Forty-day mourning period ends in Russia

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

BESLAN, Russia -- Wailing and pounding their hands on dirt graves, hundreds of people dressed in black marked the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period for the children and adults killed after terrorists seized a school on the first day of classes.

Fears are rising that grief may give way to violence by the mostly Ossetian residents against the Ingush, a rival ethnic group whose members were among the raiders who took control of School No. 1.

Top federal and regional officials have appealed for calm, but seething anger is replacing sorrow in North Ossetia, the republic in southern Russia where Beslan is located.

"I can promise you there will be violence," said a 47-year-old man outside the school who gave only his first name, Ruslan. "(The Ingush) are all bandits."

The school's shattered remains yet again became the epicenter for the anguish of those whose relatives and friends died in the Sept. 1 to 3 siege. The corridors of the school -- rank with mildew and smoke, and rife with angry graffiti -- rang with women's wails and sobs.

In the charred gymnasium, where more than 1,000 people were held without food or water in sweltering heat for three days, schoolchildren lit thin candles and people propped up small religious icons and photographs among the flowers and stuffed animals. One woman shook with sobs as she read the graffiti scrawled on the walls: "Children, forgive us."

"Many of us are afraid to go to school now. Many of us can't even sleep at night," said 16-year-old Alona Pliyeva, who came with about two dozen classmates from a nearby village.

In the surrounding streets, families set up long tables and lit bonfires for mourning meals. Grief-stricken families could be identified by their men, wearing beards that they planned to shave at the end of the 40 days.

At the town cemetery, where hundreds of fresh graves were adorned with flowers, bricks and wooden marking posts, Ossetian women began exchanging their black head scarves for dark-colored ones to mark the end of the mourning period. Red-eyed men somberly poured drops of water or beer on the graves as offerings to the dead. The sounds of a chorus of Orthodox Christian priests singing prayers and blessings mixed with the wails of women pounding the dirt graves, and yelling in Ossetian or in Russian: "How can this be?! How can this be?!"

"I can barely even look at her grave. I have no words to express it," said Vitaly, as he stood near the grave of his 12-year-old niece, Zarina.

Across Russia, priests conducted services in Orthodox churches and cathedrals, while regional politicians urged calm amid rumors that the end of the mourning period would bring a wave of reprisal killings.

Some Ossetians have vowed to seek revenge on the Ingush for the deaths of nearly 340 victims at School No. 1. The hostage-takers, apparently acting under orders from Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, included some Ingush. The only hostage-taker to have been detained by Russian forces is a man identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev. Authorities say the 31 others were either killed in the gun battle with Russian forces and Ossetian fighters, or killed by residents as they tried to slip away.

Officials fear a repeat of the 10-day war fought between Ossetians and Ingush in the fall of 1992 over land rights. Ingush tried to return to their homes half a century after being exiled together with the Chechens under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Hundreds were killed and thousands of Ingush were forced to flee the eastern regions of North Ossetia.

Thousands of Ingush live in squalid settlements and refugee camps along the border between North Ossetia and Ingushetia. Those in North Ossetia are subject to harassment, discrimination and, after Beslan, death threats. Many Ingush still claim title to land and homes now occupied by Ossetians.

Former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev has repeatedly warned that revenge attacks could destabilize the entire Caucasus. But Russian authorities have vowed to prevent acts of vengeance, dispatching hundreds of extra police and troops to the region.

"The seizure of the school in Beslan was the latest attempt to destabilize the situation in the North Caucasus," the southern Russian area that includes Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia, Ingush President Murat Zyazikov was quoted as saying by the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

"My friends' children died. My relatives' children died. We are all dying from this," said David Alexeyev, 36, who was visiting the Beslan school from the nearby North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz. "Time will pass, but that won't heal our wounds. One hundred years, 500 years -- it won't help."

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