Monday, 26 April 2010

Blood and roses

Today is the four-week anniversary of the Moscow metro bombs. Images went around the world of shrapnel-scarred marble and weeping parents of students killed on their way to university.

But by far the most powerful TV image was of the memorial to the victims in the station. A pile of neatly-laid roses, carnations and candles, not an ostentatious shrine heaped with soft toys - because unlike, say, Londoners after the death of Princess Diana, Muscovites are used to public grief. The bombers have struck before, and they will strike again.

Lubyanka station, site of one of the bombs

I arrived in Moscow a fortnight ago today. As I was blearily lugging my suitcase around the ring line not long after dawn, it hit me that I was in the Metro two weeks to the minute since the bombs. I'll admit that for a short while I was terrified, with an irrational focus on the 7/7 and attempted 21/7 London bombs, one attack two weeks after the other. But then I noticed the people around me. Not a single wary face, not a single pair of wary, darting eyes.

In part, this is due to the fatalistic attitude shared by many Russians - the belief that if something bad is going to happen, it will happen, regardless of whether or not you worry about it. This isn't always a good approach; at its worst extent it is often blamed for the huge rate of deaths of people who are either drink-driving or killed by someone who is. But in the face of terrorism, it can lead to an admirable stoicism and resilience. When your country's recent history includes the Nord-Ost theatre siege (at least 129 civilians killed), the Beslan school siege (at least 385 civilians killed, mostly children) and a string of lesser-known attacks on the Metro, in ordinary apartment blocks and at packed concerts, this resilience is essential.

Unfortunately, there is another side to Russians' suffering. While ordinary Muscovites face the bombers' hatred, there is a strong case for their government taking a sizeable chunk of indirect responsibility. The brutality of the army-led 'counter-terrorist operations' in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan mean that civilians have continued to suffer long after full-scale war ended in 2000. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya documented the frequent kidnapping, rape and murder of ordinary civilians in the Chechnya run by Kremlin-sponsored warlord Ramzan Kadryrov. She labelled him a "Chechen Stalin", while he told her she was an enemy "to be shot". Politkovskaya was then herself murdered in 2006, in a case that has raised more questions than answers.

Without excusing the atrocities Russia has suffered, it is easy to see how a message of hate might become more attractive to people who have faced such brutality, especially the young. Take the example of 17-year-old Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, who blew herself up in Lubyanka station a month ago.

Metro bomber Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova with her husband Umalat Magomedov

The picture above is of a defiant teenager. She survived her husband, a Dagestani militant killed last year. Her face shows her pride - in her twisted ideology, he is a rock star to her. Her final act of rebellion was extreme and obscene, but it was not divorced from her surroundings.

This girl was born in 1992 in the Russian Caucasus republic Dagestan, in the midst of ethnic clashes as the Soviet Union collapsed. When she was two, war broke out in neighbouring Chechnya, and spilled into Dagestan, bringing the full might of the Russian army to bear against well-armed and funded separatists. She shared her first name, Dzhennet ('paradise' in Arabic) with a Dagestani militant group formed around this time, as the conflict became more about religion than nationalism and foreign jihadis arrived to exploit the situation. The Second Chechen War of 1999-2000 brought yet more chaos before her tenth birthday, followed by simmering insurgencies and sporadic government brutality.

Had she not embraced an ideology that worships death, we would undoubtedly see her as a victim. While the horrific way she ended her life and those of many others makes it impossible to feel sympathy for her, there are thousands of girls who have suffered like Dzhennet Aburakhmanova in Russia. The link between repression and terrorism is clear.

Memorial, one of Russia's most prominent human rights organisations, describes the behaviour of the security forces in Dagestan:

The suspects are oftentimes being taken to Chechnya to be tortured, because there people can be tortured with impunity, moreover, one does not have to deal with the interference of defense lawyers. Those, who are cruelly tortured in Dagestan subsequently, as relatives put it “get lost”, i.e. they disappear without a trace.

It seems that in this way the security servicemen try to secure themselves from possible revenge by the victims of torture. According to lawyers and relatives of the kidnapped, in order to make an interrogation with torture easier, security services illegally detain or abduct their suspects. Unlike Chechnya and Ingushetia, where the kidnappers arrive to houses heavily armed, in masks and detain their suspects in front of numerous witnesses, in Dagestan these abductions seem to be carefully planned, take place without witnesses and other “unnecessary fuss”: the person gets out of the his house and never returns back.
Against this background, it is hard to be surprised that people are driven to the Saudi-funded hate preachers. A journalist colleague of mine who has recently returned from Dagestan tells me that terrorism pays well (around $2,500 a month for a martyr's family), and is often the only path available to young men. With the cycle of brutality and violence against innocents unbroken, the blood and roses in Russia's stations will continue.

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