New worries for Russian schoolchildren
CHERMEN, Russia – The questions from the students at the lecture on security were to be expected: What do I do if there’s a fire? What do I do if there’s a strange looking package in the hall? What do I do if my friend is wounded and is bleeding?
The police commander, Lt. Col. Sergei Goldshtein, answered calmly.
Then, a 14-year-old boy asked: “What happens when there’s war with them?”
Goldshtein looked taken aback. “War? With whom?”
“The Ingush,” the boy replied.
The threat of violence between Ingush and Ossetians looms across North Ossetia, the southern Russian region where the school siege in Beslan, just to the west of Chermen, took place Sept. 1-3.
Life has not fully returned to normal at schools in Chermen since the attack that left more than 330 people dead. Many ethnic Ossetians blame their longtime regional rivals, the Ingush, for the bloodshed; authorities have said there were Ingush among the attackers.
The children of Chermen, a largely Ingush town that was in the front lines of a 10-day war in 1992, know something is amiss, said Zaira Alagova, principal at Chermen’s School No. 1.
“Depression, some don’t do their school work. They play OK, but some fight more than they used to. It’s post-traumatic stress in part,” Alagova said Friday.
“I’m not sure anything will ever be back to normal,” she said.
Outside the entrance to the school, whose students are almost all Ossetian, an Interior Ministry soldier with a Kalashnikov guards the approach. Another patrols the exterior. Inside, a list of children killed at Beslan’s School No. 1 sits on a small table in front of a sign that reads: “Beslan is a wound for the entire world.”
On Thursday, Goldshtein – a Russian police commander deployed to Chermen in the wake of Beslan – agreed to talk to children about personal safety and terrorism. He said he wasn’t fully prepared, but answered questions about first aid, law enforcement and weapons.
When the questions turned to war, he was momentarily stumped before answering: “If there’s war, soldiers, police – they’ll be here in 20 minutes. Not to worry.”
During the October 1992 war, Chermen and the Prigorodny district that borders the republic Ingushetia saw fierce fighting. Hundreds died and at least 50,000 Ingush fled to Ingushetia before Russian forces intervened.
Since then, Ingush and Ossetians have lived calmly side by side. Ingush outnumber Ossetians in Chermen by roughly 4-to-1. This school year, town elders agreed to let Ossetian and Ingush children study alongside one another.
Once classes resumed after Beslan, though, the children of Chermen were almost entirely segregated. Neighbors withdrew from one another; Ingush children stopped playing with Ossetian children.
Across town, at School No. 3, almost all the students are Ingush. As a security patrol of Russian soldiers passed by, deputy principal Khamzat Gordunov said a retired Ingush police colonel gives a class once a week to all students about protecting themselves from bombs, weapons and terrorism.
He said students sometimes talked about what happened at Beslan, and some parents were warning their children to stay away from Ossetians.
“We’re used to all this, all these threats of violence,” Gordunov said. “Chechnya isn’t far away, you know.”
Ruslan, an 11-year-old Ingush boy on his way back to class after lunch, said he was afraid of terrorists, but not of Ossetians.
“See, I’m not afraid of them,” he said, waving a fist in the air before going off to shake hands with the school’s armed guard.
As classes let out at School No. 1, a group of Ossetian boys and girls jumped, ran, pushed and played in side yard. Zaur, 9, said his cousin and his aunt live in Beslan but weren’t among the hostages. He said his parents sometimes talked about their Ingush neighbors, calling them bad names.
“I don’t like them (the Ingush). I don’t respect them,” he said.
His friend Khetag, 9, chimed in: “I’m afraid. They’ll kill us, the terrorists, the Ingush.”