In these sleepy towns in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, it's no surprise that fury against the Islamist militants who plague the North Caucasus runs deep. Beslan is, of course, the infamous site of the most savage and terrifying militia attack in recent memory, the raid on School Number One that left hundreds of people dead on the third day of the fall semester in 2004. Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, has seen a series of suicide attacks in its crowded city center.
But when you ask people here who they really blame for these tragedies, you hear something unexpected: Instead of viewing the war as one fought between guerrillas and security forces, with civilians as collateral damage, the Ossetians see it through the prism of a festering ethnic conflict. The real enemy, they say, lives just across the nearby border, not a 20 minute drive away, in the republic of Ingushetia.
This conviction derives partly from history and partly from a series of fatally misguided decisions from Moscow on how best to fight the violence that's plagued its southern border for decades.
The Ossetians are a largely Orthodox Christian nation at the center of the Greater Caucasus mountain range. Vladikavkaz is just 15 miles from Nazran, the largest settlement in Ingushetia, which is predominantly Muslim.
Tension between the two nations goes back for hundreds of years. During the 19th century, the Ossetians were Russia's key regional allies in its battle to conquer the surrounding Muslim highlanders, including the Ingush, Chechens, and Circassians.
Then at the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin deported several North Caucasus nations en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia for allegedly siding with the invading Germans (in fact, only a minority did so). Among them were 92,000 Ingush. When the Ingush were rehabilitated and allowed home in 1957, they returned to find that a chunk of their territory, the Prigorodny district, had been handed to North Ossetia.
Through the late Soviet period the Ingush lobbied for Prigorodny to be reattached to their joint republic with Chechnya. Then, after the USSR crumbled in 1991, the lid was off. A year later, fighting broke out in Prigorodny. The Russian army sided with the Ossetians. At least 600 people died in the hostilities, and between 30,000 and 60,000 Ingush fled their homes.
The conflict officially ended with Boris Yeltsin decreeing that the district should remain a part of North Ossetia. But the pain and anger associated with that mini-war almost two decades ago -- and the absence of any concerted Kremlin effort to resolve its consequences -- continue to poison ties between North Ossetia and Ingushetia.
More recent events have only made matters worse. In the minds of many here, the critical moment in the modern history of Ossetian-Ingush relations was in September 2004, when a team of Islamist gunmen stormed School Number One at Beslan, a town close to North Ossetia's airport famous for its vodka factory.
The men took 1,100 pupils, parents, and teachers hostage as they celebrated the beginning of the school year, issuing a demand for Russia to withdraw its troops from Chechnya. Fifty-two hours of unimaginable horror ensued. The captives were herded into the school sports hall, which the guerrillas wired with explosives. Several hostages were summarily executed. At least 370 died after two blasts, a fire, and a gun battle ended the siege. According to Russian authorities, 19 of the 33 attackers were residents of Ingushetia (which borders Chechnya to the east and whose people share strong cultural and language links with the Chechens).
Beslan left many observers thinking that armed conflict would reignite between the Ossetians and Ingush. I was there as a reporter, and I remember standing at the freshly dug graves on the edge of the town as scores of victims were buried after the siege. Three Ossetian men next to me were cursing under their breath.
"Bitches, cowards," said one, when I asked him about the hostage-takers. "They'd rather torture children or hide like rats in a hole than fight with real men." Another added: "They are jackals, not humans." That visceral hatred has not faded. A few days ago, an Ossetian friend told me, "The boyeviki were mostly Ingush, and they gathered at a base in the forest in Ingushetia before the attack. It's a shame we didn't catch them alive. Then we could have given them to the bereaved mothers so they could rip the bastards to pieces."
Ingush militants have also been named in more recent suicide attacks. In 2008, a woman detonated explosives in a minibus near the central market in Vladikavkaz, leaving 13 people dead. Witnesses said the woman was an Ingush in her 40s, though her identity was never established.
Then in September 2010, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a car near the same market, killing 17 people and injuring more than 160. Police later identified the bomber as Magomet Malsagov, a 24-year-old from Nazran who had smuggled the explosives across the checkpoint between the two republics, possibly hidden in the gas cylinder that many drivers here use as fuel. The suicide bomber who killed nearly 40 people at Moscow's Domodedovo airport in January was also from Ingushetia.
Susanna Dudiyeva, chairwoman of the Beslan Mothers Committee, put a common view succinctly when I visited her last week. "The Ingush say that not all Ingush are terrorists," she told me. "But we can't help noticing that all the terrorists are Ingush."
Both sides in the war between Islamist insurgents and Russian forces in the North Caucasus over the last decade have tended to play down the role of ethnicity.
In the 1990s, separatists in Chechnya framed their struggle along national lines, making reference to the battle against czarist Russia a century and a half before. Today's militants are part of the Caucasus Emirate -- a regionwide Islamist coalition for whom faith and camaraderie supersede national and ethnic ties. In turn, the Kremlin insists that the insurgents get funding from abroad and are plugged into a global jihadi network -- a fair accusation but one that ignores the crucial role of local factors.
In truth, ethnic cleavages remain a powerful intensifier of conflict in this sweep of steppe and mountain, a patchwork of many small nations. In Dagestan, where there are more than 30 indigenous groups, ethnicity can provide a common bond for mafia groups (whose interests, in turn, may blur with those of Muslim fanatics). The Ossetian-Ingush standoff, however, is the grittiest in the region because it combines ethnic, territorial, and religious differences.
Today, the Ossetians' historical sense of being an embattled nation surrounded by ill-intentioned neighbors is revived by militant attacks and the growing Islamist insurgency to their west in Kabardino-Balkaria.
"It is only our tolerance that has stopped something worse happening with the Ingush," Sveta Dzhioyeva, a reporter at the Osetia Segodnya (Ossetia Today) newspaper, told me last week. "Even now, after all the explosions, they come to our bazaar to shop, and nobody bothers them. But I don't know an Ossetian who would go to Nazran. It's far too dangerous."
She added, "Do you see you any Christian suicide bombers? The Muslims need to ask themselves that question before they demand sympathy. We have a right to be afraid of them."
A couple of days later in Vladikavkaz, I was sitting in the Wild Hacker Internet cafe on Baturina Street, watching a gaggle of boys -- none more than 12 years old -- play a hyperviolent group computer game. As they blasted pixelated enemies into lumps of bloody pulp, the boys shouted commands to each other in Russian expletives. "Smotri, Ingush, terrorist -- mochi ego!" cried one as he spotted a foe: "Look, an Ingush, a terrorist -- waste him!"
In Beslan, the enmity is felt even more sharply. Seven years after the attack on School Number One, the charred shell of the hall where hostages sat for days is a shrine. Pictures of the dead line the walls. There are wreaths, an Orthodox cross, and bottles of water symbolizing the fact that the hostages were denied anything to drink.
Down the road on Oktyabrskaya Street, I visited the Beslan Mothers Committee, a group run by victims and victims' relatives. Dudiyeva, whose son Zaur, 13, died at the school, said: "Terror is still with us. The day after that Ingush blew himself up at the market in Vladikavkaz in September, my husband had a heart attack from the shock." (He survived, but is bedbound.)
When I asked Dudiyeva what lacked in the Kremlin's strategy for quelling the Islamists, she said, "It's too soft. I'm in favor of punitive methods. If a terrorist can kill innocent people, can kill children, why shouldn't the whole family that brought up that terrorist be executed?"
Such statements do not necessarily transform into violence. Yet Ossetia has seen a number of recent incidents involving attacks or discrimination against its 20 percent Muslim minority. After a mosque was restored in Beslan last year, the mothers asked mosque leaders not to amplify the call to prayer. Some locals were against the mosque re-opening altogether. "How can we have people in our town crying Allahu akbar, when that's what the boyeviki shouted over our dying children?" asked Svetlana Tsgoyeva, 69, whose 9-year-old granddaughter was killed.
Last month, in a village in the southern part of North Ossetia, a wealthy Muslim businessman decided to build a prayer room and a minaret in his garden. Before the minaret had reached 3 yards high, locals -- who are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian -- organized a protest meeting that attracted 300 people, then broke into his home, slashed the tires on his car, and demanded he tear down the minaret. Four hundred and ninety-three people have since signed a letter to Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, arguing that fundamentalists will take up residence in the village if the minaret stays. (So far it's still standing.)
Alan Tskhurbayev, a popular Ossetian blogger whose post on the minaret controversy attracted a flood of comments, said the issue played to wider prejudices than purely anti-Islamic sentiment. "The problem is not just interreligious; it is, of course, inter-national; that is, Ossetian-Ingush."
He added: "Many people in Ossetia are ready to put the words Islam, Ingush, and terrorist in a single chain. Equally, I'm sure that in Ingushetia just as many think of Ossetians only as 'the fighters who murdered us.'"
And indeed, the Ingush still nurse their pain over Prigorodny. The Ingush allege that Ossetian fighters slit the throats of civilians, raped women, and fed Ingush corpses to pigs -- accusations now difficult to corroborate.
Magomed Amirkhanov, an Ingush I know, was kidnapped with his semiparalyzed father by Ossetian irregulars in 1992 and held captive with scores of other civilians for 14 days before being released. "I'm not in favor of terrorism," he told me in 2008. "But the Ossetians never talk about how we were driven from our burning homes, how we were killed and beaten."
Timur Akiyev, an Ingush human rights advocate, said the Kremlin attitude toward Prigorodny has been one of "total neglect" -- a strategic error that only plays into the hands of the militants. "The boyeviki use facts to get their recruits," he said. "Here they can say, 'Look, your people were forced out of their homes and then forbidden from returning. You are a Russian citizen, but the government does not protect you.'"
So then what can be done to break the cycle of hatred and suspicion?
Moscow has long failed to grasp the nettle. But recently the governments of the two republics have embarked on a new attempt to solve their differences, holding a series of encouraging bilateral talks last year. A working group discussed security issues and the return of Ingush. About 30,000 have already gone back since the end of the conflict but, there are disagreements over returns to villages that saw the harshest fighting. (North Ossetia says they could provoke a new conflict, while Ingush activists insist this is an excuse to prevent another 10,000 going back.)
Meanwhile, on the ground, individuals from both sides are making tentative steps toward peace. Magomed Makiyev, 28, an Ingush from Kurtat, a mixed-population village in Prigorodny, works in a center financed by NGOs that provides training sessions and funding for small businesses to buy equipment: beehives, a sewing machine, a refrigerator for a grocery store. At the training workshops, he encourages people of both nations to meet and find common ground. The center also organizes events for children from the several villages in Prigorodny where Ingush and Ossetian pupils attend separate schools.
"We see how quickly these kids forget their suspicions when they come together," said Makiyev. "A couple of years ago we sent a group by train to a holiday camp near Moscow. On the way there, the Ossetian kids and the Ingush kept totally separate in different compartments. But on the way back the two nations were completely mixed up throughout the wagon, chatting and laughing."