BESLAN, Russia – Last week, Tanik Kuizev buried a niece who was among hundreds who died after a North Ossetian school was seized by raiders that included members of the rival Ingush ethnic group. After Wednesday, he vows, he will bury an Ingush to be killed in retribution.
Fears are high that Ossetians will seek bloody revenge for the more than 330 people — more than half of them children — who died in the maelstrom of gunfire and explosions at the school on Sept. 3.
Russians traditionally observe 40 days of mourning after a death. Wednesday is the 40th day, and Ossetians say the end of the mourning period could herald an outbreak of interethnic violence in days to come.
“There will be violence. It won’t be noisy. It will be quiet — one person at a time,” Kuizev said as he wandered through the burned-out husk of the school, stepping over flowers and stuffed animals left in memory of the victims.
Although Kuizev’s 12-year-daughter was among the hostages, she survived. But that hasn’t softened his anger.
“They say, ‘forgive, forgive.’ How do you forgive something like this? How do you explain this? Forgive? No way,” Kuizev said.
“It’s not a secret that we are waiting” for the end of the 40-day period, said 67-year-old Sergei Tandaleyev of the village of Sunja.
“We will demand that (the Ingush) leave. All of them,” he said. If they don’t, “there will be war.”
Venom and fear run deep between the Ingush and the Ossetians — two of the myriad ethnic groups that mix uneasily in the Russian Caucasus region, which also includes Chechnya (news – web sites), where rebels have been fighting Russian forces for more than five years.
Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev reportedly claimed responsibility for the school seizure and said at least nine of the 32 raiders were ethnic Ingush.
The Ingush are predominantly Muslims and are closely related to the Chechens; Ossetians are overwhemlingly Christian and historically have had close ties with Russia.
The Ingush and Chechens were exiled en masse to Central Asia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of Ingush who had returned from exile were evicted from their homes in towns around the North Ossetian capital, their belongings looted and houses burned. Hundreds died in 10 days of fighting.
Thousands of Ingush remain in squalid, makeshift towns and refugee camps on the border between North Ossetia and Ingushetia. Those that remain in North Ossetia are subject to harassment, discrimination, and after Beslan, death threats. Many Ingush still claim title to lands and homes now occupied by Ossetians.
Last month, Ruslan Aushev, a former president of Ingushetia, warned that revenge attacks could destabilize the entire Caucasuses. He appealed to authorities to calm relatives of the Beslan victims. But many Ossetians say they are cleaning their guns, many of which were acquired during the last round of violence in 1992.
Russian authorities have vowed to prevent revenge attacks, dispatching hundreds of extra police and troops to the region. President Vladimir Putin has said anyone who commits revenge attacks would be siding with the Beslan terrorists.
Meanwhile, frightened Ingush youth have left universities and institutes. Ingush parents are afraid to let their children go to school with Ossetian children.
In the makeshift border town of Maiski, east of Beslan, some 240 Ingush families live in houses made of tarpaper, plastic tarpaulins, particle board and blankets. Wires hang haphazardly above dirt paths where filthy children run amid cows and chickens. Water comes from a leaky corrugated metal tank.
Resident Mubari Azdoyev, 45, says he sympathizes with those who died at Beslan but he angrily recalls how Osssetians forced him and his family to flee their home near Vladikavkaz in 1992.
“All the world watched Beslan suffer. They gave money. They sent help. And where was the world 12 years ago, when they shot our sons in front of our eyes?” Azdoyev said. “In 1992, it was worse than in Beslan.”
At School No. 1, the gymnasium walls are lined inside and out with rows of flower wreaths, and scrawled with graffiti including “Answer for the children.”
Georgi Kozarev, 34, said he watched from a nearby apartment balcony as the chaos and slaughter erupted on Sept. 3. He said he later helped a mob lynch one of the fighters who had escaped the school and changed into civilian clothes.
“The elders are saying: ‘No, no. There’s no need (for violence),'” he said. “But an eye for an eye. How does one understand this? How do you forgive it?”