Guns and Posses on the Road to Makhachkala

The roads of Dagestan, which means "land of mountains" in Turkish, are frequently crowded with herds of sheep, goats, or cattle. We arrive at the train station in the town of Kizlyar early on a Sunday morning, and within a few miles our driver has sideswiped a cow and collided with an adult eagle, smack in the middle of the windshield. As we stop to stretch along the way, the driver of a second car pulls out a rifle to shoot an approaching herd dog.

Not necessary, we say. Thanks anyway.

Guns are everywhere here. In the three weeks before we arrived, seven bombs had exploded in Dagestan, mostly in this region to the north and west of the provincial capital, Makhachkala. Our contacts had warned us to have guards, since kidnappings for ransom - epidemic in neighboring Chechnya - have spread to Dagestan as well. The level of Dodge City lawlessness here is the subject of many despairing conversations.

The quietly competent young man who drives us into the mountains is internationally competitive in one of the more obscure martial arts and keeps a billy club handy by the front seat. We wind our way up the Caucasus switchbacks to a set of villages that were the scene of violent religious clashes recently. Tempers are volatile here, and people are quick to gather in the street, but we try to keep discussion calm and explanatory.

On the way out of the mountain fold where the villages sit, a group of men waits by a trailer and a gate that's been jury-rigged across the road. They are furious. They demand to know what we are doing, where we had gone, whom we had talked to. I am merely annoyed at their intrusiveness, but our driver takes them more seriously. He goes into the trailer to argue the case.

For 45 minutes he argues. At the very least, the villagers want to seize all of our film. They do not want the world to know about their clashes. They can solve their own problems. The leader of this unofficial border posse had lost a relative in the recent violence. He accuses us, as journalists, of promoting the division of families, setting brother against brother. We begin spreading our film out in hidden places in the car.

We watch the men raise the gate for groups that include the bearded men and black chador-cloaked women of the recently arrived Wahhabi sect and others wearing the ordinary clothes normal to the villagers. The religious divide quite obviously cuts right through friendships and families.

Eventually, they find some face-saving reason to let us go. We careen down the mountain as the sun sets and into downtown Makhachkala to the homes of our hosts for the night - the grand, new, high-security, brick-and-marble palaces of the Khachalayev brothers.

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