A separate peace A dispatch from the Prigorodny District, where violence broke out between Ingush and Ossetian residents thirty years ago — and nobody has forgotten
The Prigorodny District is a disputed territory on the border between the Russian republics of North Ossetia and Ingushetia. Violence broke out there 30 years ago — and to this day, Ingush and Ossetian neighbors in Prigorodny avoid speaking to one another and send their children to separate schools. In a dispatch from Prigorodny, Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sivtsova examines why the conflict, which was triggered by state repressions, is still going on after so many years.
“We’re like little kids. If you talk to Ingush people, they’ll say bad things about Ossetians, and Ossetians will say the same things about the Ingush,” said Prigorodny District resident Ibragim (whose name has been changed story at his request). Located between Russia’s North Ossetia and Ingushetia, the area has been in dispute for decades now.
Officially, Prigorodny sits on North Ossetian land. The district consists of 19 rural settlements and has about 100,000 residents — the local population is approximately 65 percent Ossetian and 20 percent Ingush. Most of the villages are populated almost exclusively by Ossetian people; the local Ingush people refer to them as “enclaves.”
But even in many of the ethnically mixed villages, Ingush and Ossetian people live completely separate lives: neighbors haven’t spoken to each other for years and send their children to Ingush-only or Ossetian-only schools. This is all because of disputes of territory: each group considers Prigorodny to be their ancestors’ land.
“Religion forbids us from dividing people into good and bad, of course, but for us — Ingush people — that’s just how things work. You’re not supposed to like an Ossetian — even if he’s a decent person,” Ibragim admits.
‘I closed all the windows and hid’
Ibragim’s native village, Tarskoye, is located in the south of the Prigorodny District. The village used to be called Angusht — hence the Russian and English term “Ingush.” Before the late 14th century, the area was home to the Alans, the ancestors of the modern Ossetians, and later it was settled by both Ossetian and Ingush people. Both groups lived there freely until the mid-19th century, when they were forced into the mountains and Terek Cossack settlements and fortresses appeared in their place.
The name of the territory was changed to Tarskoye, and the Cossacks continued living there for almost 70 years. Eventually, though, they were forced out by Red Army soldiers: during the Russian Civil War, the Cossack Atamans supported the White Army, while the Ingush supported the Bolsheviks. After securing control of the region, the Soviet army gave the district to the Ingush and declared it the Mountain Soviet Socialist Republic (later the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic).
But in 1944, hundreds of thousands of Ingush and Chechen people were forced once again to leave their homes. February 23 marked the start of Operation Lentil (“Chechevitsa” in Russian): armed NKVD convoys forced entire villages of people to leave their homes and board trains. They were taken to the Southeast to cultivate sparsely-populated border areas in what is today Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Presidium of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet officially accused the Chechen and Ingush peoples of betraying the motherland; allegedly, they had “joined the fascist occupiers’ side” and “participated in armed uprisings against the Soviet authorities” during World War II. The Checheno-Ingush ASSR was dissolved and its territory divided between the neighboring republics. Ossetians were then forcibly sent from Georgia and South Ossetia to populate the villages the Ingush had left behind.
In 1957, during Khrushchev’s Thaw, the Soviet government decided to reestablish the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, and the Ingush and Chechen people were allowed to return home.
Thirteen years after the deportations, the first Ingush people began returning to Prigorodny. The only problem was that the villages where they had previously lived had become part of a different republic (the North Ossetian ASSR) — and the Ingush people’s homes had been inhabited for over ten years by Ossetians. For them, too, the territory had become home: they’d born children, gotten married, and buried their parents there, and they weren’t so keen on the idea of the Ingush returning.
“This horrifying rumor was spreading that the Ingush were coming back. And I had no clue who these Ingush people were. I closed all the windows and doors and I hid,” Zoya, an elderly Ossetian woman, told Meduza. “I was scared of them! My parents weren’t home and I was scared.”
Now Zoya is 74. She was born in Tarskoye, her parents moved there from South Ossetia in the 1940s, and she still lives there today. “It was made clear to them: ‘you need to inhabit the territory, and if you refuse — just look at what happened in 1944’,” Zoya said.
In the 1960s, as a young woman, Zoya befriended some Ingush people who had returned from Central Asia. “Ossetians provided shelter for the Ingush, and later we gave them land where they could build houses,” she recalled. According to Zoya, Ossetian and Ingush people lived in peace and harmony for the next 30 years. But this isn’t entirely true — over the years, everyday disputes spilled over into protests and unrest.
State of emergency
According to Ismail, who is Ingush, his parents returned from exile in 1957. In the town of Sunzha, where they had lived until 1944, there was nowhere for them to stay — the Ossetian people living in their former home refused to leave. They ended up having to move to Nazran, a neighboring town, where they lived with relatives for a time. “No matter what, we’ll end up in Prigorodny. That’s our home,” Ismail recalled his parents telling him. Two decades passed, however, before they were finally able to buy a house and settle in Tarskoye.
Ismail’s story is not unique. The Ingush people’s complete return to Prigorodny was a drawn-out process — though by the mid-1960s, many had already acquired land to build new homes, and some had even successfully convinced their homes’ new residents to sell them back the same plots. But then the Soviet government changed the border of the re-established Checheno-Ingush ASSR once more, and decided to leave the formerly Ingush Prigorodny District within the borders of North Ossetia.
That decision continued to spur conflicts for years, none worse than on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Almost 50 years after the deportation of the Ingush, the state was provoking ethnic conflict yet again.
In 1991, the Soviet authorities passed legislation titled “On the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples.” In addition to addressing the repatriated Ingush people’s status, the new law raised the question of returning territory: as an officially repressed people, the Ingush had claims to Prigorodny District. The legislation, though, failed to specify where the borders would be drawn, how the land would be transferred, or when any of this would happen — that would be a job for future legislation. Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre (CAPC) director and human rights researcher Ekaterina Sokirianskaia told Meduza that this legislation played a key role in exacerbating the situation: “It provided legal grounds for the Ingush people’s territorial demands. This provoked a response from the Ossetians, who started preparing to defend the region.”
Among the Ingush in the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, the legislation sparked a national uprising. In Grozny, the republic’s capital, rallies were held demanding the return of Prigorodny District and other territories to Ingushetia.
Soon after, a referendum was held. It included a single question: “Do you support the creation of an Ingush Republic as part of the Russian SFSR with the return of the illegally-seized Ingush lands including the capital in Vladikavkaz?” — 92.5 percent of respondents voted yes.
Ossetians were wary of the vote. Out of concern that the Ingush might seize Prigorodny District, the North Ossetian Supreme Council held an emergency session and decided to create the “State Committee for Self-Defense of the Republic.”
Moscow, meanwhile, failed to take the issue seriously: the federal government practically withdrew, neglecting to stop the arms buildup on both sides, and was therefore ultimately unable to contain the growing tension. The legislation it passed only fuelled the conflict.
In 1990, before the law was passed, Boris Yeltsin — then head of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR — suggested the regions “take as much sovereignty as they could swallow.” In 1992, the federal government passed the law “On the formation of an Ingush Republic within the Russian Federation.” It was an important moment for the Ingush people, who had been considered part of the “Checheno-Ingush” nation rather than as a distinct national group for the previous 70 years.
On paper, the 1992 law promised to “solve territory-related and other questions concerning the formation of an Ingush Republic.” But this law, too, failed to address the issue of where the new borders would be drawn, and things remained contentious. Ingush representatives became increasingly insistent that the borders established on February 23, 1944, be reinstated.
In October 1992, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ordered the Ingush and North Ossetian authorities to prepare legislation defining Ingushetia’s borders once and for all.
By then, however, the conflict between Ingush and Ossetian self-defense units had already reached the point of open military clashes. On October 20, in Prigorodny, an Ossetian armoured personnel carrier crushed a 13-year-old Ingush girl; several days later, Ossetian highway patrol officers exchanged fire with local Ingush people. Military clashes started breaking out regularly, people and livestock disappeared, cars were stolen, and crops were ruined, but no perpetrators were identified.
Ingush self-defense groups gathered “to defend family members living on North Ossetian territory.” Meanwhile, however, North Ossetian President Akhsarbek Galazov insisted the Ingush were trying to take Prigorodny by force and demanded they disarm themselves. Violent clashes between the militias became more frequent.
Full-fledged fighting broke out on October 31, 1992, and lasted five days. Ossetians and Ingush used every tool at their disposal to control villages and roads: shooting, destroying houses, and taking hostages. According to official data, more than 8,000 people were injured and 414 were killed (95 Ossetians and 309 Ingush); 204 people (23 Ossetians and 181 Ingush were taken hostage and killed in unknown locations. In addition, 2,728 Ingush homes and 848 Ossetian homes were destroyed.
Federal troops were sent to the region to stop the violence. On November 1, President Boris Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in North Ossetia and Ingushetia.
In 1992, when Ismail was 11, his dad told him out of the blue that they needed to flee their home. One of his father’s coworkers had strongly recommended the family leave, as he had received information that Russian forces planned to “level the village” the following day.
Ismail remembers that almost all of Tarskoye’s Ingush residents set out for the mountains on foot. There was no road, only steep paths that required climbing, so many people and cattle fell off of cliffs. Fearing that Russian troops would follow them, the men covered the path with rocks and branches behind them.
In search of shelter, the Ingush refugees headed to their relatives’ homes in the towns and villages of Ingushetia. Most of them stayed there for years, and some decided never to return to Prigorodny.
By the end of July 1994, a lot of Ingush people had become refugees. Only half of those who had lived in Prigorodny had official residents permits, as the government had registered as few of them as possible in the Soviet period in an effort to push them out of Ossetia and into the Checheno-Ingush ASSR. Those who had lived in Prigorodny without permits now had a problem: there was no way for them to obtain land and restore their houses.
Analyzing the conflict’s consequences in 1994, the Memorial Human Rights Center reported that between 46,000 and 64,000 people were registered as internally displaced persons in the region.
Moreover, the Ingush people’s return made relations with their former neighbors difficult. But there were quite a few who wanted to go back: “They said, ‘everything’s fine, we’ve lived peacefully with them for this long’,” Ismail recalled. But the Ossetians objected. “The entire village came out,” said Zoya, the elderly Ossetian. “We set fire to their wagons so many times. ‘No, we won’t live with you! You don’t belong here!’.”
Nonetheless, until 1992, Zoya remained friends with Ingush people: she would invite them over for tea, and they would help her with construction, bring her hay, and walk her to her house at night. After the fighting, though, she cut off contact with all Ingush people, even the ones she had known for years.
“None of us could have predicted that kind of fight. They went so long without saying a single word to us. They didn’t even warn us! That’s why we all became angry with them. It all started on their side,” Zoya insisted.
A peace agreement between the Republic of North Ossetia–Alania and the Ingush Republic wasn’t signed until 2002 — 10 years after the fighting. The document focused on expanding “social, economic, and cultural relations” between the two sides, but failed yet again to address the territory question.
‘You’re Ingush, we’re Ossetian’
After the start of the First Chechen War, more and more refugees ended up in Ingushetia. The humanitarian aid provided by the Red Cross and sent from other regions was not enough. In order to survive, Ismail and his brothers dropped out of school to do the only work they could find: applying clay to roofs for insulation. Living with relatives, the family refused to give up hope of returning to their native village.
By that point, the Ingush had developed a reliable strategy for getting to Prigorodny in one piece: they gathered in one long column and rode to North Ossetia altogether. According to Ismail, this was safer because the Ossetians would attack lone stragglers. “We weren’t welcomed there: they’d start cursing at us and throwing rocks. Anyone who stayed behind got his house burned down,” he said.
Even people who made it back to their homes in Prigorodny soon left again due to pressure from the Ossetians. Ismail recalled one Ingush woman who returned to Prigorodny after her husband’s death and lived alone. One day, when she was working in her garden, some young Ossetians came up to her fence and started cursing at her and accusing her of living in the wrong republic. Scared for her life, the woman passed out. Soon after, she moved to Nazran; she no longer felt safe in Prigorodny.
In 1998, six years after the open fighting, Ismail’s mother and siblings went back to Tarskoye for the first time. Ismail didn’t join them until 2001.
When his family arrived at their old house, all they found was the foundation, covered in nettles. The family of eight ended up living in a van until 2007, when, with the help of state support, they finally finished construction on their home.
“Since then, we’ve slowly been settling back in, putting up wallpaper, that kind of thing,” said Ismail. He currently teaches judo (his classes are sponsored by the Ingushetian government) and works in the Tarskoye village government, where he’s the only Ingush person. He’s confident that he was hired “to check a box” — his colleagues needed to prove to the federal government that they don’t have anything against Ingush people.
“I have no problem with my colleagues. But whenever there’s any kind of scandal within the administration, it starts up immediately: ‘You’re Ingush, we’re Ossetian’,” said Ismail. “An Ingush guy will come in and start yelling and swearing. A whole hate-based conflict will arise, and then he’ll get his favors and disappear. Meanwhile, I’ll stay here and work, and as an Ingush person, it will fall to me to mend relations with the Ossetians and explain that no one person is completely at fault.”
When asked why these conflicts still occur despite the fact that almost every Ingush family who wanted to return to Prigorodny now has a house there, Ismail became emotional. “Look at my passport — it says North Ossetia, not Ingushetia! Imagine if you took my apartment from me: you live here, your children are registered here. And instead of a house, I get an attic. You’d have to move out or sell me the apartment, that’s the only solution! I need to be morally and financially compensated.”
‘We have chickens, but we don’t have money’
Today, there are about 2,500 people living in Tarskoye. The village is divided by a river: Ossetian people live on one side, Ingush people on the other. The majority of them never talk to one another.
There’s one area where people maintain a working relationship, albeit a fragile one: business. Ossetian people value Ingush people’s construction skills and often recruit them for help, according to a Ingush resident named Adam: “We’re tower builders, it’s the kind of people we are. We spend our whole lives building.”
For the last few years, Adam has worked in construction in North Ossetia. He’s managed to get along with all kinds of clients. The last person he built a house for was an elderly Ossetian man who was a huge fan of Joseph Stalin.
The man had a portrait of the Soviet leader hung on his wall — Adam noticed it every time he went to work, but he decided to keep his mouth shut. “He’s a mean old man, and he hung the portrait up on purpose, just to test me. But I know to respect my elders,” said Adam, shrugging. After several weeks, the client took down the portrait. According to Adam, the man now calls every few weeks just to ask how he’s doing. “If I’d started an argument back then, we would have stopped talking, and I wouldn’t have made any money,” Adam explained.
He returned to Tarskoye 15 years ago. Until 1992, he lived in Prigorodny District, but after the fighting broke out, he spent 10 years in Malgobek, the flatter part of Ingushetia.
When Adam first came back, he lived in a dugout. Every week, he would go to the village administration and request a meeting with the head. After two years, he finally got his land back: a plot with a foundation that had long ago been intended for a mosque.
Today, he lives with his wife Leila and their four children in a small construction trailer next to the half-built mosque. He makes 14,000 rubles a month ($188). “First we furnished the wagon, now we’re building a house. I’ve put 22,000 rubles [$296] into it so far. My neighbor says I need another 175,000 [rubles or $2,356]. If I manage to save up, we’ll finish building in the next few years,” he said.
The family has had financial trouble for years now: Leila used to work in a school, but she only made 10,000–15,000 rubles ($134–$200) per month and had to spend all of her time at work. Now she takes care of the household. “We have our health, we have chickens, but we don’t have money — that’s the way it is,” said Adam.
Despite the lack of lucrative work in Prigorodny, the family has no plans to return to Ingushetia. “We have traditions: wherever your forefathers are buried, that’s where you need to live. Of course, though, we wish things were more comfortable.”
‘It’s not right to blame an entire nation’
“Ever since the days of the Alans, we always say a toast to peace between neighbors. But, like any nation, we also want to see respect for our traditions and customs,” a 70-year-old Ossetian man named Mairbek told Meduza.
Mairbek was born in the village of Kambileevskoye in Prigorodny District, where his parents were forced to move in the 1940s. He used to work as a mechanic, but after retiring, he became the chairman of the International Public Movement of Ossetian Elders.
Most Kambileevskoye residents are Ossetian, though there are some Ingush people as well. Meanwhile, in neighboring Kurtat, almost everybody is Ingush.
“It’s written in our neighbors’ constitution that they must ensure the return of this area and the right bank side of Vladikavkaz at any cost. But we’ve put down roots here, we worked the land in Soviet times, we lived and died here,” said Mairbek.
During the violence of 1992, Mairbek didn’t leave his house. “For Ossetians, it’s an honor and a sacred duty to guard the land where your father worked,” he said. However, he spoke vaguely about his own participation in the fighting. “I don’t want to spread this around too much, but it was a bloody period and a lot of people died on both sides. They came with the aim of forcing us off of our land. And how do you defend your land against an armed enemy? We lived here, we live here now, and nobody had better try to stop us.”
“There’s an ancient saying that time heals wounds and smoothes corners,” said Mairbek, but he still admits that even 30 years after the violence, Ingush and Ossetian people still shun one another. “A lot of people lost loved ones. If your neighbor kills your relative, how are you supposed to live with that person? It’s impossible to stomach living in the same village as that person, let alone on the same street.”
Not all of the Ossetians returned to Prigorodny after the fighting ended. To many of them, the prospect of living on the disputed land felt too dangerous.
“Acquaintances come up to me all the time and ask, ‘How do you live with them?’ as if they’re scared even to be here. And I explain to them that these are the same people we have — idiots and lowlifes aren’t limited to any nation,” said an Ossetian woman named Fatima.
In 1992, she was eight years old. Her family managed to stay out of the conflict, and they didn’t move to Prigorodny until 2008, when Fatima’s mother fell ill and a doctor advised moving to a place with cleaner air. The best house they could find happened to be in Prigorodny — not thinking about the conflict, they just went ahead and moved.
Friends from Vladikavkaz whose relatives died in the 1992 conflict often ask her about the Ingush. “They tell me, ‘Well, if one of your loved ones had been killed…’ But even if this had happened, I tell them, ‘It’s a person, not a nation, who murdered someone.’ It’s not right to blame an entire nation for the actions of one idiot, really. I don’t believe in that.”
Fatima and her mom have settled in the village of Kurtat. In 2009, they decided to open a small store in their new home. Ever since then, both Ossetians and Ingush have shopped there. “As my mom says, ‘If we didn’t have a store, we wouldn’t have gotten to know both sides so deeply’,” Fatima said with a smile.
Magomed’s family lived in Prigorodny until the 1944 deportation. When they were allowed to return to their former home, his parents were greeted by an Ossetian man.
“[He said,] ‘I came here against my will, too, and I was given a choice: either you leave your home, go to the villages where the Ingush used to live, and choose a house there, or you come with us,’” Magomed recounted. “He was a good man — we were lucky.”
They were ultimately able to buy the house back; the two families became friends and the Ossetian family even came to visit. In 1992, though, they were forced to leave once again.
When the fighting first broke out, Magomed’s family was sure it was just a protest and that it wouldn’t last for long. But the incessant shooting and the departure of most of their neighbors soon made it clear that the village wasn’t safe. The women and children were taken to the Kamaz automobile factory in Nazran; Magomed’s older brother and father stayed behind to guard the house and were soon captured by the Ossetians. Several months went by with no word from them, but in January, they finally returned home.
“They managed to buy their freedom. Before the fighting, they hid a jar of money and valuables. That’s what ultimately saved them,” said Magomed. “When they were held hostage, they convinced their captors to bring them to neutral territory, and in return, they told them where to find the money.”
Magomed’s father returned with nerve damage to his face. He never revealed what had been done to him in captivity. Several years later, his condition worsened, and he lost his ability to walk to Parkinson’s disease.
Magomed graduated from school and university in Ingushetia, and while he didn’t have plans to move to Prigorodny, his father insisted the entire family return home to Kurtat.
“I asked what the point was, given that the house had been torched and everything was destroyed. [He told me,] ‘If you don’t do this, I’ll never forgive you.’ My dad wanted to be buried in his family cemetery, and so do I,” Magomed told Meduza.
So in 2003, the family moved back to Kurtat. There, Ossetian and Ingush people live side by side and are in contact with one another. For example, it was an Ossetian neighbor who advised Magomed to start farming for subsistence when he was caring for his father and couldn’t go to work.
At big events, however, Ossetians and Ingush people still try to avoid interacting. When Magomed’s brother got married, he invited some Ossetian neighbors to the wedding. They came to the party, but they snuck out through the garden afterwards, afraid of being seen by other Ossetians. “It’s insulting to us. But there’s the same resentment on the other side. The Ossetians believe that we all lived together, worked together, and then the gunfire began at our request. There’s resentment everywhere,” said Magomed.
Overcoming the antagonism in Prigorodny would require satisfying all parties: Russia’s federal government, civil society, various national organizations, and the authorities in both republics. “But there needs to be political will for that. It’s a complicated process, and it can’t be started without having at least the main players on board,” researcher Ekaterina Sokirianskaia told Meduza.
In 2004, the Ossetian-Ingush conflict was once again in danger of heating back up after the terror attack in Beslan. According to data from investigators, the terrorists entered Ossetia from Ingushetia. This gave rise to a new wave of animosity towards the Ingush. “Nothing people had done up to that point mattered. All connections were cut off again, the peaceful Ingush population stopped going to Vladikavkaz for business, and everybody was afraid. From 2005 to 2007, more Ingush Prigorodny residents were kidnapped,” Magomed recalled.
According to the federal law titled “On the general principles of the organization of local self-government in the Russian Federation,” the heads of both regions were supposed to delineate boundaries officially by March 31, 2005. North Ossetian president Alexander Dzasokhov, however, refused to sign the agreement allowing refugees to return to Prigorodny. In 2006, Ingushetia abandoned the plan to create new settlements for Ingush refugees, citing their right to return to their historical homeland: Prigorodny.
Meanwhile, Moscow tried to maintain neutrality and preserve the peace in the region. After the events of 1992, federal office for overcoming the consequences of the conflict was created in Vladikavkaz. The commission monitored the ceasefire, handle the disarmament of local residents, and kept track of the number of victims. During the commission’s 30 years of work in the region, there haven’t been renewed skirmishes, but the situation can hardly be called peaceful.
“Each side finds its own truth in the conflict. Both sides have been defending their own version of what happened for years, and it's been a long time since any reconciliation work has been done. But the main problem is that most of the Ingush who have returned live in enclaves. And in larger villages, the two societies [Ingush and Ossetian] have little contact,” Sokirianskaia explained.
In her opinion, Russia’s federal government could create an autonomous structure with “positive self-government” in the region. For example, they could make sure that the police and the Prigorodny district government and village governments include equal numbers of Ossetian and Ingush people.
Now, the majority of Ingush people who live in Prigorodny study, work, and build their careers in Ingushetia. “They’re focused on a different republic. They have no future in Ossetia. In fact, Ossetia is excluding part of its population from civic life,” Sokirianskaia stressed.
Both regions are also under economic stress. As of 2019,13.5 percent of North Ossetia’s population lived below the poverty line, compared to 12.8 percent in Ingushetia. The average salaries in both North Ossetia and Ingushetia are both around 30,000 rubles ($404) per month.
“People are basically surviving on government welfare programs,” said Natalia Zubarevich, a socioeconomic development expert who focuses on the region. In 2020, the subsidy rate in Ingushetia was 87 percent, while in North Ossetia it was 64 percent. “There’s not much to discuss — it’s atrophying.”
‘Good thing you’re not Ossetian!’
Since the early 2000s, specialists from Memorial have helped promote peace in the region independently of the government. They’ve worked with the German-Russian Exchange to organize rapprochement programs for Prigorodny residents. Magomed, who worked for the Exchange, recalled how it created a business school that offered consultations and support for entrepreneurs, as well as a team-building camp on neutral territory for children. At the beginning of their time at camp, Ingush and Ossetian children sat in separate train cars and refused to talk to each other, as was their habit, but after a week without parental supervision, the children were interacting and communicating peacefully with one another.
However, the fact that Ingush and Ossetian children are taught from birth to dislike their neighbors is one of the main sources of the region’s problems, according to sources Meduza spoke to.
“[A seven-year-old Ingush boy] said, ‘It’s good that you’re Russian and not Ossetian. My dad said that I ought to kill ten Ossetians — they’re our enemies’,” Fatima recalled. She had come to Prigorodny for a work meeting. “I was sitting there waiting, when this boy came out and said, ‘Are you a Ossetian?’ I started laughing and said, ’No, I’m Russian.’ After I heard what he said next, I clipped him on the head! And I scolded his father: ‘Are you even a human being? What are you teaching your kid?’.”
“At Memorial, we try to explain to both adults and children that a peaceful future depends on us,” said Magomed. “There were spontaneous reconciliations,” added Sokirianskaia, who worked with Memorial at the time. “Participants started coming together and seeing each other as real people.”
According to Magomed, the Prigorodny District administration was pleased with Memorial’s work. Officials bragged about the results in the reports they submitted to their higher-ups in Moscow. But in 2013, Memorial was declared a “foreign agent,” and its peace programs in the region were closed.
“Now, there’s nobody regulating the conflict — everything is on autopilot and I don’t know where it’s headed. Ideally, the federal government would return at least in some capacity,” said Magomed.
For the last few years, the Ossetian-Ingush conflict has been in a kind of frozen state, which might give the impression that the animosity has faded. Unfortunately, that’s the wrong conclusion to draw. “Thirty years have passed. People aren’t shooting each other anymore, but the resentment hasn’t gone anywhere,” insists Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.
It’s clear from the region’s regular flare-ups that the problem isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Since the summer of 2021, only soldiers from other regions have been allowed to serve at the checkpoint on the border between the republics, as Ossetian and Ingush soldiers were previously getting into skirmishes regularly.
Similar conflicts are liable to arise wherever Ingush and Ossetian people are both present, and when the federal government has to get involved, it acts decisively. For example, one of Magomed’s relatives who’s also Ingush used to work in central Russia at a large federal company. When the company decided to send an Ingush to Ossetia to fill a senior position, all of the local employees were categorically opposed. The Moscow office’s response was to fire all of the Ossetians. “‘You don’t want an Ingush person? Then we don’t want any Ossetians,’” recounted Magomed.
“The people in Ingushetia and Ossetia can’t determine their own fates — that’s my personal opinion,” said Magomed. In his view, it’s not the Ossetians who are to blame — it’s the federal government. “I think they needed the conflict between us and they used it for their own purposes.”
‘We’re living hand to mouth, but we’re still here’
Chermen is a long, skinny village in Prigorodny District, several kilometers from the border with Ingushetia and about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital. The village has been divided into three parts six 1992. Ingush live on the sides, while Ossetians live in the center.
In the middle of the village there’s a bus stop. The privately-owned Ossetian buses don’t go outside of the Ossetian parts of the village, so most of the Ingush go home on foot.
For three decades, neighbors have avoided contact with one another. Even education is divided: children of different nationalities go to different schools. In one part of the village, the only school is still under construction, so the Ingush children who live there travel across the Ossetian center to get to the Ingush school on the other side of the village.
“Twenty years from now, the Russian state is going to be in trouble. Because nobody communicates,” said an Ingush woman named Liza, after recalling the fighting that went on in 1992.
In 1956, when she was five years old, Liza came to Prigorodny with her family, who had been deported in 1944. They spent the first winter in a dugout — Liza’ father dug a large hole and covered it with shingles to protect them from the cold. The following spring, an Ossetian woman took pity on Liza and her siblings and let the family move in with her. A year and a half later, the entire family moved into their first house. In 1957, Liza entered the first grade — back then, Ingush and Ossetian kids still studied together. After she finished school, she started working as an accountant in Vladikavkaz and even received an apartment from her company. In 1992, when violence broke out, she was forced to leave everything behind and flee North Ossetia, though her father and brother stayed behind to protect their home.
“Papa was my soldier, and he was no coward. He’d been through war and deportation. He thought it was beneath him to flee his home. He said, ‘What war? When the fascists attacked the [Soviet] Union, now that was a war.’ He berated the other men who left the village,” said Liza.
According to eyewitness Liza spoke to, it was only a matter of days before soldiers came and took her father, her brother, and four other men away. To this day, they’re still officially considered missing persons.
Liza has spent years trying to figure out what happened to them. In December 1992, after their disappearance, she and some other relatives organized a search party, got in touch with investigators — and went to burial sites more than a few times. Once, they found seven unidentified bodies; another time, they found nine; another time, three. Throughout the 1990s, even after the conflicts had largely ended, the kidnappings continued. “That’s why I’m not married,” said Liza. “1992 destroyed my personal life — I’ve spent all of my time since then searching for missing people.”
For Ismail, who is Ingush, life in Prigorodny hasn’t improved in recent years. As a result, he sometimes considers moving to Magas, Ingushetia’s capital. All he would have to do would be to pack the car and pick up his kids. “We wouldn’t have any problems — we wouldn’t have to meet our so-called ‘enemies’ on the street every day. But then I’d regret it. As the prophet said, ‘Loving your homeland is half of faith.’ So we may be living hand-to-mouth, but we’re still here.”
Meanwhile, Mairbek, who is Ossetian, says things got better when Vladimir Putin became president. “Since then, the laws started to work and some stability appeared,” he explained.
While both groups still disagree on plenty, Mairbek is certain that “a bad peace is better than a good war.” After his conversation with Meduza’s correspondent, he read her a couplet: “You just know: despite the hostile will, the sickle sword will not be victorious.”
Fatima, who is Ossetian, is certain that a repeat of the 1992 conflict is inevitable. “For some reason, there’s a contingent of elderly people in Ingushetia who constantly discuss it during the Friday prayer: ‘This is our land, we need to take it back.’ And they get into the young people’s heads. They embed it in their children’s heads that the Ossetians are the enemy.”
One time, an Ingush neighbor came into the store that Fatima and her mother own. “He wanted to buy the neighboring house, but they wouldn’t sell it to him,” she said. “So he thought for a minute, and then he said, ‘But on the other hand, why would I buy it, when we’re going to take it all back soon?’.”
According to Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre director Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, a real solution won’t be possible until both groups are living together, working together, running the local government together, and doing peacekeeping work together. “But it seems that the country’s current leadership values stability above all else. It’s like, right now they’re not shooting, so it must be safe. Do they vote for the authorities? They do. What else could you want, right?”
Translation by Sam Breazeale