Emina, who now covers her head at all times, only became observant around the collapse of the Soviet Union. "I always believed in Allah, but I wasn't educated in religious law," she said. "I dressed and studied like everybody else until freedom of religion was introduced."
Her spiritual awakening was a quick one, though, and when Chelni's first madrassah opened in '93, Emina encouraged Airat to attend. Ever since he had meningitis in the first class, he had been a sickly kid and was regularly beaten up. "He was being raised by the TV and his school didn't teach him morality," she said.
So, as a scrawny loser in the ninth class, Airat reluctantly joined the madrassah because of his mother's insistence. At first he would come home every day to veg out watching hours of cartoons, but he gradually adjusted to his religious education and even excelled.
Unfortunately, his middle school education and three years of religious training didn't help him get a job. After a long search, his first job was at a new mosque in the town of Mendelevsky, but the long commute and his weak health made it impossible to maintain that schedule for long. Soon he quit and lived off his mother's meager salary.
His luck seemed to change when the new central mosque in Chelni opened across the street from their apartment. He became a popular imam and worked steadily until he made the ill informed decision to study in Chechnya for several months in 1999.
He was in Chechnya in between wars, but that was enough to draw the FSB's attention. Upon returning to Chelni, the FSB arrested him, in a wave of anti-Muslim arrests that TOTs head Kashapov said victimized over 1000 young men. "They held him for two months without any reason, just because he had studied in Chechnya," said Emina.
Rovil Kashapov, an FSB lieutenant colonel working in the Kazan bureau's press center, said as much. "He was arrested in '99 because he was in a camp in the Caucasus where both armed rebels and religious students trained," he said. "After two months, there was no proof of his involvement in military training and he was released."
According to Emina, they only let Airat out because of his weak health and a campaign headed by the Chelni TOTs to set him free. She also claims the FSB continued to harass her son, tapping the phones and repeatedly trying to recruit him as a spy. On Dec. 29, 1999, Airat left home for a week and hasn't been seen in Chelni since. Apparently, during his absence, the FSB called on his home in what Emina believed was an attempt to re-arrest him, and she told her son it would be better for him to disappear for a while.
Kashapov denied that the FSB harassed him after his release.
Around this same time, on Dec. 1, the gas line was bombed. According to the FSB's Kashapov, a group of Muslims who objected to the new Chechnya campaign planted the bomb, reasoning an attack on a gas pipeline would attract the attention of natural gas-dependent Europe. Within a month, ten suspects of various ethnicities were arrested and eventually convicted. The eleventh was caught on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
TOTs has a different version, blaming the blast (and that year's apartment bombings) on the FSB. They claim no convincing evidence was presented during the trial, and the suspect caught on the border was, like Airat, only trying to escape government repression.
The next time Emina heard anything from her son was on Dec. 14, 2001, when he called from an AFP cell phone in Kandahar, repeating "Mama, I'm free" over and over until the phone disconnected. In the interim, he had traveled to Afghanistan via Turkey, Iran and Central Asia, only to be arrested upon arrival by the Taliban, who believed he was a Russian agent. When the Americans arrived, he had been waiting for his death sentence to be carried out.
His and Emina's euphoria didn't last long, though. Within a week, he called again saying the Americans had taken him prisoner. At the beginning of January he called again, still a prisoner, and Emina hasn't heard from him since, except for a few brief letters dated December and routed through Geneva.