Chechnya’s Black Widows: What Drives Them?

History & Russia’s Female Suicide Bombers


Suicide bombings are nothing new – it is a tactic that been in use since the early 1980s – but it has typically been a man’s game. Until recently, that is. There is no place where female suicide bombers have blossomed more than in the Caucasus region of Russia: Chechnya and Dagestan. The practice of suicide bombings did not originate here but seems to be thriving in the Caucasus.

Most articles that mention the women almost always refer to them as ‘Black Widows.’ It is easy to label their actions as born from grief and anger. It is understandable as years of violence have taken their toll on countless families in the form of physical casualties and mental scarring. To call these women who choose to kill themselves and others grieving widows only tells part of the story.  The history of Chechen-Russian relations, the impact of Islam on the region, and the culture itself all play a role in this complicated story. Knowing some of this history may well explain their motives…

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A View of Ongoing Conflict Burnout

Devastating conflict goes on around the globe every day. When conflicts go on, with no clear end in sight, people grow weary, bored. They move on to the next hot spot. Unfortunately, the people involved cannot move on. I was recently shocked by two separate postings on Twitter that illustrated these points. The first was a passing announcement that the previous month (March 2014) recorded no US military deaths in Afghanistan. I had not hear any statistics in so long that I forgot. The other post, made by a Syrian, was more snarky but made a valid point, asking if we remember when we used to post how many people were killed in Syria each month. Their horrific civil war has been going on for three years.

I am myself guilty of this. When the US first went into Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, I watched movements daily. The same happened when the US went after Saddam Hussein in Iraq. As the months and years went on, the battles, IEDs and ambushes became “routine.” I stopped checking the news daily. It just seemed to be the same news over and over. The names became numbers. The numbers became…well, we, as a people, began to forget.

I vowed not to do that again when I began watching the crisis in Syria unfold into civil war. I know that seems odd, given the US is not involved. It isn’t just conflicts the US is involved in that I follow. I understand the world is related, even if by small threads, and that what happens in a place like Syria can eventually have an affect on the US and her allies. What surprised me most about Westerners watching the Syrian conflict was the quickness of apathy. Thousands of Syrians had been killed by their own government and by rebel forces, yet, the West quickly lost interest. Until Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. It was then that Syria made it back into Western news. The US called the use of chemical weapons a red line, and that consequences would follow. Well, no action followed, and a deal was made that Syria give up its chemical weapons. Many casual observers saw this as a “win,” not only because Assad was forced to give up the chemical weapons but also because the US was not going to get involved.  In the meantime, Assad continued his assault on the rebels and Syrian people using traditional weapons, killing over 100,000 Syrians- some place the number as high as 150,000. Over a million refugees have passed into Lebanon alone, not to mention the countless refugees in Turkey. Syria was now back pages, yet the conflict continues.

In November 2013, the Ukrainian government decide not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, under pressure from Russia. Ukrainians, tired of Russian influence in the government, took to the streets of Kyiv in protest. Day after day, month after month, Ukrainians stood in protest, calling for an EU agreement, then eventually for the resignation of then-president Viktor Yanukovych. The protesters faced regular clashes with police. Eight people died in those clashes by 18 February. On 20 February, all hell broke loose. Snipers (now known as under the order of Yanukovych) began firing upon the protesters in the Maidan, in central Kyiv. Reportedly, 76 people were killed that day by sniper fire, making the death toll for February 2014 over 100. President Yanukovych was run from office, and an interim president was named. In March 2014, Russia annexed Ukrainian Crimea and forced a referendum. Without a shot fired, Crimea became part of Russia. Since then, Ukrainian-Russian tensions have continued, but it as daily news has waned. No shots were fired, Russia didn’t invade, no war was started. Minor skirmishes in Eastern towns don’t have the same draw as all out war.

For some reason, Western media hasn’t really picked up on the ongoing unrest in Central African Republic, Venezuela and Thailand. These conflicts don’t risk the possibility of US or Western involvement, therefore hold no interest? For thousands, this is their life.

I wish I had the time and energy to track down the reason why the world loses interest in long conflict. Desensitized? Burnout? Unfortunately, it is the way of the world now. We pay attention to the sexy, the violent, the personal.  When that gets boring or goes away, we move on to the next thing. Sadly, the people directly affected by these conflicts cannot move on. They have to live with it everyday. Muslims in CAR have to worry that they’ll be killed for being Muslim. Who of those who oppose Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela will be the next victim? Will Thailand’s pro-government Red Shirts fight back if the government is ousted?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I wish I did. I do know that more of us should pay attention to what goes on in the world – myself included – as it may eventually affect us. Like it or not, the world is no longer made up of isolated continents. Globalization means the world is intertwined more than many know. The Syrian civil war outcome has a great impact on the security of the Western world as many anti-west terrorist groups are making themselves known in the region, a central location. Allowing an aggressive Russia to make inroads in Ukraine permits a direct threat to any pro-Russian region in Eastern Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it well known how he believes Ukraine is a region of Russia. In Venezuela, Maduro’s policies are bringing down the country, destabilizing the region. Continuing unrest in Africa allows more unsavory elements to move in, be it regional warlords or terrorists groups. The impacts may not seem direct, but any global conflict can have an impact on Western interests. So perhaps we should pay more attention to the long, ongoing conflicts. They may someday have a direct impact on us.

My View of Maidan

I watched the massacre on Maidan unfold in real time. No, I wasn’t there (thank God), but I did see it live. As the protests on Maidan Nezalezhnosti grew more intense in the new year, I fell into watching the live feeds from Ukrainian and Russian television. I have no personal investment in what happens in Ukraine. My grandmother was Ukrainian, but I don’t remember her a such. She claimed to be Prussian, and American.

Not that it matters.

On 20 February, I came home from work, and as was my usual routine at the time, pulled up the Maidan feeds. They were nothing spectacular. A view of the stage, people giving inspiring speeches, views of the massive crowd. Flipping back and forth between the feeds and schoolwork, I kind of dozed off. Until I saw movement. A random camera angle caught some agitated protesters at the back of the crowd. They were visibly stirred up, waving for friends to come join them. This caught my eye. The speeches went on as though nothing was happening. I suppose this was standard for life on Maidan, where things happened almost daily. But not like this. The intensity these guys were showing was different than what I’d seen prior. A small number of people began running their way, carrying whatever weapons they had. It seemed like only a matter of minutes had gone by when I started seeing casualties being carried away from the other side of the square. They were in bad shape, more so than I’d seen yet. As it happened, panic, fear. People were battered, broken, bloodied. The casualties came faster. Snipers were firing on the people of Euromaidan. I was horrified at what I was watching. I can still see it in my mind.

Following the months of protests, and watching that day… I admire the Ukrainians on the Maidan. They had the courage to stand up for what they believed. Through Ukrainian winter and hostile government forces, they were out on the square day after day. Battered by police and thugs, the Ukrainians stood up to rid themselves of who they saw as a corrupt Kremlin puppet. Thousands of Ukrainians stood up, even as their fellow citizens on Maidan were being shot and killed. They were successful in forcing Viktor Yanukovych out of office, but they still have a long road ahead. Years of corruption and mismanagement by governments have left Ukraine vulnerable. Kyiv is disorganized and unsure. Since Euromaidan, Russia has annexed Crimea without resistance from Ukraine. There is still unrest in the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk.

I think about my own country, myself. Do I know anyone who would be willing to do that? Would I be willing to do that? Watching the events in Ukraine, I reflect on my own country. We have moved far away from the days of World War II, when the love of God, country, and family superseded all. People stood up and volunteered to fight for what was right. We are now a country of activism for personal causes. I look at Ukraine, and many other countries, and wonder if we’ve lost touch. More importantly, do we still understand how the world works beyond our borders? Misplaced ideals and theory are no match for a people willing to stand in a Ukrainian winter, among titushky and Berkut, to fight for the glory of their country. Euromaidan may have been one important victory, but will Ukrainians win the war? Russia is still eyeing territory in Ukraine. Does Ukraine have what it takes to resist? The government may not, but the people of Ukraine certainly do. I think 20 February proved the citizens of Kyiv, and Ukraine, will do what it takes to save their country.