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Amina Edieva's abductor stalked her like a seasoned predator. He approached the slender, raven-haired 18-year-old student on a Grozny side street, hoisted her off the ground in a tight bear hug and dragged her into a waiting car.

She screamed, kicked and scratched at the man, but he brought three male friends, a driver and two backup abductors to ensure she couldn't escape. More young men in a second vehicle trailed, on the lookout for witnesses who might try to halt the brazen afternoon capture.

But Ms. Edieva knew that no Chechen would rescue her that September day nearly three years ago. Well versed in Chechnya's bride-abducting traditions, she understood she was caught up in a centuries-old ritual in which her captor, a suitor she had frequently rebuffed, was going to force her to marry him.

"I told him I hated him," she said, but he smiled.

"It doesn't matter if you love me or hate me," he told her calmly. "I want you, and you are going to be my wife."

Across Chechnya and neighbouring Ingushetia, violent bride abductions are staged nearly every week in the mountain-ringed, southern Russian republics known as the North Caucasus; during the spring wedding season, it can happen every day. Young women are snatched from bus stops, on their way home from school and sometimes out of their own yards. A shocking video with clips of men dragging screaming young women, their books, purses and cellphones sent flying, is a popular YouTube posting.

Authorities in the two restive republics routinely turn a blind eye to the violent practice, preferring to depict it as a romantic tradition, often staged by the starry-eyed young couples themselves.

Some claim the practice has a fairytale quality and many young women dream of being abducted by a handsome man.

"It's a sign that [a man]really loves her," said Mariyat Muskeeva, a cultural liaison officer with the Chechen local government. "If a woman can tell her children that their father kidnapped her, it's a great love story."

Most women interviewed across Chechnya and Ingushetia disagreed, saying they felt no affection from the men who stalked them and shoved them into waiting cars. Others said the custom has no place in modern society.

"The government wants to deny this is a problem," said Ms. Edieva, who eventually left her husband after a tense eight-month marriage. "They treat it as a normal thing."

There are no hard statistics on how many women are seized each year in Chechnya and Ingushetia, but human-rights organizations say it is in the thousands. Locals estimate that about half of all marriages begin with abductions.

During the Soviet era, Chechnya and Ingushetia were a single, autonomous republic, and the two cultures revolve first around the tightly knit, patriarchal families, followed by loyalty to the local clan.

Chechens, in particular, are proud of the region's non-Russian identity. In interviews, when asked why bride abduction persists in the 21st century, many replied: "It is our tradition."

Chechen magazine editor Lula Jumalaeva also noted that two wars have left a dire shortage of men. Unmarried women have no status in the society and many are desperate to marry, she said. With so few men, their odds are low of securing husbands of their choosing. If seized, they may feel pressure to marry the captor, especially if his family is suitable.

Family disputes, crimes and most social issues are settled by religious leaders and clan elders, not state authorities. Blood feuds and vigilante justice are common.

It is said that these strong family networks and disciplined religious brotherhoods helped Chechens survive three successive national tragedies, including the Stalin-ordered deportations of almost 400,000 Chechens to Kazakhstan in the 1940s, followed by two brutal wars with Russia in 1994 and 1999.

Women's roles in these tradition-bound societies are largely submissive and they perform the lion's share of household tasks. They are expected to act demurely in the presence of men and to eat at separate tables.

"In our society, we don't like girls who don't obey the rules and who have been touched," said Khamid Gabayev, 79, an elder in the alpine village of Vashendoroy in southern Chechnya. As he spoke, two women bustled around him, one pouring tea, the other cleaning his muddy shoes.

Ms. Muskeeva, the Chechen cultural liaison officer, said bride abductions are expressions of the passionate nature of North Caucasian men and women. "The kidnapping marriages are stronger than other marriages."

But Ms. Edieva barely knew her real-life captor and she was dating another man she longed to marry.

In the first minutes after she was grabbed, her mind flipped though the list of abduction rules most Chechen women know by heart: If she did not escape before morning, there would be no chance of avoiding the forced marriage.

If an unmarried Chechen woman spends a night in a man's house, she is considered to be his wife. If he touches her before marriage, she is thought to be tainted.

"I was about to faint," Ms. Edieva said in a recent interview at her parents' Grozny home. "He had already touched me. I was afraid that if my boyfriend found out, he would never see me again."

The speeding car drove past a military checkpoint manned by Chechens and Russians. The Chechen soldiers would not blink an eye, but she screamed out to the Russian soldiers. No one helped.

For nine hours, Ms. Edieva was held captive, pressured by a crowd of her abductor's relatives, who gathered at his home.

"There were nine men standing around me in a circle," she said. "I was screaming that I will die if I spend the night here. But they were laughing at me."

Just before 1 a.m., she found a cellphone and called home, but her mother was reluctant to rescue her. After she pleaded with an older brother, relatives took her home. Her mother and sister told her she was silly for resisting the match.

The next day, under pressure from her mother and grandfather, she gave in and agreed to marry her abductor, a man she identified only as Aslambeck.

Nine days later, Ms. Edieva, her makeup smudged by tears, was married in a traditional Chechen ceremony where she stood alone in a corner for hours at the groom's house, forbidden to speak or sit until the elders left.

Today, as a divorced young woman in a traditional Muslim culture, her marriage prospects have narrowed. She could marry a divorced man, or become a second wife, neither of which appeal to her.

Back home at her parents' house, Ms. Edieva has not re-enrolled in university and spends hours watching TV. She loves to try on bridal gowns and watch wedding videos.

Her future, she said, is ruined.

"Chechen traditions, they're all about what the parents want," she said bitterly.

Despite the official line that bride abduction is largely stage-managed by the young lovers themselves, scores of young Chechen and Ingush women told similar stories of abductions followed by hours of agonizing negotiations, often with complicit relatives.

Ms. Muskeeva said she doubted these stories, insisting that few Chechen women are forced to marry.

"If a girl doesn't want marriage, if the man's family doesn't want the marriage, if there is no mutual agreement, there is no marriage," she said.

During the interview, her boss, Isa Askhagov, entered the room and described how he captured his wife years ago. The two were dating and planned to marry, but she wanted to first finish medical school. He snatched her on her way home from classes. She was angry at first but he allowed her to finish her studies and today they have five children.

"It's like a play that's acted out," Mr. Askhagov said. "Chechen girls grow up in strict families. A girl wants a real man she can respect."

Of all the Chechen and Ingush traditions, the rules governing courtship and marriage are among the most strict.

Physical contact between an unmarried couple is forbidden. "Dates" normally consist of two people meeting in a public space for a conversation. A man must keep a distance of at least a metre from his female companion.

Chechen and Ingush women are rarely seen in public without head scarves and they never wear pants.

For many young Chechen men, the lack of physical intimacy is unbearable. Umar Makhauri abducted his 16-year-old bride, Malika Makhaeva, outside her grandparents' village house 34 years ago.

He said he had been overcome with desire. "I needed her and so I kidnapped her. I was young and my blood was boiling."

His family and friends supported the abduction and helped lure Ms. Makhaeva from her grandparents' house.

Now 57, he regrets what he did, admitting it caused his wife a lifetime of emotional pain.

Mr. Makhauri's midlife regrets have cost him little, though. He later took a second wife, a Grozny lawyer with whom he now lives part of the week.

His first wife and five of their six children, meanwhile, live outside Grozny in a large family compound. She said she has "never had a day of happiness" with her husband, adding she stayed in the marriage to keep custody of her children.

According to Chechen tradition, children of a divorced couple live with the father.

Ms. Makhaeva said the heartbreak of her marriage left more emotional scars than both wars combined. "My husband has a full life, with his family here and a second wife. I don't. I should have left him."

Fifteen-year-old Shumist Kadyrova ran nearly five kilometres in bare feet through alpine meadows in a failed dash for freedom from her 45-year-old captor. But his friends caught up with her when she stopped to rest by a tree. Within days, she was married.

Despite the terror of that afternoon, Ms. Kadyrova, now 88, speaks fondly of her late husband.

"He was a nice man, a good soul. He had a good heart." At the time of her abduction, Ms. Kadyrova said, she felt pity for him because he could not find a wife his own age.

Six months after the wedding, Russian soldiers rounded up villagers onto trains for deportation to Soviet Kazakhstan, where thousands of Chechens would die of disease and starvation, including Ms. Kadyrova's husband, parents and three siblings. She later married a man of her choosing, a fellow Chechen in exile. They returned to Chechnya 13 years later.

Though she has no ill feelings about her first husband, Ms. Kadyrova said she would like to see bride abductions halted. Her own granddaughter was seized in Ingushetia while in a refugee camp. The Kadyrova family rescued the 20-year-old before nightfall.

"I think it's very violent," Ms. Kadyrova said, recounting the afternoon of her own abduction 73 years ago. "Of course, I had no idea what was going on.

"And there was another boy I was in love with ... ," she added, her voice trailing off.

*****

Abduction customs

Ethiopia In some regions of Ethiopia, abduction and rape is a cultural practice used to take a young woman as a wife by force. Typically, she is abducted by a group of young men, then raped by the man who wants to marry her, either someone she knows or a stranger. Elders from the man's village then ask her family to agree to the marriage; the family often consents because a woman who has lost her virginity is socially unacceptable for marriage to another man. Sometimes the captor keeps her in a hiding place until she is pregnant, at which time the family again feels it has no option but to agree to the marriage.

Abduction and rape are criminal offences under Ethiopian law, but if marriage is subsequently agreed to, the husband is exempt from criminal responsibility.

RWANDA Umutara, a province in northeast Rwanda, no longer keeps count of marriages by abduction, a custom that continues to prevail in the pastoral area. But people in the province consider such marriages to be customary and see their suppression as an attack on tradition. These kinds of abductions occur almost daily.

The abduction and consummation of the marriage are not given special status and are punishable by law as rape. They carry prison sentences of up to 20 years, under a 1998 law. However, few families ever press charges.

CHINA Bride buying, a Chinese tradition that the Communists largely stamped out, has seen a resurgence with the country's surging economy. Starting in the 1980s, "women were taken from poor areas and sold to some areas that had recently gotten richer," said Ding Lu of the All-China Women's Federation, a non-governmental organization.

The disparity between the number of men and women in China, the unintended result of the one-child policy, has also spawned international abduction rings. "What's new is cross-border traffic," Ms. Ding said. The women come from Russia, North Korea, Myanmar and Laos, human-rights groups say. But most are Vietnamese.

AZERBAIJAN Abducting brides in Azerbaijan is a long-standing and controversial tradition. A young man and several of his friends take a woman to the home of his parents, either by force or deception. She is left there for the night and is sometimes raped. Her new relatives tell her she is no longer pure and chaste, and talk of the disgrace to her family if she tries to return home. Prison sentences for bride abduction were extended to 10 years in 2005.

There is a more harmless type of elopement when women agree to be abducted, often with the consent of their parents, to save on wedding expenses and dowries.

Sources: Interpress Service, Wall Street Journal, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, feminist.com

*****

Diana Kartoyeva

Nazran, Ingushetia

Ms. Kartoyeva, a 28-year-old hairdresser, talked her way out of a potential abduction this month. The man had already tried to seize her once, but her boss intervened. When the man returned, Ms. Kartoyeva approached him with an offer. If he did not abduct her, and if he sent family negotiators to her parents' house, she would marry him, she lied.

He agreed and sent a team of family members to her home, but Ms. Kartoyeva had no plans to marry him. Instead, she is frantically arranging a rushed marriage to a boyfriend who lives in Belgium. She hopes they can marry within weeks, before her would-be suitor catches on to her plan and attempts another abduction.

Fatima Lesiyeva

Nazran, Ingushetia

Ms. Lesiyeva, 43, was snatched at the age of 21 on her way home from work in Grozny. Ms. Lesiyeva, who now lives in Ingushetia, said she took a taxi home because she suspected a man she barely knew planned to abduct her. When the taxi dropped her off at a bus stop near her home, however, her captor was waiting. Ms. Lesiyeva bolted across a field, but he caught her. She married him fours days later. They now have two children and she is happy with their marriage. "He's a good guy," she said. She wouldn't want her 21-year-old daughter to be seized, but if her son abducted a woman, she would support him.

Tamila Gabayeva

Chechnya

Ms. Gabayeva was abducted last summer at 15 by a 20-year-old man she had known for two months. When her family learned of it, they were livid and dispatched negotiators to her captor's family house.

At first, she was frightened, but as the night wore on, she said, she changed her mind and decided to marry the man. Her parents finally agreed after an elder assured them that her abductor's relatives were suitable. Ms. Gabayeva lives with her in-laws in the alpine village of Vashendory, where she spends her days cleaning house and watching TV. Her husband is a university student and doesn't want her to return to work or attend school.

Dana Danayeva

Chechnya

Ms. Danayeva, 28, was taken from a bus station in the Chechen village of Shatoi by a man she had met twice. She was driven to a house in the mountains by a carload of men. "Now you are ours," one of them said. "Don't scream or cry. It won't have any effect."

Her abduction had a better ending than most. Her family took her home to Grozny as soon as they learned of it. She resumed her relationship with a boyfriend. Not long after, her abductor snatched another woman, whom he married.

Heda Beckova

Ingushetia

The wounds from Heda Beckova's forced marriage were still fresh during a recent interview at an Ingushetia refugee barracks where the 26-year-old has lived for nine years since fleeing Chechnya.

Her boyfriend of six years seized her last July during an evening date outside her dormitory-style housing complex. Ms. Beckova, a nurse, had been waiting for a marriage proposal from her boyfriend. Instead, a Mercedes-Benz pulled up and three men jumped out, pushing her into the back seat. Two months after the wedding, her husband began seeing another woman.

Ms. Beckova moved back to the refugee complex, but she said her reputation is in tatters. "Men around here look at me like they can do what they want with me," she said. Her former husband recently remarried.

Malika Gadaeva

Grozny

Ms. Gadaeva , a 39-year-old dentist, and her husband were in love and plotted her staged abduction 21 years ago. She was a medical student in Grozny. She had been dating her future husband and wanted to marry him, but her parents disapproved of the union because he was from the mountains. The pair agreed that he would "abduct" her on her way home from class.

Despite the couple's promising beginning, the union ended badly. They had seven children, but her husband left her, taking custody of all their children, which is Chechen tradition. Two of the children were killed in a car accident. Ms. Gadaeva now lives alone.

Jane Armstrong

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