Dispatch

Putin’s Secret War

Putin’s Secret War

Click here to see photos from the war zone in Russia’s backyard. 

MAKHACHKALA, Russia – The officers nervously cocked their rifles as the crowd began to swell. The Kirovsky police station in the capital city of Russia’s Dagestan region was now under siege. But the angry cohort outside the station walls on May 19 wasn’t composed of the bearded, gun-toting militants one might expect in this insurgency-racked region, but a crowd of enraged women in hijabs and ankle-length dresses. It wasn’t the first angry mob the officers had faced down, but a crowd of only women was unprecedented. Their dry faces wrinkled by sleepless nights, the women stormed the courtyard looking for their husbands and sons, locked in the basement cells, where they were thought to be beaten or, worse, tortured with electricity.

Yelling at the top of their lungs, the women, mostly Salafi Muslims, demanded that police let in their lawyers. Desperate to make sure that one of the women’s sons, a 19-year-old named Abdurakhman Magomedov, detained a few hours earlier, was not hidden in a trunk of a police car, the women blocked the driveway. They yelled that they would blow themselves up if the authorities didn’t answer their demands. After a few phone calls and text messages went out, hundreds of the women’s infuriated male relatives and friends drove up to the police checkpoint. With iPads and cell phones held aloft, they began taking photos of the men in uniform.

The Dagestan insurgency began with the spillover of militant activity following Russia’s harsh crackdown on neighboring Chechnya in the late 1990s. Although the region is traditionally Sufi, militant Salafi imams have been making inroads in the North Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, the region has been the scene of a vicious cycle of violence and repression: police and special forces have arrested thousands of young Salafists throughout the North Caucasus republics, which in turn has driven more young men — and increasingly women — to various jihadi groups that aim to establish an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus. With thousands of active fighters, the insurgency in Dagestan is now reportedly the largest in the Caucasus.

In Makhachkala, frustration and rage have been growing over the 17 people abducted, presumably by authorities, since the beginning of this year. Dagestan, always one spark away from fire, is heating up — a bad sign in this region, where 254 Russian police officers died in insurgency-related incidents last year, far more than the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan.

"Women should be sitting at home cooking soup for men, under sharia law," the police officers sarcastically shouted at the angry crowd. The comment was the last straw for Zhanna Ismailova. Two of her five sons had been abducted from their workplaces that month, she said. Men in black uniforms, who introduced themselves as members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) took them in on suspicion of militant activity. One of her sons, Arslan, 34, had been released after two days and has gone into hiding. Taking out her cell phone, Ismailova showed me pictures of her son’s wounds, including pictures of his feet, burned by what she said were electric shocks. The FSB men questioned Arslan about twin suicide attacks on May 3 that killed 13 and injured more than 100 people in Makhachkala. Ismailova’s youngest son, Rashid, is still missing. "This brutality and Moscow’s idiotic politics is the reason for the war," Ismailova said.

At one point, she slipped past guards and ran into the building, yelling: "Show me immediately the cells where you beat our children!" Outside, hundreds of her supporters, now face to face with a unit of special-forces troops in black balaclavas, were raising their hands in the air and chanting: "God is Great! God is Great!"

To most Russians, the scene would probably look more like Syria or Libya than their own country. State television rarely broadcasts images or even official comments about the increasing human rights abuses by the FSB or police in Dagestan. It’s a part of Russia that newly returned President Vladimir Putin does not want to talk about now. Meanwhile, Dagestan is quietly turning from police action to the kind of shooting war against Islamic insurgents that Putin waged with brutal efficiency in Chechnya at the beginning of his first presidential term.

"Instead of reforming the court system, so independent courts could prosecute those who abduct and execute people in this part of Russia, Moscow assigns thugs, men known for their criminal background, to leading positions at security agencies, who pay million-dollar kickbacks to the insurgency in order to save their lives," said Gagzhimurad Omarov, a former member of parliament from Dagestan who stepped down last fall and has now joined the opposition. It’s a paradox that Moscow refuses to address. At the same time Putin has declared a zero-tolerance policy for militant activity in Dagestan, the officials he has appointed are paying protection money to the insurgency, which has often targeted Russian officials.

"Silence and secrecy is Putin’s style. We never heard any proper commentary clarifying why he canceled the trip to G-8 summit. It does not surprise us that we hear nothing of his strategy to put an end to violence in Dagestan," senior human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina said.

Gannushkina has been focusing on the North Caucuses for years, calling and Skyping associates in the region day and night. A member of ex-President Dmitry Medvedev’s human rights council, she reported to the Kremlin for the past three years about conditions in the Caucuses. She got little reaction to her increasingly dire warnings while Medvedev was in charge, but with Putin back in his presidential seat, Gannushkina quit the council along with other highly respected human rights defenders.

The night before the angry gathering outside the Kirovsky police station, Gannushkina, members of the human rights NGO Memorial, and a parliamentary committee on constitutional law and civil society stayed up all night in Moscow, trying to save the lives of two young men, three women, and two babies in a house in Makhachkala surrounded by federal forces. The inhabitants of the house were suspected of participating in the Islamist underground. Gannushkina and her team tried for hours to convince the commander of the operation to let the women and children out and allow the men to surrender. But in the end, federal forces raided the house, killing one of the men, who was indeed armed; keeping the three women in custody for a day; and arresting and beating the other man at Kirovsky station. It was this arrest that precipitated the demonstration at the station the next day.

The situation at the station quickly spiraled out of control. Soon enough, blood was on the pavement. Several Salafi men grabbed this reporter’s notebook and camera, but returned them. A reporter for a web news portal went down in a scrum of fists, was pulled out and rescued by police, and later flew to Moscow to receive treatment for shock and bruises. The police started making arrests. The crowd threw chunks of pavement, hitting one policeman in the forehead, leaving a bloody gash. Before the crowd dispersed, 11 more people were in cells in Kirovsky station.

It was just another day in the violent conflict that most Russians aren’t even aware is taking place within their own country.

An earlier version of this piece reported that protesting women gathered outside the Dagestan police station on May 27, 2012. This incident took place on May 19, 2012.