Five bloody days in North Ossetia

For the Ingush and Ossetians, memories from an overlooked conflict continue to simmer…



Fatima Chumakova
7 October 2014

I am Ingush – and I still do not fully understand why my mother always minds me going to Vladikavkaz, or why my Ossetian classmate never talked to me during five years of university. But I am forgetting my history.

In February this year, the Ingush people marked the 70th anniversary of their deportation. In September, Ossetians grieved for the victims of the Beslan tragedy, which befell them ten years ago. Remembering one of the many wars in the North Caucasus may help us understand both peoples’ suffering.

Ingush and Ossetians

The North Caucasus has long been a zone of chronic destabilisation and insurgency. Between Chechnya and South Ossetia – two better-known flashpoints – lie Ingushetia and North Ossetia. In these republics, memories of another recent conflict still simmer beneath the surface. 

During the 19th century, the Ossetians were Russia's closest and most reliable allies in its quest to conquer territories peopled by Muslim highlanders such as the Chechens, Circassians and Ingush. Their Orthodox Christian faith endeared the Ossetians to their Russian rulers, unlike their Ingush Muslim neighbours. The Ingush and Ossetians maintained an uneasy peace throughout much of their history, though it could hardly be called friendship. Even their languages are very different: the Ingush speak a Caucasian language similar to Chechen, while the Ossetians’ language is of Iranian origin.

Cemetery of victims of the 1992 conflict, Nazran.

The Ingush-Ossetian confrontation, and the terrible events which followed in late October 1992, is known as the East Prigorodny Conflict. This inter-ethnic conflict and territorial dispute demonstrated the dangers of fuelling nationalist sentiments, and in dividing the North Caucasus into two historical camps – the Russian-backed Ossetians on one side and the Ingush on the other.

The Ossetians were Russia's closest and most reliable allies in its quest to conquer territories peopled by Muslim highlanders.

At the start of the Soviet era, Ossetians and Ingush were both part of the Mountain Autonomous Republic, which was dissolved in 1924. Between 1924 and 1934 they had separate territories but shared Vladikavkaz as a capital, with the Ingush in the Prigorodny District on the right bank of the Terek River, and the Ossetians on the left. Then, in 1934, the Ingush and Chechen regions were merged into the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, of which the Prigorodny District became part, while Vladikavkaz was absorbed into North Ossetia.

Seventy years ago, in 1944, the Chechens and Ingush were accused of collaboration with the German occupiers. By order of Stalin, the entire population (over 450,000 people) was rounded up, herded into cattle-trucks and sent en masse to Central Asia and Siberia. But the accusation was false: during the Second World War not a single German soldier ever reached the Chechen-Ingush Republic, with the exception of a brief occupation of the town of Malgobek, whose population was predominantly Russian. The deportation of the Chechens and Ingush led to the abolition of their Republic in 1946, with its depopulated territories distributed among neighbouring Republics, and the Prigorodny District ‘awarded’ to North Ossetia.

During the first year of exile, 30-50% of the Chechen and Ingush populations died of cold, hunger and disease. Return to the North Caucasus was only permitted in 1957; and presented new challenges. The Ingush requested the right to live in their historic homeland – including the Prigorodny District, now North Ossetian territory. The exiles tried to return to their homes, even offering to buy them back from the Ossetian families who now inhabited them, but in vain. However, despite opposition from the local authorities, the Ingush continued to move into the Prigorodny District, by both legal and illegal means; and by the early 1990s, over 33,000 had settled in North Ossetia, mainly in this district.

The long road home

Those Ingush who returned to the restored Chechen-Ingush Republic, soon began to organise and take to the streets to protest about the loss of the Prigorodny District. In January 1973, they staged protests in Grozny, and in September 1989 held a congress there, which declared the district an integral part of Ingushetia. Meanwhile, the North Ossetian leadership only toughened their opposition, arguing that they could not afford to surrender the land, particularly given that they had to provide refuge for up to 100,000 refugees from the war in South Ossetia.

List of missing persons in the Prigorodny District and in Vladikavkaz in 1992, Nazran.

When Chechnya declared independence in 1991, the closely related Ingush people distanced themselves from this act. They were not well represented in the all-Chechen Congress and feared they would be marginalised within a new Chechen state. With their hopes of regaining the Prigorodny District, they also needed to maintain good relations with the Kremlin. Seeing no place for themselves in Dzhokhar Dudayev’s new state, the Ingush decided to secede from Chechnya and establish their own republic, to Moscow’s open approval. During his presidential election campaign, Boris Yeltsin expressed his support for the Ingush claims at a rally in their capital of Nazran. However, the abortive 1991 August coup against Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency had left Moscow without much influence in the North Caucasus region, and as tensions rose, the Ingush could no longer rely on the federal centre to resolve the Prigorodny issue. Ossetians complained of Ingush violence and extremism, while the Ingush alleged that their people were being kidnapped and killed by Ossetian militiamen. By October 1992, clashes between the two ethnic groups had become a serious problem.

Five bloody days

On 20 October, a 12-year-old Ingush girl was crushed to death by an Ossetian armoured personnel carrier in the settlement of Oktyabrskoye. The Ossetians insisted that it was an accident, but two days later two Ingush were shot dead in the Prigorodny District by Ossetian policemen. By the end of October, large-scale violence had erupted between Ingush and North Ossetian forces throughout the district. On 31 October, around 3000 Russian soldiers and paratroopers were sent to the region to ‘restore law and order.’ Yeltsin declared a state of emergency and gave orders to separate the fighting parties. The Russian forces established their headquarters in the Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, leaving no doubt for the Ingush that they were acting in coordiation with Ossetian military units. A journalist from the independent Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that ’military operations against the Ingush involved 68000 soldiers, including interior ministry troops, the North Ossetian OMON (riot police), and Cossack volunteers. These forces were equipped with modern small arms, armoured personnel carriers and tanks. The Ingush by comparison were poorly armed. What good is a shotgun against a tank?’

Heavy fighting ceased only after 4 November. Russian officials registered 65000 refugees from North Ossetia entering Ingushetia. Officially, 419 Ingush, 171 Ossetians and 60 others were killed. Other sources gave death tolls as high as 750, with 500 wounded. Around 800 people, the majority of them Ingush, had disappeared, many for good, and 3000 Ingush houses were burned. Ingushetia was faced with a humanitarian crisis. Some refugees found shelter in relatives’ homes, others were found temporary accommodation in old dormitories, schools, kindergartens, and caravans.

The Ingush accused the Russian authorities of directly supporting the Ossetians in committing ethnic cleansing in the Prigorodny District.

After these events, the Ingush accused the Russian authorities of directly supporting the Ossetians in committing ethnic cleansing in the Prigorodny District, a fact which Russian journalists drew attention to at the time. And when it became apparent that Russian forces had armed the North Ossetians, many members of other ethnic groups in the North Caucasus lost their trust in Moscow, realising that the Russian government wouldn’t hesitate to use force and violence against them to consolidate its influence in the region.

Why, then, did Russia become so involved in the clashes over the Prigorodny District? One suggestion was that Russian forces used the conflict as a pretext to provoke Chechnya’s leadership. According to this view, the main objective was to force Chechnya’s leader Dudayev to intervene and give support to the Ingush, thereby giving Russian troops a pretext to invade Chechnya. Dudayev, however, simply ignored the Ingush-Ossetian confliсt, and the Russian strategy came to nothing.

Ingush refugees began to return to North Ossetia in 1994. Of the 29 settlements they inhabited before the conflict, they have returned to 13. The Prigorodny District remains North Ossetian territory and has only a small Ingush population.

The Ingush and Beslan

The refugees’ return to North Ossetia, however, was not to last long. Ten years ago, in September 2004, a particularly horrifying terrorist attack took place in North Ossetia. The hostage crisis at School No. 1 in Beslan claimed 335 lives, 186 of them children’s. The Islamist militants who carried out the attack were said to be mostly Chechen and Ingush, though many sources mentioned a few Ossetians said to have taken part in the school siege. Following the tragedy, the North Ossetian government suspended the refugees’ return from Ingushetia.

Beslan was a critical moment for Ingush-Ossetian relations. The Russian media have repeatedly linked the tragic events to the 1992 conflict, representing them as a vendetta on the part of the angry Ingush. As a consequence, myths about an ‘Ingush trail’ in the events at Beslan became entrenched in the public consciousness. One foreign journalist who was in Beslan during the tragedy interviewed several locals, and was surprised that Ossetians were seeing the Beslan crisis through the prism of the Prigorodny conflict: ‘The boyeviki [Rn: fighters] were mostly Ingush’, he was told ‘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.’

Chumakova's great-uncle Hadj-Ali Chumakov and his friends were arrested for anti-Soviet activities and imprisoned.

Many Ossetians blame the Beslan hostage crisis on their neighbours across the border – in Ingushetia.

This is a typical North Ossetian view of the tragedy. Ossetians do not see, or do not want to see, these events as a confrontation between militants and Russian security forces. The hostage takers at Beslan demanded UN recognition of the independence of Chechnya, and the withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory. While a former President of Ingushetia – Ruslan Aushev – was involved in negotiations to release the hostages, one crucial fact needs to be taken into account: the militants did not demand the return of the Prigorodny District to Ingushetia. The Ossetians nevertheless believe they were under attack because of their ethnicity, because of their Christian faith, and because they have always been loyal to the Russian government. Many say that the enemy is their neighbour living just across the border – in Ingushetia.

Never-ending ethnic tension

Ingush-Ossetian relations have deteriorated considerably since 2004. Schools in the Prigorodny District separate Ossetian and Ingush children – no surprise, as the Ministry of Education of North Ossetia still refuses to address the issue of integrated education. The North Ossetian 5th grade history textbook describes the Ingush as the Ossetians’ enemies. Many people are still being abducted; in some settlements inter-ethnic clashes break out from time to time; and it seems like the Ingush-Ossetian confrontation – one of the most complex in the North Caucasus – will never end.

The Prigorodny conflict, meanwhile, continues to simmer; and given the absence of any effective government policies to resolve the issue, the scene is set for further clashes.

All photos: (c) Fatima Chumakova

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