NALCHIK, Russia—It's been said that the war in Chechnya is spreading, that separatists from that embattled republic are fanning outward in pursuit of an independent Islamic state that stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea here in the far southwestern corner of Russia.
That may be true. But it also may only be part of the truth.
This orderly, post-Soviet provincial city of 300,000 people could not be more different from Chechnya's ruined capital, Grozny, just a few hours' drive away. Save for the heavily armed soldiers now posted at nearly every intersection, you would never know that for two days this fall the city made international headlines.
On Oct. 13, 2005, dozens of masked rebels mounted an attack, blocking roadways and seizing gun shops and police and security posts. The siege lasted two days, and nearly 150 people died—most of them rebels. Thirty-five police officers were killed, along with 14 civilians.
Irina Khishukova works for a British NGO that has focused on the region since the mid-1990s. That October morning, she heard gunshots in the courtyard of her apartment building. She ran outside. Just beyond her front door, she encountered rebels wearing uniforms. She mistook them for police and hurried by.
"It was only later that I learned the truth. They killed a policeman just over there," she told me, standing in her courtyard and affecting the pose of a man with an automatic rifle.
"There are four schools near here. Women were running from all directions toward the schools in their slippers. At my son's school, the teachers kept the children away from the windows so they wouldn't be shot. Of course there were tears, and everyone was shouting, 'Beslan! Beslan!' "
What the children and their mothers feared was another school siege, like the one just south of here last year during which more than 300 people, most of them children, were killed. Unlike Beslan, though, rebels here for the most part targeted police and militia, not civilians. (They did hold civilians hostage at one police headquarters but did not execute any.)
By the following day, Oct. 14, local police and Russian soldiers and special forces had managed to control the city. Some 92 militants had been killed and scores more detained. Only now has the grieving stopped and the questions begun.
A Web site that serves as the public-relations arm of Chechen rebels said a group called Yarmuk led the raid. That group likely receives aid and training from the Chechens, but their grievances are much more local than, for instance, the removal of Russian troops from Chechnya.
While this republic, Kabardino-Balkaria, is more developed than its struggling neighbors, corruption is rampant, and Muslims who study what they call a "pure" version of the faith—rather than the local mixture of pagan and Islamic customs—say they feel persecuted. Just last year, the local government closed six mosques here. A new one was built in the city center, but locals say it is controlled by federal security forces.
Beslan Khazhagiev is a lawyer in Nalchik. His cousin was among the rebels. The cousin worked at a bakery. For six months, he and other workers were not paid. They took their case to the local prosecutor, but nothing came of it. "After that, my cousin said the only way to communicate his problem is to have a gun in his hands. I said, 'You are a fool. You can't show them anything with a gun,' " Khazhagiev told me. "Soon after, the bakery workers went on strike. But by then, my cousin had disappeared. We thought he had a job in Moscow."
Then, on the first day of the raid, a friend of Khazhagiev's saw the cousin on a bridge at the entrance to Nalchik. In his hands was a gun. The following day, his name appeared on a list of militants who'd been killed.
The trouble is, his body has yet to be released to the family. According to Russian law, the corpses of accused terrorists are kept in custody—in clear contradiction to Muslim tradition. Locals say this only fans the flames of discontent.
Khazhagiev says he worries his cousin's widow will also turn to militancy, like a handful of Chechen widows have. Just 19 years old, the widow would not give me her name for fear of reprisals from authorities. She agreed to meet for just 20 minutes, in a car with tinted windows.
She said it's difficult to even believe that her husband is dead when she can't see his body and give him a proper burial. She says she and her husband had dreamed of leaving Russia for a place like Saudi Arabia, where, she said, they could "pray freely."
"Sometimes I feel angry," she told me. "I'm not calm. Muslims here in this republic, they don't feel free. Devout Muslims are detained, they have problems finding jobs.
"So, I can't say that my husband was angry at the ordinary population here, but he was angry at the authorities—the local ones and the Russian ones. Because the Russians, they don't understand the Muslims. They don't let us live freely in this country."
The president of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, has vowed to focus on economic development, to be more open to public criticism, and to encourage religious tolerance.
But his critics say he can only do so much; the real decisions, they say, come down from the Kremlin, and those decisions almost always involve violence rather than understanding.
Khazhagiev says that right now is a pivotal moment for the region—and for his cousin's widow. "Either she belongs to radical people, or to us, the common people, the moderate people. Right now it depends who persuades her. I'm afraid that if we don't work with such people and such families, they are all potential terrorists. It doesn't take a war in a place like Chechnya to make this happen. It only takes anger."