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.
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."
Yet here in Argun, a small city just east of Grozny, relatives and neighbors agree that two women have disappeared within blocks of each other in the last few weeks -- both from families with ties to pro-Russian authorities.
Armed men came for Khalimat Sadullayeva, 37, the mother of four children, as the family was sleeping before dawn on Sept. 12.
"I heard some sort of noise as they were climbing over the fence," recalled Sadullayeva's father, Khamid Magomadov, 65. "I saw that they were wearing masks and military uniforms. There were two of them pointing their rifles at me. My wife was saying, 'Why are you afraid of him? What can he do to you?' They didn't answer."
The men, all speaking Russian, put family members on the floor. "We thought they were coming for our son," said Tamara Magomadova, 55, Khamid's wife. But instead they found Sadullayeva. "Someone pointed at her and said, 'This is her,' " recalled Sadullayeva's sister-in-law, Madina. Three of the men grabbed the woman and began taking her away.
Magomadova chased the one who seemed to be the commander. "I ran after him and he pointed his gun at me and said, 'I'll shoot you if you don't stop,' " she recalled. "All the kids were screaming, shouting, 'Our mama is being taken away! Don't take her away!' "
The men offered no explanation. The only thing they said, according to relatives, was "Where's the money? Where's the bag?" Sadullayeva's parents said they suspected the men had heard a far-fetched rumor that guerrillas had paid her thousands of dollars because her house was destroyed in a firefight last year. But her parents said she received no compensation.
If they thought she was a potential shakhidka, or female martyr, her parents said, they were mistaken. "To be a shakhidka, you need to have somebody in your family dead," said Magomadova, a prominent local figure who served 10 years in the Soviet-era regional parliament. "She didn't have any victims. Why would she become a shakhidka? She had four kids."
Khamid Magomadov and other men in the family have been taken away in the past, but all were released within hours or days. Sadullayeva has been gone for more than five weeks and no government authorities have acknowledged having her in custody. "I never saw a woman taken away before," said Magomadov. "All that time, nobody touched women. Now they're starting to take them, too."
Armed men came for Zalpa Mintayeva at about 5 a.m. on Oct. 9. Like those who took Sadullayeva, they spoke unaccented Russian and appeared to be soldiers, relatives said. After determining that no men were in the house, they chose Mintayeva, a 46-year-old grandmother. "Okay, you're good enough for us," one of them said, according to her daughter, Khadizhat.
"I was begging them, 'Leave her, she's innocent,' " Khadizhat, 20, recalled. Her own two small children were crying, and her 16-year-old sister, Madina, was screaming in panic. "Why were they taking her away? They said, 'We're going to take you and your children away as well if you don't calm down.' I said, 'Take me, but leave my mama.' I kept asking them, 'Who are you? Where are you from?' They said, 'Shut up. You'll find out.' "
The men rifle-butted both sisters' shoulders as they struggled, they said. "One of them told me, 'Don't yell, don't cry. Otherwise we're going to kill you as well,' " said Khadizhat.
Their mother was taken away in her nightgown. As of two days later, she had not been found nor had authorities acknowledged holding her.
Relatives said Zalpa Mintayeva had no ties to the separatists. In fact, they said, her son-in-law -- Khadizhat's husband -- recently was shot dead fighting the separatists in the service of the Moscow-installed government.
As an aging, heavyset woman, relatives added, Zalpa Mintayeva would make an unlikely suicide bomber. "She's twice as big as me," said Arsayeva, her sister. "I could understand a skinny 20-year-old with a foggy mind. We're educated. Why would we need this?"
At least some of the women who have strapped on explosive belts in the last two years were unwilling accomplices, according to authorities, human rights groups, relatives and a failed suicide bomber who had been captured. Many say they believe the women are coerced, drugged, sold by relatives or threatened with harm to their children.
As the long-running war here touches and takes more lives, women now seem at the center. "Each woman who's gone through these two wars can tell you," said Yusupova. "Each one has her own kind of pain. One kind of wound might heal, but another right now opens up." She added, "We always ask the question: What gives birth to terrorism? The system gives birth to terrorism. No one else."