Before the Boston Marathon bombing, few Americans had ever heard of the Russian province of Dagestan or its capital Makhachkala. Those of us who had, mostly foreign correspondents based in Moscow, knew the names well enough. Suicide bombers seemed to strike Dagestan on a daily basis in a desperate effort to chase out the Russians, establish an Islamic caliphate and get to know virgins.
Two years ago, I set off for the North Caucasus after quitting my job as a reporter for Bloomberg News in Moscow. I wanted to see for myself an impoverished region that most Russians associate with banditry and terrorism. I hoped to get a feel for how serious the Islamic insurgency along Russia’s southern border really is. And I was dead-set on tracking down Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed warlord who holds Chechnya in an iron grip.
I bought a one-way ticket to Makhachkala on the Dagestan Airlines website, kissed my girlfriend good-bye and took the express train to Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, the site of a suicide attack less than three months earlier.
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April 15, 2011
Dagestan Airlines Flight 372 is a Tupolev-154 which hasn’t seen a redesign since the 1970s. The walls are of a pale green floral pattern. I get a window seat in row 31, at the very back of the plane, where I can put up my legs on a hump that covers the landing gear. Perhaps the only advantage of my seat, right next to an engine, is that it’s in an emergency exit row. The sign over the door is in Russian and completely incomprehensible English. Condensed water drips from the door onto my shoes.
Four months ago, a Dagestan Airlines Tu-154 crashed in Moscow as it was taking off.
Rashid, a large, stocky man, squeezes in next to me. He’s a courier who has flown in on the same plane and is now on the return leg back to Makhachkala. He carries a big, black bag. I wonder what’s inside it.
Rashid belongs to the Avars, the largest ethnic group in Dagestan. He’s a teacher by profession, but because he couldn’t make ends meet on his salary, he started working for Makhachkala airport security to supplement his income.
During elections five years ago, he had to serve on the voting commission at the polling station in his school. He remembers how men came in with their jackets stuffed with filled-out ballots. The slits in the ballot boxes were originally wide enough for a sheet of paper but got wider and wider as the packets of ballots clunked down “like bricks.”
Rashid is unhappy with the government, yet he doesn’t believe that there are Islamic extremists who have taken to the woods.
Even though the North Caucasus is predominantly Muslim, the food on Dagestan Airlines is distinctly Russian: two rolls served with sausage and cheese, followed by a pale hotdog with overcooked pasta. I remark on the choice of meat. Rashid says he never buys pork but will eat it if that’s all there is.
After 140 minutes in the air, we land in Makhachkala.