The recent headlines in the Russian press were sensational: Members of a reclusive Islamic sect were said to be living in an isolated compound with underground burrows, some as deep as eight stories underground, without electricity or heat.
Reporters have descended on the compound, on the outskirts of the city of Kazan, but have had only limited access and have not been able to confirm all the allegations by Russian officials.
Meanwhile, authorities are now trying to decide what to do with the estimated 70 members of the sect, who call themselves muammin, Arabic for “believers.”
Child-welfare authorities took custody of about 20 children, saying they had been denied medical attention and schooling, and that some had never seen daylight.
The members of the sect are followers of an 83-year-old Islamic cleric named Faizrakhman Satarov, who says he had a revelation from God that true Muslims must separate themselves from society.
Satarov declared his compound in Kazan — the capital of Tatarstan, a majority Muslim region about 500 miles east of Moscow — an independent Islamic state.
For nearly two decades, his followers quietly built houses and dug additional living quarters underneath them.
Satarov’s neighbors say they were aware that the group had unusual beliefs, but didn’t view them as a problem.
Ilya Vladimirov works at a small car-repair service next door to the compound. He says the sect members seemed like normal people, though the neighbors couldn’t see what went on inside their walls.
Vladimirov says he was one of several neighbors who were asked by police to go inside the compound to act as witnesses to the police search.
He says he personally saw two levels of underground dwellings, but that police told him that one house had basements four levels deep. He also says the children lived in unsanitary conditions, in rooms that were little more than cells.
From outside the high-walled compound, there’s little to be seen but a brick house with a wooden minaret …
A life underground can’t be much fun. A kid needs the grass and the clouds and the sun.