We arrive in Argun, on the outskirts of Grozny. Days after the Russian assault, Tagir Gadzhiyev escorted English and American journalists along the same highway. They had to turn around here because of an air raid.
As we enter Derbent, a fat traffic policeman stops our car, a black Lada of the make preferred by suicide bombers. The cop is surprisingly jovial. A “special operation” against terrorists is under way, he says.
The Soviet Army once trained here because of the terrain’s similarity to Afghanistan. Today Dagestan’s homegrown Mujahideen imagine themselves in a holy war fought from the cliffs that tower above us.
“We may share a common language with Russians, but our ethno-psychology is different,” says Zaur Gaziyev. “The free spirit lives on in the people. We didn’t have 600 years of serfdom like Russia did.”
Even though both his grandfathers died in Bolshevik captivity, Ilyas Kayayev can’t say Russian rule has been bad for Dagestan on the whole: “What’s the point of being independent and sitting in a cave?”
Government officials and policemen are the targets of attacks, though innocent bystanders also get caught in the crossfire. Strashno – it’s terrible, Arslan says, especially if you have children.
Dagestan Airlines Flight 372 is a Tupolev-154 which hasn’t seen a redesign since the 1970s. I get a window seat in row 31, where I can put up my legs on a hump that covers the landing gear. The only advantage of my seat is that I’m next to an emergency exit.
Less than an hour’s drive to the north is Tskhinvali, where fighting began after Georgian forces took the city following a night of heavy bombardment. Most houses had broken windows and were either pockmarked by bullets or gutted by shelling.