Anger rising in volatile Caucasus

School saga is inflaming old divides between ethnic groups.

Grief is turning to anger and deepening tension here in the Caucasus as Russia Tuesday took a second day of national mourning - and the residents of Beslan buried another 100 loved ones.

For people at the muddy gravesides and throughout this small town, the school-hostage tragedy is viewed through the lens of a brutal historic rivalry, which pits the Christian Orthodox Ossetians here, against Muslims of Ingushetia and Chechnya to the east.

By striking the pro-Russian Ossetians, the Chechens and Ingush militants are seen attempting to launch an ethnic conflict in this volatile region to broaden the Kremlin's quagmire in Chechnya. Indeed, the grief here is becoming overlaid with cries for revenge, and fears that the bloodshed - which left nearly 350 dead - could ignite a fresh regional war. The Chechen and Ingush hostage-takers could not have chosen a more explosive target.

"If everyone is going to war, I'll also go," says Eduard, a Beslan driver. "Everyone has an automatic gun, and so do I. We're peace- ful people, but ... what are we worth as men, if we can't protect our women and children?"

Anger mixes with rumors about atrocities committed by the school captors, though surviving hostages themselves deny that such abuse occurred.

"It's something horrible, this thing, like your Sept. 11," says Margarita Abayeva, standing beside the double grave of her nieces, Irina and Alina. "They castrated men and raped girls. We live side by side with people capable of doing that. We are Christians; they are Muslims. We ... hold them responsible."

President Vladimir Putin has vowed to prevent the hostage crisis from sparking a new conflict in the Caucasus. Local Orthodox Church officials say the same.

"At a moment of such grief, a person's soul opens, and people look at questions in a more spiritual way," says Father Sergei Maltsev, who runs Beslan's small church. "There is a political problem here. We try to solve it with things that unite us, not what divides us."

But this event is reopening a violent history between Ossetia and its Muslim neighbors of Chechnya and Ingushetia.

"Everyone thinks the Ingush are 80 percent to blame," says cafe owner Zaira Fidarova, who has a portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin hanging on the wall. "It has become a saying, that if you ask an Ingush boy, 'Are you a man?' he will answer: 'I'm not a man yet, until I kill an Ossetian.'"

Mrs. Fidarova says of her customers are talking about revenge. "I know people will go if a war is going to start. Everyone will take up arms," she says. "As a mother I don't think this is a solution."

Analysts say war was one of the goals of the school takeover. "The main purpose of this terrorist act was to detonate interethnic war between Ingush and Ossetians," says Sergei Arutyunov, a Caucasus expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. "Authorities will have to make a maximum effort to block this tendency. If Ossetian volunteers will start pogroms, it will push Ingush towards Chechen separatists."

Hard-liners here remember the brutality applied by Czarists, Soviets, and Russians to Muslim communities in the Caucasus, which grated under Moscow's attempts to impose its rule. One name often invoked is that of Alexei Yermolov, who vowed to subdue the region when he became military chief in 1816.

"I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses," he declared. "Out of pure humanity, I am inexorably severe.... One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction and thousands of Muslims from treason."

General Yermolov's contempt was matched by that of Stalin, who on the night of Feb. 22, 1944 - at the height of war with Nazi Germany - drew resources from the front to begin a mass deportation of more than 600,000 Chechens, Ingush, and other Muslims to Central Asia. One quarter of the deportees died in the first five years.

"Stalin didn't finish things with the Chechens: He deported them but didn't kill them. He should have killed them, we are convinced of that now," says Fidarova.

Reverence for Stalin has undergone a renaissance in Beslan. Though demonized abroad for killing millions in concentration camps, Stalin is revered here in part because one of his parents was an Ossetian. A bust was erected two years ago, and "Friendship Street" was renamed "Stalin Street."

"The rate of hatred is growing across the country," says Emil Pain, head of the Center for Analytic and Regional Research in Moscow. "It is the hatred of Ossetians against Ingush, Russians against Chechens, military people against civilians, etc."

The conflict today can be traced to Stalin's deportation of Chechens, says Galina Soldatova, an ethnopsychologist at Moscow State University. Stalin's secret police "made Ossetians settle into the homes of the people who were deported at gunpoint. In the Caucasus, to seize your neighbor's house is an awful crime with far-reaching consequences, which are still felt today."

When the deportees were allowed to return in 1956, they often found Ossetians living in their houses. Conflict surged in 1982 when an Ossetian was killed. "All of Ossetia rose to fight," says Mrs. Soldatova. "The center of Vladikavkaz [the North Ossetian capital] was practically destroyed by tanks, but it was quickly hushed up, and no paper ever wrote about it."

Further violence broke out in 1992, when Ingush took some Ossetians hostage and killed them. Ossetians fought back with weapons from Moscow.

"Ossetians are kind of strangers in the Caucasus, because they came [after other ethnic groups]. They are a link between the Caucasus and Russia," says Soldatova. "Now [Ossetians] are burying their dead.... They are now in shock. But when that passes, what will follow?"

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