MAKHACHKALA — A woman is standing near the police cordons, looking into the dark space where the Golden Empire restaurant stood until a few moments earlier. First came the grenades, and then a car exploded in front of the entrance. All that’s left now is debris. When the woman repeatedly tries calling her sister, a cleaner at the Golden Empire, she just gets a message that the subscriber is not available.
Here in Makhachkala, a city of some 500,000 people, everyone reaches for their phone when terrorists strike. What happened? Where? What street? People want to know if the attack was close to where their relatives worked, or if it was on the kids’ route to school. Pictures of what used to be the restaurant, the burning cars, the exploded windows, then make the digital rounds.
The next morning, Russian security forces begin a special operation in the suburbs of Makhachkala: A house is cordoned off, and a tank goes crashing through the door leading to a courtyard. A woman and three children are seen leaving the building before it is destroyed.
The video shows close-ups of maimed bodies and an ID card. “Seven bandits were neutralized,” reads a regional anti-terror committee statement. Some of them were allegedly responsible for the attack on the Golden Empire.
Acts of violence are committed virtually every day in Dagestan, the Russian republic east of Chechnya. The conflict between terrorists and security forces here is currently “the bloodiest in Europe,” according to the think tank International Crisis Group.
In the turbulent northern Caucasus, which Russia has been unable to subdue for decades, at least 986 people were killed or wounded, most of them in the Republic of Dagestan, last year alone, according to the independent news portal “Kavkaz-uzel.ru.”
Leading up to the Olympic Games beginning today in Sochi, the conflict sharpened. In a video released two weeks ago, terrorists belonging to the Vilayat Dagestan group threatened some “surprises” for Sochi guests.
The group also accepted responsibility for the attacks in Volgograd at the end of December, during which 34 people were killed. Russian security forces have reacted against the terrorist underground with particular harshness in the year leading up to the Winter Games, particularly during the last month or so. But so far no resolution is in sight.
Abductions, beatings, torture
“It’s an undeclared war,” says Sidrat Erbelova, 28, a nurse in Makhachkala. Police wearing black helmets, protective vests and carrying automatic weapons are often seen on the streets of Dagestan’s capital. Though they represent heightened security, they are also a source of anxiety, Erbelova believes. She says that’s what the men who abducted her brother and a friend of his in broad daylight on the streets looked like. “They followed him and his friend, shot him in the leg and loaded him into the back seat of their car,” she says. “Someone who witnessed the scene told me how my brother and his friend screamed.”
She is sure this was one of the Russian security force’s “special operations.” Her family never received any type of communication about their son being arrested. Jamil Abdulajev was 24-years-old when he was abducted, was attending university and held down various low-level jobs. He lived with his mother, Patimat Abdulkadirova, in the village of Leninkent near Makhachkala. The house is clearly not that of wealthy people, so the abductors could not have been hoping for ransom.
“If my son is guilty of some offense, then charges must be brought and he should have his day in court,” says Mrs. Abdulkadirova. “You don’t abduct people.”
She’s still looking for her son. Lawyer Selim Magomedov relates how several weeks after the abduction, in the Makhachkala detention center, he saw a man who looked a lot like Abdulajev. “I’m 95% sure it was him,” he says. The man had been injured and had a bandaged leg.
When the family followed up, they were told that there had never been an injured man at their facility. Yelena Denissenko, a Dagestan expert at a human rights organization called Memorial, says that she has received more than 30 inquiries about missing persons during the last year.
“Most of them are abducted by armed men in camouflage,” she says. “Very often several days after the abduction some of the abducted turn up at police stations. When they’re released, they tell us they were tortured.” This is a classic way for security forces to try and get information about terrorists they suspect may be family members or friends of the abducted parties.
Russian forces crack down for Sochi
Ramasan Jafarov, deputy head of Dagestan’s government and a former secret service operative, says he is unaware of any abductions by security forces. Then again, he’s not responsible for Dagestan’s police or security forces, who report directly to Moscow. “I don’t exclude that they put pressure on relatives,” he says, adding that he is unaware of physical pressure but is sure that the relatives of terrorists are held “morally responsible” for terrorist acts.
Jafarov says that security forces’ actions have increased in past months because of the Olympic Games in Sochi. “We should be proud that the Olympic Games are taking place in the Caucasus,” he says. “We want the Games to take place in a peaceful atmosphere.”
In the run-up to the Games, the pressure on religious fundamentalists has grown enormously, human rights organizations say, although Islam in the northern Causcasus republics has traditionally been moderate. Only a minority are Salafists, and only some of those are prepared to use violence to fight for an Islamic state.
But a distinction between peaceful and violent fundamentalists is no longer being observed. According to the Memorial organization, the ID documents of a number of Salafist women were confiscated, and they were told they would get them back after the Olympic Games were over.
In the city of Bujnaksk, police have forbidden Salafists to leave town before the end of the Games. For months, bearded men and veiled women have been randomly hauled down to police stations to be fingerprinted and have samples of their DNA taken.
In October, a 32-year-old bookkeeper and computer programmer named Riswan was abducted along with some 60 other guests at a Muslim café. “Our arrests were never officially announced,” he says. The police accused them of being fundamentalists and proceeded to fingerprint and photograph them all.
When Riswan tried to film the situation with his mobile phone, he was beaten half unconscious. After a while, they finally decided to call a doctor who was told by police officer that Riswan “fell and injured himself.” Riswan filed charges against the officials, after which he was told that his name was included on a list of potential terrorists.
And yet deputy government head Jafarow states that the number of active terrorists has remained stable for years — at 150 to 160 in Dagestan. They work in small groups and consider Chechnyan rebel chief Doku Umarov their leader.
Many live in the woods, but some live in cities where sympathizers rent apartments for them and provide them with food and money. Revenge against the state is one of the major reasons for radicalization. Politician Jafarov believes that ordinary criminals also hide out among the Salafists, but experts doubt this, saying that hardly any of the underground fighters survive for longer than two years.
It is unclear whether it will be possible to protect the Sochi Games against attackers. But the wounds currently being inflicted in Dagestan will no doubt remain open for a long time to come.