- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Caucasus up close

Residents kept telling reporter David R. Sands the same story when he visited the Russian republic of North Ossetia for the front page story today on the Caucasus: Some years ago, a plane crash killed a number of Russian children, and a Swiss air traffic controller was found responsible for the crash.

The father of some of the victims, an Ossetian, subsequently traveled to Switzerland, tracked down the responsible controller at his home, and stabbed him to death on his doorstep.

The point of the story was that revenge is a deeply ingrained part of the culture in the Caucasus — that remote mountain region between the Black and Caspian seas where southern Russia abuts the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

American newspaper readers are all too familiar with one of the region’s republics, Chechnya, where Russian forces have been brutally fighting a determined independence movement for a decade.

But the horrendous school hostage massacre in the Russian city of Beslan three months ago forced our attention onto a lesser known corner of the region and an ethnic dispute that has gone almost unnoticed in the West.

Relations have never been warm between the mostly Orthodox Christian people of North Ossetia and the Muslim population of Ingushetia, both of whom still nurse grievances dating from the relocation policies of Josef Stalin and before. One of the first wars after the collapse of communism involved the two republics, leaving 800 to 900 people dead.

Even then, we took little notice. But when Ingush extremists were blamed — despite the lack of any official confirmation from the government — for the Beslan massacre in neighboring North Ossetia, we decided it was time for a closer look at the region.

Village life

Arriving in North Ossetia a few weeks ago, Mr. Sands and photographer Liz O. Baylen heard about a village high in the mountains where Ingush and Ossetians still lived in close proximity — albeit segregated into communities separated by a muddy stream that divides the village.

The two struck out with a hired driver and guide and, soon enough, found themselves in the village, called Tarskoje, at the end of a pitted mountain road. As far as they could tell, they were the first foreign journalists ever to visit the place.

“We did some street interviews, taking pictures, and knocked at the door of the local school,” Mr. Sands recalls. “Some soldiers came to the door, and as soon as they found out we were Western reporters, they took us to the police headquarters. They kept us two hours, while they brought in a Russian army colonel, who wanted to know what we were doing.”

Mr. Sands says he never worried about being arrested or disappearing into a dark hole. “I think they were more nervous about the whole encounter than I was,” he recalls. “There seemed to be a fear that we would cause some kind of provocation.”

Eventually, Mr. Sands and Miss Baylen were allowed to continue their work. But when it came time to return to the school on the Ingush side of the village, they were escorted in a motorcade with six soldiers and two jeeps.

After a brief interview with the school’s obviously discomfited principal, the soldiers accompanied them back down the mountain and up to the heavily fortified border with Ingushetia.

Despite the security measures everywhere, Mr. Sands says, he found reporting in the region surprisingly easy.

“In Washington,” he says, “you call someone two days ahead and schedule an appointment to talk to them. There, someone would tell us, ‘There is someone you need to see,’ and take us straight to his home or office. People would give up half their day to take us around.

“Even without appointments, we were busy from early morning to late at night. It was amazingly productive.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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