Prisoners of the Caucasus

Russia's Invisible Civil War

The empty gymnasium of School No. 1 in Beslan is whipped by winds from the plains of North Ossetia, a republic in Russia's North Caucasus region. On September 1, 2004, the first day of classes, masked gunmen entered the elementary school and herded hundreds of children and their teachers onto the indoor basketball court. They held their captives for three days. In the stifling late-summer heat, some children died from dehydration. Many others were killed when a series of homemade bombs exploded, collapsing the roof and igniting a massive fire. Today, photographs of the more than 300 victims, including those of smiling girls outfitted in the ornate hair ribbons traditional on the first day of classes, line the walls of a makeshift memorial.

The Beslan siege was Russia's most heart-rending episode of carnage during the last two decades. But it was by no means unique. Two years earlier, gunmen interrupted a play at a Moscow theater and took the entire audience hostage; 170 people died when security forces attempted a rescue. A series of suicide bombings in and around Moscow killed dozens in 2003 and 2004. In the days before Beslan, suicide terrorists brought down two Russian passenger airplanes. In November 2009, a bomb derailed the Nevsky Express, the high-speed train connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg, killing nearly 30 passengers. (Another bomb had derailed the same train in August 2007, although no one was killed.) And then, this past March, a pair of female suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Moscow metro during morning rush hour, killing nearly 40 people. 

Even this grim tally is incomplete; it does not include the much higher level of violence that regularly occurs in the North Caucasus itself. The Russian government seems to have few creative ideas about how to deal with the turmoil in the region, which has become the epicenter of routine political violence in the country. It has tried to will the conflict into a sort of resolution, with little result. In April 2009, the Kremlin announced the end of the second Chechen

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