Women bring out the lamb in macho man vodka

DAGESTAN DAYS

Sovietskoye - While the world waits on tenterhooks to see if the Russian army will annihilate a rebel-held hamlet in Dagestan, another village, two miles down the road, has already been destroyed without anyone raising so much as a whisper.

When the international press corps moved into Sovietskoye (population 1,200), it wasn't such a bad place: it wasn't Monte Carlo but it was a picturesque enough Muslim farming community, a sprawl of stone houses and barns clustered around a scruffy little mosque a few hundred yards from the Chechen border. It provided an excellent view of the Russian tanks, especially if you stood on a haystack.

Moreover, the local Avar people made wonderful hosts. They were completely unworried by the arrival of an army of correspondents who came tearing in with flashy computer equipment, elaborate foul-weather wear, endless demands and hefty appetites.

You couldn't plod more than 10 yards along its lanes without being accosted by a babushka, ushering you to the hearthside for potato-and-lamb stew, hot unleavened bread and cups of sugary tea. Before long, half the village had journalists sleeping in their homes - a hotel is about as unlikely a proposition here as Disneyland - and yet they refused offers of money.

But on Friday the place fell apart. Fearful that Sovietskoye would be caught in the battle brewing at its edge between the Russians and the Chechen rebels, local officials ordered the evacuation of the village's women and children. In a community where women's liberation is about as advanced as the bathroom design (a hole in the ground in a fetid wooden shed), it was a dreadful setback.

The men's first reaction, as the Russian army massed in their fields, was to get raging drunk. The sound of the buses which carried their women off to neighbouring towns had scarcely died away when they launched into a vodka binge, switching to fortified Dagestani wine when their supplies dwindled. Well into the following day, they were still boozing and gnawing bones.

Halfway through this alcoholic orgy, anxious to impress their new Western friends, they grabbed one of the village's sheep, dragged it into the yard of a home in which we were gathered, and cut its throat. They then skinned it, boiled it and devoured it, leaving a trail of blood and bones and a host of turning Western stomachs.

But that was probably their last enjoyable moment. Dagestani men are not lacking in machismo, yet overnight they have been turned into lambs, and bewildered ones at that.

"You just can't live without women," said Gamil, the old man whose home we are living in, as he looked at the stale bread, unwashed glasses, and half-eaten gherkins scattered around his kitchen.

With his wife and daughter gone, he is living on scraps of bread and jam and spends most of his day praying in the gloom of a back room.

Matters are not helped by the loss of the electricity supply, the diminishing supply of food, and absence of running water. The press corps is beginning to smell a little like the dung heaps dotted around the village, courtesy of the many cows that wander the streets. Worse, the drink has run out.

The only decent meal here in the last day or two was a goose, slaughtered by the Dagestanis for some American newspapermen, who are always wealthier and better-fed than their European counterparts. If things go on much longer here there will be two battles: the first between the Chechens and the Russians, the second between the Avars and their wives, who will not be pleased by what they find on their return.

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