russian atrocities. She also says she slept with the man in charge of the group (she has not claimed this was against her will, although other female terrorists have alleged they were raped as part of their recruitment).

She was eventually told she was ready for her mission and sent to a safe house in Moscow where a woman with the codename Black Fatima looked after her.

Muzhikhoeva has claimed she wanted to carry out the suicide bombing anyway, to avenge her husband's death. But she also says she was drugged regularly in Moscow with an orange juice which gave her headaches.

On the designated day, she was sent to a central Moscow caf. She attempted to detonate the device in three different places before eventually being arrested in a fourth restaurant. Police later reported that she was extremely upset over the death of the officer who had defused the bomb.

It is still unclear whether Muzhikhoeva was a willing self-sacrifice or an exploited victim. Her story shows perhaps that for many of Chechnya’s ‘Black Widows’ their motives lie somewhere between the two extremes of choice and coercion. Until very 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 Wafa Idris, the 27-year-old Palestinian paramedic who became the world's first female suicide bomber.

The Russian authorities have been keen to link Chechnya's terrorists to ideas of religious fanaticism, in an attempt to draw in other countries to support their own "war against terror" and in an effort to distance themselves from the havoc they have caused in Chechnya with the second war there in 10 years. But the Chechen situation is completely different to that in Arab countries where terrorism is closely linked to Islamic fundamentalism. Far from being free-thinking, 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 self-inflicted death.

Even when they have chosen their mission of their own free will, it is not because of a religious mission or a political cause, but for very personal reasons, perhaps to avenge the death of a husband or a brother. More often than not, like Muzhikhoeva, they are pawns in a man’s game.