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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 June 2006, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Violence makes Dagestan vigilant
The BBC's Steve Rosenberg ends his journey across Russia's volatile North Caucasus in Dagestan, where a meticulous baggage check underlines Russia's fears about security in the region.

BBC's correspondent Steve Rosenberg, cameraman Jonathon Hughes and producer Artyom Liss
Journey's end: The team relaxing by the Caspian Sea
You can tell it's been a very long trip.

"Last night I dreamt I was looking through the viewfinder of my video camera," bedraggled cameraman Jonathon Hughes admitted. "I could see the time code whizzing round in front of my eyes!"

Producer Artyom Liss was exhausted, too. He'd fallen asleep at his laptop computer.

And the bags under my eyes were beginning to look as big as Mount Elbrus.

But after ten days crossing the Caucasus, we'd finally reached the end of our journey - and what a place to conclude what's been a fascinating trip.

Derbent is 5,000 years old, making it the oldest city not only in Dagestan, but in the entire Russian Federation.

It sits on the west coast of the Caspian Sea and is dominated by an old fortress built by the Sassanids, an ancient Iranian empire, some 1,500 years ago.

I stood on the battlements looking out to sea, and pondered what we'd experienced over the last few days.

In the space of 700 kilometres (434 miles) we'd seen everything from spa treatments to Stalin statues; we'd seen pensioners living in bombed-out flats in Grozny, and remote communities in the mountains of Dagestan.

Patchwork of cultures

I'd listened to a string of officials assuring me how calm life is now in the Caucasus.

Derbent's fortress
The Sassanid-era fortress, used for centuries, dominates Derbent
"Chechnya's the safest place in the world," Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov had boasted.

You wouldn't think so, seeing all the checkpoints in Grozny and the number of people with guns out on the streets.

"My city's perfectly calm," the mayor of Makhachkala had told me. "People relax and enjoy themselves, they go out for walks." But coming from a man who's survived 15 assassination attempts and is paralysed from the waist down, it wasn't very convincing.

This has been a journey through one small part of a giant country.

But it feels as if I've travelled through lots of different countries, each with its own heavily guarded border, its own local language and culture; and each with its own kind of religious or inter-ethnic tension.

Now it was time to fly home. But our adventures weren't over yet.

From Derbent we drove to Makhachkala airport to catch the plane back to Moscow.

At the airport we were greeted by a policeman who ordered us to take all our boxes and bags into a room to be checked.

Each piece of luggage was opened, each object (apart from dirty socks) carefully examined. One security official looked at all the reports I'd written in my laptop computer; Artyom's notebook was checked; he was even asked to translate the first page of a book about the Caucasus that was found in my bag.

We were bombarded with questions: Where had we gone? What had we filmed? Who had we spoken to? It was the most thorough questioning and baggage check I've ever experienced at a Russian airport in 15 years.

It all goes to show that the North Caucasus today isn't calm. Russia may have conquered this land 150 years ago, but it's still struggling here to keep control.

Map of the Caucus

Do you have a question for Steve Rosenberg about his experiences travelling through North Caucasus? What questions does it raise about the people and politics of this troubled region? Steve will answer some of your questions here on the BBC News website. Send your questions using the form below.

Lermontov often used the Caucasus as the setting for his literature, with tales abounding of the wild, romantic, rugged nature of the locals. How does that conform with reality, and what marks out the people of this region compared with other parts of European Russia? PS I would be delighted to be considered for any future such trips through hidden parts of Russia!
David Stephenson, London, UK

Three questions really. Are the many inter-ethnic divisions primarily gathered around religious, nationalist or racial differences? Is it possible to characterize them in this bipolar way, and will things get worse before they get better, as the 'War on Terror' begins to take in ever more balkanized religious groups?
Julius Beltrame, London UK

How safe is the North Caucasus for independent tourists?
Ahram al-Yardum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

What is the amount of economic aid and humanitarian support offered officially to this land? There will always be ethnic tension in the region, but could you feel an economic tension one as well(something which might exacerbate the ethnic strife)? Are the people content with their economic situation or do they expect the government to do more?
Anish Banerjee, Ann Arbor, USA

Do you think that the majority of the Chechen people would still like to be independent or would rather stay with Russia?
Paul Dvali, Guildford, UK

You don't show Azerbaijan on the map. But it is an important economic and political actor in the Caucasus as a country in the region. What do people think about neighbours? Have you felt any attitude of enmity or friendship towards particular neighbours? Do the people in the region have any chance to integrate into the overall Russian society? What do you think about the role of Islam in the region? Are you going to visit South Caucasus countries as well? It would be very interesting for me if you could visit regions of Azerbaijan which are under the Armenian occupation and to get your impression about the overall climate in these regions of Azerbaijan?
Ramil Maharramov, Washington, DC

Majority of Dagestanis want to stay with Russian Federation and Dagestan is a lot safer now than it was a decade ago. We would be nothing without it. I am Dagestani and I am proud to be Russian too.
Gassan, Makhachkala, Russia (Currently in the USA)

Can you describe the cooperation - or lack thereof - between the 30-odd ethnic groups (and fourteen official ones)? How does the Dargin mayor, for example, deal with ethnic tension, or is that problem more in the Avar north and peripheral regions? Your trip and reporting were impressive, inspirational, and it was fun to read along with you! Thank you for choosing the Caucasus!
John Elliott, Washington DC, USA

What do the people of the Caucasus think about the future for the region and will there ever be any change from the Russian influence politically?
Dominic Henderson, currently in Auckland, New Zealand

Throughout much of the expanse of the Russian Federation, I have heard from many people identifying themselves as Russian before other of the varied sub ethnic groupings. It seems that the Caucuses are one of the only areas in the RF where this is thrown into disarray, is there a visible contention with the ethnic Russian population in the region?
Adam Cullen, Minneapolis, US

Will Chechnya ever regain its independence?
James Wild, London UK

How will you predict the situation for Dagestan or entire region after 20-25 years? Still occupied by Russians?
Khalid, Denmark

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