GIMRY, Russia -- The tin roofs of Gimry glint in the bright midday sun high amid the jagged peaks of Daghestan's Caucasus Mountains. Located on Russia's southern fringe, this isolated village of houses built on top of each other along a thin strip of land is accessible by a single narrow dirt road, mostly washed away by rain. It's so remote, children speak only the local Avar language and residents talk of "Russia" as if they're in another country.
Village elders sit on benches under houses' wooden balconies in the subtropical fall warmth. Their talk turns to how soldiers recently sealed off Gimry during a so-called counterterrorism operation that lasted almost two years. An elderly man with a white beard named Nabi Magomedov breaks down as he describes how it began. He says militants lured his son -- a prominent member of Daghestan's parliament -- out of his house by saying they wanted to talk.
"They promised they wouldn't shoot," he tells me, "but when he came out, they shot him 62 times."
Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov took credit for ordering the killing. In a grainy video posted on the Internet, he accused the younger Magomedov of betraying Islam by cooperating with the authorities against the separatists fighting to establish Islamic Shari'a law across the Caucasus.
Fear And Loathing: Russian Attitudes Help Fuel Instability In The North Caucasus
But if the ensuing counterterrorism operation in Gimry was meant to combat such extremism by identifying militants among the locals, it did the opposite. Residents say that in addition to daily house-to-house searches, thousands of troops bristling with weapons cut down farmers' trees, killed livestock, and stole whatever they could from the very poor people who live here.
Magomedov says they also shot villagers in what he calls a reign of terror. "So many people were killed, and no one punished for it," he says. "The authorities don’t enforce the law, that's why people dislike them."
Outside the violent North Caucasus, there may be a growing perception that a certain, even managed, level of instability suits one or more groups among the authorities in Moscow. But as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin prepares to return to the presidency next year, developments in Daghestan and elsewhere show the situation in the Caucasus is anything but stable, and that traditional society is tearing at the seams.
Islam As Protest
Some villagers in Gimry say they're protesting by refusing to observe Russian law. They say they live under Shari'a law instead, or at least their understanding of it, which includes blood feuds and other forms of centuries-old traditional law. Many have become Salafists, conservative Muslims who denounce the Sufi Islam traditionally practiced in the Caucasus for being under state control.
On a small plateau above the village, workers are busy building a new madrasah, an Islamic religious school some hope will take over from the local state school. Such opposition to rule from Moscow is an old trope in Gimry. It was the birthplace of the Imam Shamil, a legendary leader of resistance to the tsarist empire in the 19th century.
What worries the Kremlin most today is that young men from Gimry and other villages are leaving home to join militant groups behind bombings and shootings that take place almost daily across Daghestan. Locals call it "going into the forest," and say the mounting tensions are building toward a serious confrontation with the authorities some say they'd welcome.
The general radicalization is exacerbating new divisions in a region whose many ethnic groups previously coexisted more-or-less peacefully. When a budding relationship between a young man of Gimry and a woman in the neighboring Sufi village of Insukul resulted in a shootout that killed seven people in September, the conflict was soon seen as religious in nature. After the incident, witnesses refused to give evidence to prosecutors. "You can't observe two different laws, ours and the state's," one elderly man told me. Local police never venture here, so residents police themselves and have set up a checkpoint on the road leading to Gimry as men in both villages are preparing for revenge.
In the valley below Gimry, men attending midday prayers in a ramshackle brick Salafist mosque go through the elaborate ritual of washing their feet before entering. Some sport beards and military fatigues. Among them, Abu Magomedov says adopting Salafism is the only way to protest the unfairness of daily life. "Those who go into the forest want to get closer to God," he says, "because Shari'a represents everything good in the world. Because most people live in denigration and filth and our politicians deceive us."
Magomedov is unusual for being a former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who fought in Chechnya. He says he was ordered to kill Muslim boys there "to control their numbers." Now he says acts like the assassination of Daghestan's interior minister two years ago are justified as justice and retribution.
Violence In Makhachkala
Many of the attacks take place 200 kilometers east of Gimry in the regional capital, Makhachkala. Located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, it's a chaotic city with new expensive apartment buildings standing amid the mostly old Soviet ones. On a busy downtown street last month, workers were sweeping up broken glass and metal from building facades shattered during one of the latest attacks, the bombing of a liquor store that killed a police officer and wounded 60 other people two days earlier. Passersby barely gave it their attention.
In a hospital a short walk away, victims from the blast lie bandaged on cots in a hot, crowded room. Among them, Magomed Getinov tells me he was leaving a friend's apartment when the bomb went off, sending shrapnel into his side. He calls those who carried out the bombings "monsters," and blames the region's massive unemployment for prompting many young men with little to do to turn to violence. "They're confused," he says. "They lose their morals, start turning into religious extremists and blow up innocent people because they believe they're going to take over the world."
Another short walk away near the mayor's office, a large billboard picturing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin includes a quote saying he loves Daghestanis because they defend their homeland. But such displays of authority do little to assure residents here. At the bomb site, Makhachkala resident Baniyed Magomedova tells me regular attacks make residents afraid to go outside. "You walk along and don’t know where the next bomb will go off," she says. "It's very frightening."
She says the violence is getting worse. "Someone must be using religion as a cover because Islam doesn't call for killing innocent people."
Corruption, Bread, And Circus
Despite its poverty, Makhachkala's society is cosmopolitan and open for the North Caucasus. Centuries of loose adherence to Islamic customs, not to mention the suppression of religion under the Soviet Union, means older generations are less devout. At a dinner with the gregarious head of the official journalists' union, Ali Kamalov, he raised his first shot of vodka to Allah, although the atmosphere is changing even in the capital. A young relative also there refused to touch a drop. Kamalov tells me that like many public figures, he has been the target of several assassination attempts. "You survive by being very careful, by knowing the lay of the land," he says of the clan-based power structure. "Everyone knows everyone, how they came to power and who stands behind them."
But local affairs are overshadowed by the Kremlin. Kamalov describes speaking to an army general who confessed preferring instability in the region. "Back in Moscow, such people are nobodies," Kamalov says. "Here they like conflict because it enables them to behave like heroes."
Like many in the Caucasus, Kamalov says pervasive corruption choking the economy lies at the root of the problem. Most believe huge funds for developing agriculture, infrastructure, and social services are being pilfered by officials in Moscow and Makhachkala. Some of the money is spent on luxury cars and an expanding ring of suburban brick houses going up outside the capital. Much is also going into the local soccer club.
In January, Daghestani billionaire Suleiman Kerimov bought previously unknown FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Among his trophy purchases since was star Cameroonian player Samuel Eto'o, formerly of Inter-Milan, whose reported salary of $30 million per season makes him the highest-paid footballer ever. He lives and practices in Moscow and flies down for matches.
At an evening match against the Chechen team Terek Grozny, crowds stream into an old Soviet stadium amid huge security, with scores of troops carrying automatic rifles. Supporters chant Eto'o's name during the match, rising to a crescendo when he scores to equalize the game at 1-1. Whether or not Kerimov was coerced by the Kremlin, the surreal spectacle he provides is clearly aimed at channeling people's energies. But it's done little to create any real sense of normalcy.
All Those Soldiers
Across town in an outlying, concrete-block neighborhood, Svetlana Isayeva runs the group Mothers of Daghestan for Human Rights from a tiny ground-floor office. She started the organization after her 25-year-old son disappeared from the street outside her home three years ago. A stoic, dark-haired woman, Isayeva says many young men like him are detained by security forces, especially those who attend mosques and show other signs of religious piousness. She says they're forced to confess to terrorism and often killed. "Lately it's become common among law enforcers to burn people alive in their cars," she says. "Then they're accused of blowing themselves up by accident."
Isayeva says the buildings in which suspects are killed are sometimes burned down, leaving families and neighbors with no compensation and nowhere to live and prompting more young men to turn to radical Islam. Isayeva's own office was recently set on fire, but, she explains, her urge to act is stronger than the fear that keeps many other victims' relatives silent.
She says abductions began taking place regularly after troops were moved here from neighboring Chechnya in 2007, after the war there wound down. "All that equipment, all those soldiers. What was the military supposed to do?" she says. "They need conflict to continue surviving, that's the only way I can explain it."
'Everything We Do Is For The People'
If tensions in Daghestan are mounting faster than anywhere else in the Caucasus, Ingushetia -- a half-day's drive across Chechnya to the west -- has seen a decrease in violence in the three years since the Kremlin appointed President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, after spiraling corruption and dysfunction under his predecessor prompted mass protests.
Yevkurov's seat is in the new capital, Magas, built to replace the main town Nazran, an overgrown village that had carried out the role after Ingushetia split from separatist Chechnya in the 1990s. Located seemingly in the middle of nowhere, buildings in Magas are laid out in broad, Soviet-era fashion, with wide promenades surrounded by elite apartment buildings that are mostly empty because only the richest can afford them. Islamic codes are followed much more closely in Ingushetia. Young female university students in head-to-toe dresses and head scarves gossiping on benches stand when men walk by as a sign of respect.
WATCH: In Ingushetia, even the region's popular leader has been unable to tackle the root causes of violence there (video by author and cameraman Yuri Timofeev):
The presidential compound, only several years old, already appears weathered. Inside his sprawling office, Yevkurov wears a crisp gray suit and black shirt. An imposing but soft-spoken former military officer, he took part in the Russian storming of Kosovo's Pristina airport in 1999. Now an unusual figure in this extraordinarily corrupt region, he is genuinely popular for prevailing on the security forces to reduce their counterterrorism operations, building schools, and talking to human rights activists and ordinary people. He tells me his main task is to make clear to officials that "everything we do is for the people."
"We're in power thanks to them," he says. "Without the people, there would be no bureaucrats." Yevkurov admits soldiers still carry out abuses. But he also blames parents. He says it's their responsibility to know what their children are doing, and that they shouldn't be surprised when their sons are targeted in security operations against known Islamist militants. "Every single time, they tell me, 'We didn't see anything!'" he says. "When I ask them, 'Did you know your children were meeting [militants] in the forest?' they say no, they didn't know."
'If He's Guilty, Let Them Punish Him'
Yevkurov's accusation angers parents like Masha Posheva, who says she chided him during a recent meeting to appeal for help finding her son Ruslan. A gentle woman in her fifties, Posheva last saw him in May, when he dropped her off for work in Nazran. Masked gunmen in uniform stopped his car on the main road soon after. Witnesses later told Posheva they forced him into a minivan before his car was found abandoned.
"I just can't come up with a reason," she says. "He was very well behaved from childhood, he never lied or stole. The only thing people may not have liked was his piousness. He was a very devout boy." Posheva praises her son, a court bailiff, as a hard worker who loves his two young children. "I know what he was doing," she says. "He didn’t have time to be involved with militants." Still, she admits he may have done something illegal. "But there are laws in this country," she says. "If he's guilty, let them punish him, but tell me whether my child is still alive. That's all I ask."
The only avenue for many victims and their relatives like Posheva is to register abuses at Memorial, the leading human rights group, which supports a small local office in Nazran. Memorial's Abubakar Sechayev says many like Ruslan Poshev disappear because the slightest suspicion of knowing a militant is enough to get them arrested or worse. "A person can be suspected today and easily killed tomorrow and his house burned down," Sechayev says. "If the security services had any real proof, they'd go through the courts."
WATCH: Ingushetia President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov talks about militants and public trust (video by author and cameraman Yuri Timofeev):
Yevkurov maintains that he approves every counterterrorist operation. But Sechayev says that despite the decrease in searches and arrests, they're still conducted with the same violence and insensitivity as before. Sechayev's Memorial colleague Ahmet Barahoev says the real problem is Yevkurov's powerlessness. "He and others in the administration can't influence the situation in the Caucasus today," he says, "because much of what's going on is dictated by security structures that aren’t subordinate to him or any one else inside the region."
Getting Used To Death
Nazran's dusty center is little more than a chaotic crossroads near a market and a bus station. The atmosphere on the streets is undeniably tense. Years of regular shootings and explosions by Islamist militants have made the town a place where few restaurants stay open long after dark and it's difficult to find alcohol served anywhere.
Young people drink tea inside a popular café near the market, one of the few such places you see many women. Marina, a sharp young medical student who declines to give her last name, says she doesn't go out after dark but that people have to get on with their lives despite the danger. "The first time a friend is killed, you grieve for maybe a year or more," she says. "But after 20 times, you get used to death. We hear explosions one day and forget about them the next."
The following day, I drive 50 kilometers west of Nazran to Malgobek. Set on flat plains in the shadow of Caucasus Mountains foothills, the town is relatively prosperous and well-kept. Still, security forces have swooped in the previous day to arrest six young men they say had come down from the mountains to plan militant attacks. Yevkurov later praises the counterterrorism operation for causing no injuries or damage. But a woman in a nearby village who refuses to give her name tells me that around 100 masked, uniformed men who arrived on armored personnel carriers broke into her house that day.
"They didn't explain anything, just threatened and insulted us, saying we were hiding a criminal," she says. "Of course we were very scared." When her elderly mother told the soldiers she would file a complaint, one of them replied, "Shut up old woman, we do what we want here!"
In the center of Malgobek, I speak to a grizzled pensioner named Kureish Igiyev amid colorful flowering bushes in the courtyard of his house. He tells me he supports the campaign against militants but wonders why soldiers recently arrived to arrest the meek janitor of a nearby residential building on personnel carriers. "They could have led him out by the ear but instead proceeded to shell the building," he says.
Back in Nazran, a French teacher at the local university named Zarema Deligova sums up her complaints with the common refrain that violence on both sides is only part of the problem. "If corruption is the main woe elsewhere in Russia, here it's corruption and the military," she says. "I don't know which is worse."
Despite President Yevkurov's efforts, residents say official corruption continues to choke the economy, fueling a staggering unemployment rate of 57 percent, Russia's highest. In Nazran's maze-like outdoor market, a fruit vendor named Zaira, who won't give her last name, tells me customers are buying less than before. "And officials gouge more money out of us every day," she says. "We're forced to pay rising taxes and pension fund payments we don't need at all."
Yevkurov is pinning big hopes on the development of mountain resorts he says could employ up to 70 percent of the population. Asked whether he really believes foreign tourists would travel to Ingushetia to ski, he tells me he recently expanded a heavily guarded border zone to provide the area with adequate security. But critics say the month it now takes officials to approve applications to visit the zone symbolizes the futility of any hope that Yevkurov's efforts will really change anything in Ingushetia.
Here, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, the future seems bleak. "I'm frightened Putin is coming back," the rights activist Svetlana Isayeva tells me in Makhachkala, echoing the views of many who fear the social fabric will only deteriorate further. "It all started under him."