In Beslan, a tense bid for calm

Russian officials hope to prevent reprisals as 40-day mourning period ends for victims of the school siege.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Wreaths are stacked in rows along the blackened and bullet-scarred gym walls of School No. 1, along with toys, stuffed animals, tiny backpacks, and other offerings in memory of the scores of children - as well as parents and teachers - who died here amid a storm of explosions and gunfire on Sept. 3.

As the 40-day mourning period observed by the mainly Orthodox Christian population of North Ossetia ended Tuesday, many here said they are struggling to master their feelings of rage and fear. The key hope now, some say, is that tough law enforcement coupled with community pressure will prevent a few angry neighbors from launching violent reprisals against Ossetia's hereditary enemies, the mainly Muslim Ingush, who are widely blamed for the school siege that ended with at least 331 dead, half of them children.

"Everyone here is filled with sorrow, and for some it is unbearable," says Emma Medoyeva, a teacher at nearby School No. 6, which will start receiving many of the survivors next month. "It is so hard to forgive and try to live for the future, but this is our only chance. Most people here want peace."

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But, she adds, "People have been grieving and not thinking about how we will continue living after this. Soon we will have to start talking about practical things, and this is going to be very hard."

Deported to Central Asia by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1944 along with their ethnic kin, the Chechens, the Ingush returned to find some of their land and homes occupied by Ossetians. After the USSR's collapse, tensions erupted in a five-day border war that killed as many as 800 people and caused tens of thousands of Ingush in North Ossetia to flee.

Until last month, about 21,000 Ingush remained, mostly in the disputed Prigorodny district, about five miles east of Beslan, though some reports say thousands have left, fearing revenge. Scores of Ingush students in North Ossetia were told to leave "for their own protection" last month.

Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who has masterminded a string of deadly attacks against Russia, was clearly hoping to fan hostilities with an Internet statement last month in which he took responsibility for the Beslan attack and noted that at least nine "Ingush fighters" had taken part.

"In the Caucasus, just one spark is all it takes to set off an explosion," says Sergei Kazyennov, an expert with the independent Institute of National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "But people are exhausted.... The majority just wants peace."

President Vladimir Putin last month appointed one of his most trusted aides, Dmitri Kozak, to head a commission to find a formula for peace and security in Russia's volatile North Caucasus, which includes predominantly Orthodox North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and four other mainly Muslim republics. But experts are dubious. "If Kozak can solve this problem, he'll immediately become a candidate to be Putin's successor," says Konstantin Simonov, director of the independent Center for Current Politics in Moscow. "But I think Kozak's task must terrify him."

North Ossetia's vice premier, Oleg Khatsayev, says that while authorities will take all necessary steps to ensure order, they want firm answers from Moscow. "People are waiting to find out who organized the outrage in Beslan. On which territory was it planned?" he says. "We want to see measures taken to destroy those who are guilty."

Russian officials insist there will be no violence as mourning gives way to other emotions. Russian troops are heavily present, particularly in the tense border areas. "Law enforcement has this situation completely in hand," says Mr. Khatsayev.

But some experts warn the problem is not so simple. "There is an outward calm, but inside people are seething with feelings of aggression brought on by fear and anxiety," says Inna Abayeva, a psychologist at the Psychological Training Center in Vladikavkaz, where many of the survivors are being treated for post-traumatic stress. "The situation is very dangerous. In order to ease it we need more open public discussion of how to move forward, and we need more information from the authorities," she says.

Indeed, a vengeful point of view is not hard to find, especially among the small knots of young men hovering on Beslan's street corners. "I'm ready to kill them, to finish this threat forever," says Marat, a teenager who says he lost his little sister in the siege. But one of his two friends, who gives his name as Oleg, interjects: "No, that's not good. We don't want war."

Yet while the Kremlin blames "international terrorism" for the bloody hostage drama, many Ossetians have a more specific enemy in mind. "The further you get from the Ingush border, the quieter things are," says Marat Dzanayev, a young engineer in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz. "There has always been trouble with them, and our patience can't last for much longer."

There is hope that dialogue might take hold between Ossetians and their neighbors. In a meeting with visiting UNICEF director Carol Bellamy on Tuesday, North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov endorsed the idea of introducing classes in tolerance and interethnic understanding in local schools. "I don't think anyone will ever get over the tragedy of Beslan, but hopefully people can start to move on," says Ms. Bellamy. "We have to hope that the scale of violence that we saw there will stand as a warning to all that it must never be repeated."

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