Sun, Sep 05, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Russian hostage tragedy: A violent history begs the West's concern

AGE-OLD CONFLICT The West can no longer ignore the Chechen conflict, which has become internationalized since it reignited in its modern incarnation in the early 1990s

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Bodies of schoolchildren and hostages killed in the school seizure seen in a hospital morgue in Beslan on Friday.

PHOTO: AP

Children make it different. Like the tragedies of Columbine in the US and Dunblane in Scotland, the terror that stalks the classrooms of besieged Middle School 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia, is uniquely disturbing.

Who in these torrid days of random, global violence has not become accustomed, even inured, to the suicide bombings in Iraq or a host of other troublespots? Yet who, anywhere in the world, is not touched, angered or frightened -- or all three -- by the thought of young kids traumatized by masked killers wearing bomb-belts?

When the victims are children, the sort of horror on show in Beslan, real or threatened, represents the adult world's ultimate betrayal of innocence, its final failure to nurture and protect. Here is a shared disgrace, borne of a universal grief. Here is an international crying shame, beseeching an urgent remedy.

The Chechen conflict, in which the Ossetian siege is inextricably bound up, has become internationalized in many other ways since it reignited, in its modern incarnation, in the early 1990s. Like Czechoslovakia in a different time, the Caucasian lands of Chechnya, North and South Ossetia, Ingushetia and Dagestan cannot be dismissed as distant countries of which we know little and care less. What happens there matters in the West.

"Their suffering is our suffering," Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, said on Friday. "The awesome responsibility of [Rusian] President Putin and his government is our responsibility, too."

Shared reality

The mere fact of non-stop international media coverage makes Beslan school a shared reality around the world. The inescapable fact that the Chechen conflict once again pits Muslim peoples against Christians or plain non-believers, setting "Islam" against the "West," sounds an only too familiar post-9/11 global echo.

Putin pins the blame for the escalating crisis, perhaps the gravest of his presidency, not on home-grown Chechen fighters but, primarily, on an international Islamist conspiracy linked to al-Qaeda.

The evidence for his contention is thin and often contradictory. But one thing is undoubtedly true. Since plunging recklessly back into Chechnya in 1994, Putin, his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, and the once proud Red Army have caused such untold misery, such rank injustice, such fury and despair that, like the Americans in Iraq, they created a breeding ground and magnet for the religious extremists they struggle to extirpate.

In effect, it was Russian generals and their turncoat allies who internationalized a war that should never have begun and which could have been peaceably resolved long ago. For this foolishness, Russia's conscript soldiers still pay a terrible price.

The risk of a spreading, regional conflagration grows with every outrage, every unanswered act of blood -- and with every broken child.

Since the time of the tsars, the mountain tribes of the Caucasus have fought for land, faith and just for the hell of it. In A Hero Of Our Time, novelist Mikhail Lermontov wrote admiringly in 1840 of the bravery of his opponents along Russia's lawless southern flank.

Global concern

But now Caucasian instability threatens ever more broadly. Neighboring Georgia, home to last November's "rose revolution," is no model of stability. And by coincidence, the Beslan siege has forced the postponement of a presidential visit to Turkey, Russia's historic Ottoman rival. Putin wants to build up trade and other links. But primarily, he needs Turkey as a southern bulwark of stability and security in a region sliding dangerously beyond Moscow's control.

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