The stolen brides turned into Stepford wives

Lucy Ash reports from the Chechen medical centre claiming to 'cure' depressed women

Tuesday 10 August 2010 00:00 BST

Crowds thronged the pavement, desperate to get through the metal gates. In the courtyard, women were filling plastic bottles and jerry cans with water blessed by the imam. A marble plaque on the wall read: "There is no illness which Allah cannot cure".

Inside, huddles of families were camping out on sofas. There were many tearful faces. Men paced up and down. It might have been an ordinary hospital waiting-room until a girl started shrieking and having contortions. A man scooped her up and carried her off into a room. Spine-chilling yells came from behind the frosted glass door until gradually they were stifled by incantations from the Koran.

This is the Centre for Islamic Medicine and most of its patients are young women and many have suffered nervous breakdowns after being forced into marriage. They are brought to be exorcised and turned into Chechen-style Stepford wives.

The Centre is housed in a red-brick mansion near the centre of Grozny. It was once the headquarters of the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev – the man who masterminded the school hostage siege in Beslan in 2004.

Like many buildings in the Chechen capital, the Centre has been expensively renovated. Two wars for independence from Russia reduced Grozny to rubble. Since the ceasefire, the Kremlin has bankrolled a reconstruction programme and the main street is now unrecognisable with its pavement cafés, designer shops and sushi bars. But Ramzan Kadyrov, President of this once-rebel republic in southern Russia, has also built an extensive Muslim infrastructure. It includes one of the world's biggest mosques, religious schools, an Islamic university and the medical centre which is run by Mr Kadyrov's personal doctor. In its first year, it claimed to have cured more than 60,000 people suffering from "psycho-neurological diseases". After 15 years of fighting, there is no shortage of traumatised people in Chechnya.

Mr Kadyrov once fought the Russians but now is their key ally in keeping a lid on the insurgency in the North Caucasus. In return, the Kremlin turns a blind eye to allegations of torture and violence committed by his militia. Mr Kadyrov routinely denies these. His officials also deny that the Chechen leader puts Islamic law above Russian law but, in practice, Mr Kadyrov has a free hand to impose his own version of what he calls "traditional Chechen Islam".

Gangs of men dressed in black from his newly opened Centre for Spiritual and Moral Education roam the streets lecturing passers-by about the evils of alcohol and the right kind of Islam. Women too are targeted by Mr Kadyrov's reforms. In 2007, in violation of Russian law, he issued an edict banning women without a headscarf from schools, universities and other public buildings. Since June, unidentified men with paintball guns have driven round the centre of Grozny shooting at girls with uncovered heads. On state television, Mr Kadyrov said he didn't know who was responsible for the attacks but added: "When I find them I will express my gratitude." The Chechen President has also boasted that Chechen men can take "second, third and fourth wives" and that he believes polygamy is the best way to revive his war-ravaged republic.

According to some estimates, one in five Chechen marriages begins when a girl is snatched off the street and forced into a car by her future groom and his accomplices. The internet is full of videos of these "bride stealings", set to romantic music. The practice has seen a resurgence since the end of the conflicts with Russia and, in a nation that is awash with guns, violence is prevalent and the abductors of women enjoy a culture of impunity. More often than not, the girl is pressured into marrying her kidnapper to preserve family honour and avoid triggering a blood feud. Some are resigned to their fate and make a surprising success of their marriages.

For others, that is far from the case. Lipkhan Bazaeva, who runs an organisation called Women's Dignity, says brides are often brought in by mothers-in -law who believe the girl is possessed by evil spirits. "Just imagine – her son has stolen a girl he liked and married her. What they want is a nice, quiet, hard-working woman in the house, not someone who's feeling down from the moment she wakes up and who's hysterical in the evening. So they take them to the mullah." The mothers-in-law do not help, she adds, typically making scant effort to be compassionate or nice to the reluctant bride.

Mullah Mairbek Yusupov is a small bearded man dressed in a green surgeon-style top and skull-cap. He appears pleasant and softly spoken – until he gets to work. The patient was lying blindfolded on her back, wearing a long flowery robe. Mr Yusupov began yelling verses from the Koran into her ear and beating her with a short stick. "She feels no pain", he said. "We beat the genie and not the patient."

The woman, probably in her early 20s, was writhing on the bed : "Shut up! Leave me alone!" she growled. Mr Yusupov claimed this strange voice belonged to the genie possessing her. He shouted back: "Take your claws out of this woman. Aren't you ashamed? Go on! Leave her body like you did last time, through her toe."

With a deadpan expression, Mr Yusupov explained that the genie inside the girl was 340 years old. He was not a Muslim – he was a Russian man called Andrei and he had fallen in love with his victim. The genie was so jealous that he made her leave her husband. This was already the seventh time he'd treated this patient.

The girl's aunt who had watched the exorcism said her niece was "stolen" at the age of 16 and had since been through two divorces. "She wants to be alone all the time," she sighed. "She doesn't want to talk or see anyone and nothing makes her happy." The girl's despairing family was hoping doctors at the Centre could turn her into an obedient wife so they could marry her off again.

Marryat, another patient, had been stolen for marriage but found her kidnapper was already married. Now she is convinced his first wife put a curse on her in the form of two genies. When she split from her husband, Marryat had to give up her son. According to Chechen traditions, after divorce children are raised by the husband and in-laws. Former wives almost never get custody despite their rights under Russian law. It's considered shameful to go to court.

Was it really genies, or were some women not just traumatised by being abducted and forced into marriage or by losing their children? Mr Yusupov dismissed such a suggestion. "We have so many young girls with these problems." he says. "I had a patient today whose genie tells her she should divorce, that her husband doesn't love her; that she shouldn't stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children. But that's just the genie trying to get its own way and we have to put a stop to that."

Whatever his methods, Mr Yusupov does not seem a sadistic man. The readiness of patients and relatives alike to accept the treatment, and even to come back for more, is striking. But, as Ms Bazaeva pointed out, the Centre provides only temporary relief and does little to address the problems of a people traumatised by war. "Many people do have psychological trauma here but, instead of dealing with that, they go to see a mullah who tells them they are possessed." she said. "They would be better off seeing a psychologist."

The therapy, she adds, is a way of making them accept, or at least deal with, what has happened. But it is most of all an expression of their powerlessness. The tragedy of the stolen brides is that they have nowhere else to go.

'This World: Stolen Brides', tomorrow at 7pm on BBC Two

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