Chicago Tribune: Terror lingers in Russia's Caucasus region
- Posted on Tue, Oct. 12, 2004
Terror lingers in Russia's Caucasus region
By ALEX RODRIGUEZ
MAISKY, Russia - As North Ossetians end 40 days of mourning this week
for the victims of the school siege in Beslan, Russian authorities
are worried that long-simmering ethnic tensions could flare again and
set off a new wave of violence in the region.
The volatile relationship between North Ossetians and the Ingush is
just one of several rifts between ethnic groups in the Caucasus
Mountains region that have made southern Russia a seedbed for
violence for so many years.
Several of the militants who seized School No. 1 in Beslan, located
in the largely Christian Russian province of North Ossetia, were
believed to be Ingush fighters loyal to Chechen separatist warlord
Shamil Basayev, an Islamic extremist who has claimed responsibility
for engineering the hostage-taking.
More than 330 hostages, 172 of them children, died when explosions
inside the school triggered a frenzied, 10-hour battle between the
militants and Russian troops. The Kremlin believes Basayev's ultimate
goal was to use the school seizure to kindle ethnic strife throughout
the troubled Caucasus region.
"Let's assume that some hotheads decide to settle scores with Ingush
citizens," said Ruslan Aushev, former president of the southern
Russian republic of Ingushetia, which borders North Ossetia, and a
negotiator for Russian authorities during the Beslan siege. "This
will blow up the situation in Ossetia, Ingushetia and all other
neighboring republics. The situation there is balancing between war
and peace as it is."
Russian authorities believe any outbreaks of violence likely would
surface in North Ossetia's Prigorodny region, once a part of
Ingushetia but folded into North Ossetia in the 1950s after Soviet
leader Josef Stalin's mass deportation of Ingush and Chechens during
World War II. Thousands of Ingush still live there. So far, Ossetians
have refrained from retaliation during the traditional Russian
Orthodox 40-day period of grieving, but that period ends Wednesday.
"Don't blame us at all if we rise up," said Alan Kursrayev, a 26-year-
old Ossetian from Beslan. "The Ingush were among the terrorists at
the school, and as far as I'm concerned, all Ingush are terrorists."
Fears of Ossetian revenge are especially palpable in the Prigorodny
village of Maisky, where thousands of Ingush refugees from the brief
but bloody Ingush-Ossetian war in 1992 live in ramshackle huts made
of corrugated sheet metal roofs and particle board walls. One of
those refugees, Roza Lyanova, said her 15-year-old son, Ruslan, was
dragged from his home in 1992 and murdered by North Ossetian gunmen
in a nearby garden. When Lyanova's husband tried to intervene he
disappeared, and he hasn't been heard from since.
"Our children were killed by Ossetians, but I'm not going to take my
anger out on Ossetians," Lyanova said. "Why do they want to take out
revenge on us? After Beslan, we grieved with Ossetians, who felt the
same pain we felt after 1992."
More than 260 people died in two weeks of fighting between Ossetians
and Ingush in 1992. Ingush in North Ossetia's Prigorodny region
revolted after an Ossetian armored personnel carrier ran over and
killed a young Ingush girl. Clashes between Ingush and Ossetian
forces erupted. Both sides took hostages, though most of those
kidnapped were believed to be Ingush.
School No. 1 was one of several buildings in which North Ossetian
soldiers had held Ingush citizens. The hostages, many of them women
and children, sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the gymnasium floor,
deprived of food and water_just as the Ossetians would do in the
school siege last month. Armed men in camouflage threatened them at
gunpoint. Several male hostages were hauled out of the gymnasium and
Hundreds of Ingush families were herded into buses at gunpoint and
moved from location to location. Layla Amerkhanova, her husband and
three young children were taken to the basement of a medical
institute in a small North Ossetian village, Mayrmadag, where they
held along with hundreds of other Ingush citizens. Periodically, the
armed men would comb through the rows of hostages, shining their
flashlights on men they suspected were Ingush rebels.
Amerkhanova's husband, Alikhan, decided not to wait. He stood up and
walked toward a group of North Ossetian militiamen standing by the
"He was taken out of the basement, and then we heard shooting,"
Amerkhanova said. "The bullets came through the basement windows.
They probably killed him at that time, and since then we've heard
nothing about him."
The following day, Amerkhanova, her children and scores of other
Ingush families were moved to School No. 1 in Beslan. By then her 1-
year-old son, Bashir, had gone days without any food and had grown
critically ill. Cradling her son in her arms in the darkened gym,
Amerkhanova begged a North Ossetian doctor to treat her child. "When
she saw us," Amerkhanova recalled, "she said, `I am not going to
treat the children of my enemies.'"
Some mothers were able to sell their gold jewelry to the soldiers in
exchange for pieces of bread and milk, said Khava Abodiyeva, an
Ingush television journalist who later interviewed numerous hostages
kept at the school.
The morning after a North Ossetian doctor refused to treat Bashir,
one of the Ossetian soldiers agreed to allow Amerkhanova to take her
son to a hospital. She took Bashir and her oldest son, 9-year-old
Zelimkhan, to the hospital with her but left her 7-year-old son,
Islam, at the school "just in case, if they did kill us, he would
Amerkhanova's 1-year-old survived, and a day later she and her two
sons were reunited with Islam at the North Ossetian-Ingush border
during a hostage exchange that allowed them to cross over to
"We feel everything the people in Beslan have been feeling and think
more about them than the authorities do," said Amerkhanova, now 43
and the owner of a women's clothing stall at a market in the Ingush
capital, Nazran. "More so than anyone else, we can empathize with the
victims of Beslan."