The Caucasian republic of Dagestan in southern Russia is one of the most volatile areas in the country. Groups of militants operating in this part of the Caucasus have strong links with Al-Qaeda, and look to draw people in while they are young.
Anti-terror raids are constantly carried out in an attempt to eradicate the problem. Although militants usually target police and government officials, terrorism has so often ruined the lives of many innocent families across the region.
Because of that, a number of organizations have sprung up fighting for victims' rights, and helping those affected to piece their lives back together. Svetlana Isaeva is one such activist who has dedicated her life to battling for her people’s future.
The organization she works in is called Mothers of Dagestan. The human rights NGO was created four years ago and is now known across the region.
Svetlana’s usual job is to aid women who have found themselves in trouble for some reason. She brings food and clothing – and she talks. Talking is seen as the most important part, offering reassurance to victims that they have not been forgotten.
“It doesn't matter what situation they are in. If they are in need we come to help. Most of these women don't know their rights or who to ask for help,” she explains.
Three years ago, Svetlana was in the same position. When one day her son failed to return home she did not know what to do – and lost valuable time that could have been used to rescue him.
“If I knew then what I know today, my rights, the necessary people, I could have saved him. I could have found out where he was. I could have done something,” she says.
Svetlana`s son was accused of helping terrorists in Dagestan. She fears he was killed. But where, she still does not know. These accusations are common in this region. Young and immature people often become the victims of terrorist brainwashing.
High unemployment assists this situation. Quite often people that fall under the influence are those with no financial or social prospects and they see “going to the forest” – a euphemism for joining terrorists – as the only way out for them.
That is what happened with Mariam Sharifova at the cost of her life. She had a difficult childhood, was raised without a father and her mother Hanum could not provide for the family.
Hanum remembers how when her daughter started working at the market, she met very religious people there.
“At first I thought that there was nothing bad in that. But then my little girl started to change. She talked a lot about being a real Muslim, going to paradise. I tried to talk to her out of it, but she never listened, she only listened to her new friends,” Hanum recalls.
Her new friends turned out to be extremists. In the last year of her life she disappeared for several months. The next time her mother saw her face was on TV in a report on the latest Special Forces raid against suspected terrorists.
These deadly skirmishes are part of a bigger conflict being played out across the North Caucasus region. The terrorists, led by Doku Umarov, who is Russia`s most-wanted militant and on the list of America's most-wanted terrorists, want to establish a pan-Caucasian Islamist state.
Dagestan has historically been deeply Islamic, but in the last decade parts of it have become radicalized. This region is now the heart of Russia's Islamic terrorist problem and almost every day the authorities are engaged in shoot-outs with terrorists. Often that happens right in the capital city of Makhachkala.
Locals say it is hardly surprising that Muslims are turning to radical Islam, as they see it as alternative to the hard life in the region. The older members of the community believe a large proportion of those who “went to the forest” are simply bandits from a dissatisfied younger generation.
Local elders want the rule of law enforced and respected again. They want a return to a time before terror played such a dominant part in the lives of so many.