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August 10, 2003 by AK

A universal quest for martyrdom?

Sitting here in a quiet apartment, on a warm summer night, I can easily imagine it’s all in another country, another world, another time. But it happened ten miles from here, up north. A few weeks ago, two Chechen women blew themselves up at the entrance to the Tushino air field after a rock concert had begun on the site. 16 people died; fortunately, the women exploded outside the field, at the ticket counters. They did not try to sneak into the audience, knowing the police, who frisk young people at mass events to make sure they carry no knives or alcohol, might easily find their explosive belts.

The Tushino airfield is not far from the Khodynka field, so that some Muscovites think they are the same. During the ceremonies following the crowning of Nicholas II, over a thousand people died in a stampede in the Khodynskoye Pole, or Khodynka. Whoever prepared the Tushino explosions must have had this precedent in mind. News of the bombings could have caused a similar stampede at the rock concert, which would leave many more people dead than the blasts themselves. However, that time Russian authorities did the right thing: they asked the performers not to stop the show and continue as if nothing happened, at the same time insisting that mobile phone companies cut off communications with that area for a few hours. That way, there was no panic and crowd madness.

Yasmine Alibhai-Brown wrote a column on her trying to understand female suicide bombers, including those, but The Independent has started charging for access to their archives, so alas! I’m left out in the blue. I cannot relate emotionally to Chechen or Palestinian female kamikazes, but I should try to understand them, too. One of the Tushino women lost her close relatives in the Chechen wars and earned her living bringing goods (smuggled?) from the Southern border to Moscow rynki, “markets” (here: types of large organized bazaars where Chinese, Turkish, even Western-made clothes, footwear, etc. are sold). These kinds of small wholesalers who move goods across borders are called “shuttles” in Russia. They formed the first large entrepreneurial class in post-Soviet countries, numbering several million. I remember those cheap (and usually poor quality) Chinese and Turkish clothes and footwear from the early 1990s… Later, larger importers crowded out most shuttles, but some have been dragging on. It’s a tough business, and the girl’s life, as a shuttle and a member of a suspect minority, must have been pretty miserable. But can we say this of the other terrorist? Judge for yourself.

Sure enough, I would like to proceed the standard way: to find parallels in other times and places. I know little about Palestinians, but Russia itself has a history of women’s involvement in terrorist activities. We could look at old Ireland and pre-1947 Israel, too. That would be a different type of terrorism, mostly assassinations of the odious and attacks on army units. But how about motivations?


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