Chechnya's Deadly "Black Widows": Young Chechen Women Are Striking Fear in the Hearts of Russians by Staging Suicide Missions. but Are They Willing Martyrs-Or Pawns in a Male War? Only One Has Ever Survived to Tell Her Story

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Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, 22, had trouble setting off the 1.5kg of plastic explosives in her black shoulder bag. Sitting in a cafe on a hot day in Moscow on 9 July last year, she took a deep breath and reached for the detonator--calm at first, then frantic. "I pushed the button about 20 times to set off the bomb, but it just wasn't working," she later said in police interviews. The bomb did go off eventually--a Federal Security Service bomb disposal expert, 29-year-old Major Georgy Trofimov, was killed while attempting to defuse it.

Zarema is not a typical Chechen suicide bomber only in that she is still alive. Captured by the Russian police after her mission failed--uniquely for a Chechen woman--she has since been held in prison in Moscow. Because of her bungled attempt, more is known about Zarema than about any of her predecessors: she has had the chance to tell her story in the Russian media, never in direct interviews but in second-hand reports via the police.

The aeroplanes from Moscow that crashed on Tuesday 24 August had the names of two Chechen women on their passenger lists, one in each plane. Russia is becoming obsessed with these women, and with good reason: almost every suicide bombing connected to Chechnya in the past two years has involved women. Indeed, some of the attacks have been exclusively carried out by women. Last December, two women blew themselves up metres away from the Kremlin, killing five and injuring 12, only days after two other women were seen jumping from a train blast in south Russia that killed 44. In the Dubrovka Theatre siege in Moscow in October 2002, during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost, almost half the terrorists were female. In July 2003, two suicide bombings in Moscow involved women under the age of 30.

Surprisingly, Zarema is not a defiant Islamist desperate for a place in heaven. Her story is one of poverty and desperation typical of a land that has known nothing but war for a decade. From 1994 to 1996, Boris Yeltsin's troops reined in the breakaway republic where she grew up. Chechnya remained unstable throughout the late 1990s, however, and President Vladimir Putin sent the Russian army back in again in 2000, following terrorist bombings in Moscow that were blamed on Chechen extremists.

Zarema's home region, Achkoi-Martan, where she was brought up by her grandparents, was largely destroyed in the first war. Her own fate was sealed during the Russian troops' second invasion. She went to school--between ages seven and 15--leaving to marry when she became pregnant. Her husband died fighting for Chechen independence before she gave birth. According to Chechen tradition, she and her baby daughter then "belonged" to her husband's family, who treated her as a household slave. She eventually escaped alone (knowing that the family would never let her have custody of her child). She got by however she could, stealing and borrowing money.

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Her debts became so great that a group of men from whom she had taken a loan told her she had no choice but to pay them back with her life: if she would complete a suicide mission, her debts would be repaid and her family would also receive money. She claims she lived in a mountain village for a month with Chechen independence fighters, who fed her stories of Russian atrocities.

Eventually she was "ready" for her mission and sent to a safe house in Moscow where a woman with the code name "Black Fatima" looked after her. Zarema has claimed she wanted to carry out the suicide bombing to avenge her husband's death, but she also says she was drugged regularly in her orange juice, which gave her headaches. On the designated day, she was sent to a central Moscow cafe: she attempted to detonate the device in three different places before being arrested in a fourth restaurant. Police reported that she was extremely upset by the death of the officer who tried to defuse the bomb. …