ARGUN, Russia -- Just before sunrise one morning this month, a dozen armed men in camouflage uniforms and black masks burst into the house of Zalpa Mintayeva, shouting, "Do you have a man at home?"
The men were all dead, Mintayeva answered, according to her daughters. So the intruders grabbed her instead, beating her daughters with their rifle butts and threatening to shoot anyone who interfered. They stuffed Mintayeva into a vehicle and sped away.
Madina Mintayeva, 16, and her sister Khadizhat, 20, holding her year-old baby, were at home in Argun, Chechnya, when masked gunmen seized their mother. Chechens and human rights groups say such abductions are on the rise.
(Peter Baker -- The Washington Post)
For years, Russian troops have stormed into homes in Chechnya in the middle of the night to seize young men they say are separatist fighters; often the men were tortured, killed or simply disappeared. But as Chechen guerrillas increasingly recruit female suicide bombers such as the ones who blew up two planes in August and helped seize a school in Beslan last month, Russian forces are sweeping through Chechnya abducting women from their homes as well, according to residents and human rights investigators.
"We're used to the fact that they took our men, but now they're taking our women," said Petimat Arsayeva, Mintayeva's sister. "They're pushing people to the point where I don't know what will happen." Mintayeva's whereabouts remain unknown.
The disappearance of women in Chechnya offers insight into both the roots and the consequences of the Beslan school siege, in which more than 330 people were killed. When the first "black widows," as the Russians termed the female bombers, appeared on the scene two years ago, they were described as women avenging the deaths of their men. Now Russians seem to be taking revenge for the attacks of the avengers.
"It's just the beginning of a new stage," said Lida Yusupova, who runs the office of Memorial, a human rights group, in Grozny, the Chechen capital. "The tendency they had to arrest men has been switched to women." In a first round of war in Chechnya in the 1990s, she said, "soldiers would never say a rude word in front of a woman. But now I realize there's nothing holy left."
In the two wars of the past decade, an estimated 100,000 people have died in Chechnya. Russian forces have carpet-bombed Grozny with more tons of munitions than any European city has endured since World War II.
Russian troops still conduct so-called cleansing operations, targeting residents with no known ties to the separatists. Chechen guerrillas kidnap their own people for ransom. Even foreign aid workers have been killed, or captured and held for months.
Outgunned by Russian forces on the battlefield, Chechen guerrillas have turned with increasing frequency to terrorism, taking over a Moscow theater and blowing up trains, planes, buses and subways, killing more than 1,000 people in the last two years. When guerrillas stormed School No. 1 in Beslan on Sept. 1, the Russians responded by rounding up the relatives of two Chechen guerrilla leaders and holding them until the siege ended in a bloody battle Sept. 3.
The Beslan attackers included two women dressed in black, with scarves covering their faces and explosive belts around their waists. As the attackers trained guns on more than 1,200 children, parents and teachers in the gymnasium, the school's director, Lydia Tsaliyeva, begged them to release the students, according to her deputy, Olga Sherbinina.
"Let the kids go and the adults stay," Tsaliyeva said. "Feel mercy for the young."
Sherbinina recalled one of the fighters answering: "Who felt mercy for my children? My house was bombed, and five of my children were killed."
There is no firm count of how many women have been taken away in Chechnya lately, but it is at least dozens in the last few months, according to Yusupova. Some were later sent home; others remain missing. The bodies of three women were recently dug up in Grozny.
The Russian military denies seizing women and insists that relatives who describe such incidents are inventing them to support the Chechen commander Aslan Maskhadov. "I don't believe the gossip they tell foreign correspondents," Maj. Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, a military spokesman, said by telephone. "You're a victim of Maskhadov's propaganda. This is nonsense, complete nonsense."