Sword or Samovar

A Fear of Three Letters

Traveling through Ingushetia, a republic where people are more frightened of Russia's shadowy security forces than the Islamist militants.

 

NAZRAN, Russia — In Ingushetia, a rugged outpost on Europe's southern perimeter, people lower their voices when they talk about the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB. Sometimes they just call it "the organization with three letters."


For at least eight years, this tiny republic has lived in fear as one of the most unstable spots in the troubled North Caucasus -- even worse, in recent times, than neighboring Chechnya. But the violence is not just the fault of Islamist militants, acting with financial support from jihadists overseas. In truth, it is overwhelmingly homegrown, the result, in large part, of an ongoing campaign of repression by Russia's security services, dominated by the all-powerful FSB.

During the Soviet period, the Ingush and Chechens (brother nations known collectively as the Vainakh) shared a republic here at the edge of the Eurasian steppe, where hamlets are scattered through the forest-cloaked foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the two nations went their separate ways, and Ingushetia stayed mostly out of the two wars in the 1990s fought between separatists in Chechnya and the Russian army.

Around 2002, however, the continuing guerrilla war in Chechnya began to spill into Ingushetia. In 2004, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev led an attack on police stations and other buildings in Nazran that left 98 people dead, including many civilians.

In response, Russian security forces began extending their ruthless zachistki ("cleansing" sweeps) onto Ingush soil. The sweeps gave way to targeted assassinations and kidnappings of suspected guerrillas by squads of mask-wearing commandos. Russian law demands that prosecutors are informed of any detention within 12 hours and that a suspect is allowed to meet a lawyer before questioning -- but the siloviki, or security chiefs, were breaking these laws on a regular basis.

In 2004, security forces whisked away at least 24 men who were never heard from again. Such flagrant abuses quickly swelled the ranks of the insurgency in this tight-knit, patriarchal society where poor treatment of a relative is not easily forgiven. By 2007, the militants were launching almost daily attacks in Ingushetia, strafing police cars and firing on security posts in Nazran and other settlements.

In a republic with the highest unemployment rate in Russia (now 53 percent) -- its largest town, Nazran, little more than a sprawling village -- this constant, open warfare became a self-feeding inferno. Bespredel, most Ingush called it the last time I was here, in the summer of 2008: a Russian word that translates roughly as "beyond all limits" or "extreme violence."

After a policeman shot a prominent opposition leader in the head at point-blank range in Ingushetia's airport later that year, the Kremlin finally realized it had to act to stop the rot. It appointed a new president to the region, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, a decorated and decisive former army general who looked liked he had the nerve to straighten things out.

There was a major setback in his first year -- a suicide bomber ramming a Toyota Camry packed with explosives into his car on his way to work -- but Yevkurov recovered and in November 2009 made a crucial decision. At a meeting with the republic's siloviki in his fortified compound, he warned them to rein in their excesses, which, he said, were only spurring the militants.

"To be fair to the president, there was a lull in fatal abductions and extrajudicial killings for about a year from that moment," Timur Akiyev, director of the Nazran office of Russia's human rights group Memorial, told me last week. "Then the siloviki couldn't hold on any longer and they went back to their old methods."

Yevkurov's peace ended abruptly. Until the autumn of 2010, things had looked promising. Out of 14 cases of abductions reported to Memorial in the first 10 months of the year, all the victims were eventually released or charged with crimes. (By contrast, in 2009, four people were later found dead or reported killed and five disappeared out of 13 abductions.)

Then on Nov. 22 of last year, Dibikhan Pugoyeva, from Pliyevo village in central Ingushetia, tried calling her 17-year-old son Magomed Gorchkhanov, who was visiting friends in Nazran. Unable to reach his cell phone, she called the wife of an acquaintance who was meant to be driving her son and one of his friends home -- and heard that the car had been shot at and set on fire by FSB agents. The acquaintance was dead, and the two passengers were missing.

In a panic, Pugoyeva and her relatives began making calls to the prosecutor's office and the police. No one had any information. At the morgue in Nazran, a friendly policeman on guard told her that only the driver's body was inside. Two boys had leapt out of the car and been taken into FSB custody, he said. The FSB denied this.

"I didn't know what to do," Pugoyeva, 39, told me recently. "Nobody would give us an answer about what exactly happened." Then one day in December, she found an envelope in her front yard that someone had slipped under the gate. Inside the envelope was the memory card from a cell phone. On the card was a shaky video recording. It showed a burning car by a roadside and several figures in plainclothes leading two young men with their hands tied behind their backs to another car, where at least one is pushed into the trunk. The recording is fuzzy, but Pugoyeva says she recognizes both her son and his friend, the other passenger, named Aslan-Giri Korigov. "It's them," she said. "I'm sure."

Seeing her son and his friend alive was reassuring, but her ordeal was not over yet. When Magomed had been missing for a month, police summoned Pugoyeva and told her he had been killed in a shootout with FSB officers near Pliyevo. A relative went to the morgue and was able to identify Magomed's clothes, but he couldn't identify the remains. "All that was left were lumps of flesh," said Pugoyeva. "He had been blown up." Another broken body was discovered nearby, possibly Aslan-Giri, but his family has refused to accept it's him.

Prosecutors say they cannot open an investigation into Magomed's alleged kidnapping and murder until his remains are formally identified. Pugoyeva gave blood for a DNA test in December and was told it would take two weeks. She is still waiting.

Magomed and Aslan-Giri weren't the only ones to go missing this winter. Four days before they disappeared, a group of commandos in a fleet of vehicles without registration plates came to the house of Israil Torshkhoyev, 36, an out-of-work taxi driver, in Altiyevo, near Nazran. After searching his house, they loaded Torshkhoyev into an armor-plated minibus and drove him away. Torshkhoyev's brother, Mussa, has spent the last three and a half months looking for him without being told a thing.

Then on Dec. 22, in perhaps the most scandalous case of recent months, a 30-year-old Ingush woman, Zalina Elkhoroeva, was traveling across the border from North Ossetia in a taxi when masked men with automatic weapons detained her. She hasn't been heard from since. Elkhoroeva had been visiting her brother, Timur, who was then in a pretrial detention center in North Ossetia and has since been sentenced to four years in prison for leading a militant group. "Maybe they took Zalina in order to put pressure on Timur," said her aunt, Taykhant, when I visited her in the Ingush town of Karabulak. "I don't even want to think what might have happened to her."

Nazran, it must be said, is calmer than it was when I was last here three years ago. Then, I would hear firing or explosions at night. Last week, an alleged boyevik (rebel fighter) was killed in a shootout in the center of the city and a makeshift bomb was defused in the town of Karabulak, but otherwise it was quiet. Some statistics are improving. An estimated 136 people died in Ingushetia in insurgency-related violence last year, compared with 273 in 2009 (the republic's population is 530,000). But though the FSB and other outfits can claim partial responsibility for the drop in deaths -- they "liquidated" or captured several senior militants like Said Buryatsky and the one code-named Magas, thus reducing the number of armed clashes -- they appear unable, or unwilling, to curb their own excesses.

One state official in Nazran put it bluntly in a private conversation. "The FSB just does whatever it likes to achieve its goals," he told me. "No one can argue."

It is a growing complaint across the North Caucasus. In September, Arsen Kanokov, the president of Kabardino-Balkaria, called on Moscow to give him direct powers over federal security services on his territory, saying their unwarranted arrests of innocent people were "filling the ranks of the boyeviki."

According to Batir Akhilgov, a lawyer who works with the families of abductees in Ingushetia, security officers torture their captives for information about the location of rebel camps and safe houses, or, if they turn out to be innocent, force them to admit to unsolved crimes. No one knows who the perpetrators are because they are masked, without ID or insignia. Most analysts believe they are FSB operatives, but they could also be police special forces or officers from ORB, the local Operational Investigative Bureau of Russia's Interior Ministry.

Akhilgov is representing a young man who was detained illegally for six days, during which he was punched and submitted to electric shocks through his fingers. "This is how it is done," he said. "The suspect is held for just as long as it takes to beat him into a confession and then he is charged." He added: "It is practically pointless for me to make a complaint in such cases because they are always ignored or rejected. Our courts are an integral part of the system."

The impact is clear. One theory about the motive of the Ingush suicide bomber, Magomed Yevloyev, who killed 36 people at Moscow's Domodedovo airport in January, is that he was provoked by police officers killing his brother-in-law, a suspected insurgent. "Eighty percent of the young men who join the boyeviki do it to fulfill one desire," said Magomed Mutsolgov, a rights activist based in Karabulak. "Revenge."

President Yevkurov is not giving up. In January, according to his press service, he once again tried to restrain the siloviki, meeting with them to warn that persecuting detainees would "only create new terrorists." Yet he seemed to admit his powerlessness in a Feb. 14 newspaper interview: "No one is guaranteed against a violation of the law during the active phase of a special operation."

For now, the Kremlin appears unfazed by the ongoing brutality. On Feb. 22, President Dmitry Medvedev led a meeting of Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee in North Ossetia, the Christian republic bordering Ingushetia to the west.

He spoke passionately about the need to attack the militant "degenerates," "in their dens, in their hiding places, wherever they are." Those insurgents "who want blood will choke on their own blood," local news agencies reported him as saying. Of abuses by the security services, he said nothing.

Mutsolgov, whose own brother, Bashir, a schoolteacher, was kidnapped and vanished without a trace eight years ago, is impatient for change. "If we want to save Ingushetia, what we need is new schools and hospitals and factories. We need equal rights before the law. We need a sense of hope," he said. "What we don't need is terror and injustice."

KAZBEK BASAYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Sword or Samovar

The Secret History of Beslan

From the outside, the violence in the Caucasus looks like a religious war or an independence struggle. In this installment from a monthlong travel diary, our correspondent finds that in North Ossetia, ethnic tension adds a deadly twist.

VLADIKAVKAZ and BESLAN, Russia — 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."

Tom Parfitt