An old man is trudging home through the narrow, dusty streets of Gubden, carrying a last memento of his murdered son in the pocket of his trousers. The photo of his eldest son, which the man has stored on his mobile phone, shows a gaping hole next to his left eye. "They killed him when he could no longer defend himself," says the man, whose name is Magomedshapi Vagabov.
Close to 9 million people live in the autonomous republics of Russia's northern Caucasus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of these republics, particularly Chechnya, has been plagued by terrorism and war. But nowhere is the situation today as explosive as it is in Dagestan. This desperately poor strip of land on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, which is smaller than the US state of West Virginia, is home to several dozen ethnic groups that are bitterly at odds over government posts and grazing land, while an Islamist insurgency wages a war against Moscow and Dagestan's Russian-controlled government.
In less than four years, the world will come together in the region for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are being held in the city of Sochi. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insists that this will not be a problem, and yet his Interior Ministry has just reported that the number of terrorist attacks in the northern Caucasus has more than doubled. Only last Wednesday, armed men stormed a hydroelectric power plant in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, where they detonated three bombs. Sometimes the attacks even hit the Russian capital: In late March, a group of young female suicide bombers from Dagestankilling themselves and 40 others.
In Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, there are reports of attacks on a daily basis. In the last two weeks alone, a high-ranking judge, a Christian priest, three police officers and mayor were shot to death, policemen were injured when a bomb exploded, and another bomb caused a train to derail.
'All My Son Did Was to Preach Pure Islam'
Magomedali, the son of Vagagov, the old man in Gubden, also became a casualty of the de facto civil war when he was ambushed on July 18, 2007. The police had suspected him of being an insurgent and had ordered him to appear for questioning in the district capital, Karabudakhkent. As he was returning home, unknown assailants opened fire on his rickety Lada.
Magomedali was wounded, but not seriously, as the doctors later reported. He was taken to the hospital in Karabudakhkent, which the police had sealed off. They didn't even allow his father to visit him. When old Vagabov finally saw his son, he was already dead, with a single bullet hole next to his eye.
"All my son did was to preach pure Islam," says Vagabov. "He wasn't an insurgent."
Since the death of Magomedali Vagabov, the conflict between the government and Islamists in Gubden has expanded into a war between local clans.
Taking Matters into Their Own Hands
Vagabov points to a fist-sized hole in the wall of his living room. The village policeman was shot dead shortly after his son's death. The policeman's family immediately assumed that the Vagabov clan was to blame and decided to take matters into their own hands. The son of the policeman launched a grenade at Vagabov's house, causing a blast so powerful that the windows were shattered in six nearby houses.
Soon afterwards, the policeman's son torched a newly built house owned by Vabagov's relatives. Then the widow and daughter of the policeman were ripped apart by a mine as they were visiting his grave.
"We had nothing to do with it," Vagabov claims. He is 85 and a respected man in the village. And yet he doesn't have enough fingers on his hands to enumerate the dead in his clan. Only recently, elite troops from Moscow killed one of his nephews in a counterterrorism mission.