- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

First of two parts

TARSKOJE, Russia - The muddy stream that bisects this mountain village stands as a symbol for the deep religious and ethnic divisions that plague the Caucasus.

On the east bank is Tarskoje’s Ossetian community, a largely Orthodox Christian people. To the west are the town’s ethnic Ingush, Muslims who were the original settlers of Tarskoje but now are a segregated minority.

Separate neighborhoods, separate schools, separate lives.

The hired driver stops his car on the west bank of the stream, forcing his passengers to walk to the Ossetian side of the village. His license plate was issued in neighboring Ingushetia, making the drive too dangerous.

September’s horrific siege of a small school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan — a short drive from Tarskoje — has only sharpened fears here in the powder keg that is the Caucasus, where a welter of hostile ethnic groups press ancient grievances and new demands that threaten to destabilize Russia, Georgia and other states throughout the region.

The three-day siege that ended Sept. 3 resulted in the deaths of more than 330 hostages, including nearly 190 children attending the school. Massive retaliatory attacks, in a culture where family honor and revenge are deep convictions, have yet to materialize, but no one here believes the danger has passed.

“Before Beslan, it looked as if we were making some progress,” said Shakhman Akbulatov, who runs the office of Memorial, a leading Russian human rights group, in the main Ingushetian city of Nazran.

“After Beslan, much of the work we had done building up trust was pretty much destroyed,” he said.

As Russia’s draining war with the Muslim breakaway republic of Chechnya marks its 10th anniversary this month, President Vladimir Putin was quick to blame “international terrorism” and Chechen rebels for the Beslan atrocities.

But many ordinary Ossetians point the finger at their Ingush neighbors, recalling the long, tangled and often violent history of the two groups.

Zelena Dzagoeva, who teaches language classes at Tarskoje’s school for Ossetian students, tells an interviewer at first that she does not believe the bloodshed at Beslan would lead to fresh clashes with the Ingush.

“These terrorists had no nationality. When an Ingush is killed or kidnapped, I feel just as sorry for them,” she said.

But very quickly she adds that Ingush partisans were responsible for the brief but bloody conflict with Ossetians that broke out in 1992 — the first violent ethnic clash in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Who knows who carried out Beslan?” she asked. “Every Ingush would sooner sell his horse than his gun. We are not an aggressive people, but we have now been forced to confront this threat.”

Disputes plague region

The Ossetian-Ingush clash is just one of a number of ethnic and religious disputes that plague the region.

Officials in Moscow worry openly that radical Islamists in Chechnya hope to export their violent resistance to other parts of the region, both to win new converts and foot soldiers and to divert Russian forces now in Chechnya.

A coordinated raid on three towns in Ingushetia in June, almost totally ignored in the West, set the table for the ensuing Beslan tragedy. Weapons stolen in the attacks, which killed nearly 100 police and civilians, made up part of the arsenal used by the terrorists six weeks later in Beslan.

Radical Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the Beslan attack, but the band of 32 terrorists in the operation included a number of ethnic-Ingush partisans as well. Rumors are rife among Beslan residents that Ingush construction workers planted the guns and bombs used by the attackers while helping to renovate the school over the summer.

Mairbeck Tuaev, Beslan’s coordinator of humanitarian relief efforts in the wake of the school tragedy, said the presence of Ingush among the hostage-takers revived old fears in North Ossetia.

“Beslan has been called a tragedy for Ossetia,” he said. “But it is also an Ingush tragedy, that people who could do such a thing were raised on their soil,” he said.

No way home

At 102 years old, Khava Chahkieva has witnessed more than a lifetime of hardship from the other side of the ethnic divide.

As with many Ingush, her native village is now in a part of North Ossetia, to which she cannot return. Blind since 1997, she lives with her son in a trailer in the bleak refugee camp in Majskij, a small settlement on the Ossetian-Ingush border.

Less than a quarter-mile from her door, a checkpoint manned by heavily armed Ossetian militia and Russian security forces screens every car passing into North Ossetia and prevents Mrs. Chahkieva from going home.

Over the past century, she has endured the violence and dislocation of the Russian Revolution; Stalin’s mass deportation of Chechens and Ingush to Kazakhstan in the depths of World War II; clashes with Ossetian settlers when the Ingush were allowed to return home in 1957; the 1992 ethnic war; and now, 12 years of exile in a camp just an hour’s drive from her family’s old home.

“I remember those days in Kazakhstan as the golden years compared to today,” she said.

“Now there’s no work for us, there’s no medicine, they cut off the power anytime they want. We’re afraid to go home because our people are detained or just disappear in North Ossetia. It is too dangerous for us.”

Dogs, cats and farm animals roam freely over the unpaved streets of Majskij, while electric power lines dangle just overhead. Unemployment is rampant, and families of 10 or more live in converted two- and three-room “wagons” that the Ingush used to flee the fighting in North Ossetia.

Mrs. Chahkieva’s son, Akhmed, says their family of five lives on two pensions worth 1,000 rubles — $35.50 — a month. The family fled North Ossetia in 1992, returned two years later to rebuild their ancestral home and were forced to flee again.

His mother needs kidney surgery, but there is no money to pay for it.

Like many Ingush, he said the global media spotlight that focused on the dead schoolchildren in Beslan only thrust the problems of Ingush refugees further into the shadows.

“When Beslan was happening, the entire world was giving its attention,” Mr. Chahkiev said. “But when we were fleeing the mobs, nobody came to cover our problems.”

Ignored by world

Wedged between a stunned and grieving North Ossetia and a dysfunctional Chechnya, Ingush residents say their own grievances are ignored by the world.

“Some days, I think I would prefer to be a Chechen,” said Mr. Chahkiev, “even with all the fighting. They get lots of aid from the government, and we get nothing.”

“Even our children are not as valuable as their children,” said Madina Kotieva, whose family of seven has lived in the refugee camp for seven years. “They lost 300 children, but what about the thousands of Ingush children who have died over the years? They get everything for their children, and we still have nothing.”

Even airing the questions can be a dangerous act in the North Caucasus these days.

A reporter on the streets of Tarskoje — a place where Western journalists rarely venture — is quickly escorted to the heavily fortified Russian military camp in the heart of town, where officers of the local militia and the FSB, the Russian state security agency, warn against asking “sensitive and provocative questions.”

Officials and analysts here say that terrorist attacks are timed to subvert efforts to ease tensions between warring ethnic groups.

Magomed-Rashid Pliev, deputy chairman of the Ingushetia state committee for refugees and forced migrants, said North Ossetian officials had used the Beslan attack as a pretext to shut down talks about the return of Ingush refugees to their homes.

“Yes, of course, Beslan makes things so much more difficult to solve,” he said in his Nazran office.

“Every time we see the will at the federal level to deal with our problems, something interferes to stop all progress.”

Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, a Memorial advocate based in Nazran, said Beslan “has probably set back the hopes of a political settlement for many, many years.”

But the Putin government also stands accused of fanning the same ethnic and religious divisions in its testy relations with neighboring Georgia.

Ethnic Ossetians straddle both slopes of the Caucasus mountains, and the Tbilisi government has been unable to assert its authority over the breakaway region known as South Ossetia. Georgian officials accuse Moscow of aiding and abetting separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another rebellious Georgian region.

Double standard

Nino Burjanadze, speaker of the Georgian parliament, on a visit to Moscow last month, accused Russia of applying double standards in its treatment of the region, which many in Moscow consider a part of Russia’s natural sphere of influence.

“One cannot suppress separatism in [Chechnya] and support it a few kilometers away in Georgia,” she said.

Some leading specialists on the region say the terrorists who masterminded the Beslan attack were playing for even larger stakes.

Sergey Arutiunov, chairman of the Department of Caucasus Studies at Moscow’s Institute for Ethnology and Anthropology, said the Balkanized tribes of the Caucasus have always been a strategic soft point for Russia. Now, he said, the same region has emerged as a target of opportunity for radical Islamists needing a new base with the loss of Afghanistan.

The goal: to marry the local ethnic grievances of Chechens, Ingush and others to the global goals of radical Islamist fundamentalism.

“They dream of ousting U.S. and Western power and establishing a new caliphate,” Mr. Arutiunov said. “They need a land with many poor, unhappy people who can be lured into the violent dreams of religious fundamentalism.”

Potential targets, he said, include the southern Philippines, Kosovo, and, most particularly, the Caucasus.

Islamic radicals “need to weaken Russia as a state and create as much tension as possible in the ethnic enclaves of the Caucasus,” he said. “Beslan was all about igniting as much hatred and warfare throughout this region as possible.”

Local officials have been surprised and relieved that only a few isolated incidents of retaliatory attacks by Ossetians have taken place in the three months since Beslan. Some say the reason is because so many questions remain about who carried out the attack.

‘State of shock’

Many in Beslan say no attacks have taken place “because the whole republic is in a state of shock,” said Erbrozz Sakyev, news editor of radio station Alania, one of North Ossetia’s leading broadcasters. Mr. Sakyev covered the three days of the school siege and said he still has difficulty sleeping and eating.

“Undoubtedly, the terrorists chose Beslan because they wanted to start another war in the region, and nobody wants another war,” he said.

People in North Ossetia “will follow the investigation to the end,” he predicted.

“If the terrorists are not brought to justice, if all the questions aren’t answered, anything could happen here.”

Tomorrow: Beslan mourns its lost children.

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