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Ingush Fear Former Ossetian Neighbours

Ingush uprooted by war with North Ossetia sceptical that new cooperation accord between the two republics will enable them to return.
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Pensioner Dibikhan Khamkhoyeva's only interest in the recent friendship agreement between North Ossetia and Ingushetia is whether it will enable her to return home to her house in the village of Chermen. "Ossetians are living there now and they don't let us back," she said.


Khamkhoyeva lives with other Ingush in a refugee camp in Maisky, in the Prigorodny region, on the border with Ingushetia. The inhabitants - whose homes are railway carriages and metal containers - scrape living by setting up kiosks and workshops and tending small allotments.


The presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, Murat Zyazikov and Alexander Dzasokhov, signed an agreement on cooperation and good neighbourliness on October 11. The accord, brokered just before the tenth anniversary of one of the former Soviet Union's most ignored conflicts, has been acclaimed as a significant development. But Maisky's Ingush refugees, who lost their homes ten years ago as a result of the war, are sceptical.


Uvais Pogorov used to be Dibikhan's next-door neighbour. "Chermen is the land of my ancestors," he said. "The presidents have signed an agreement, but the people are still angry on both sides. We won't change our attitude to one another. If we return there now, the Ossetians will push us out using any method they can: there will be fights."


Signing the new agreement, the two North Caucasian leaders declared that a "new phase in the development of relations between the republics, directed towards agreement, trust and collaboration, has begun."


The two nations went to war at the end of October 1992, with the first clashes breaking out in the Prigorodny region, a fertile area of land to the north of the capital Vladikavkaz along the River Terek.


A section of the right bank of the Terek had a large Ingush population and was part of first Ingushetia and then (after the Ingush joined with the Chechens in one republic in 1934) Chechen-Ingushetia until 1944.


In 1944, Stalin deported all the Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia as part of his mass "punishment of peoples" which also resulted in the expulsion of the Balkars and the Karachai from the North Caucasus.


Chechen-Ingushetia was divided up and the Prigorodny region was given to North Ossetia. When the Ingush and Chechens were pardoned by Nikita Khrushchev and returned to their homeland in the late 1950s, Chechen-Ingushetia was restored, but the entire Prigorodny region remained within North Ossetia. Many North Ossetians were already living there. And thousands of Ingush returned to their old homes but without proper registration.


In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Chechnya's unilateral declaration of independence, Ingushetia became a separate republic once again. In the Prigorodny region fears grew amongst the two communities, who were uncertain of what the future held. The situation erupted into all-out violence on October 31 of that year. The fighting lasted for several days.


The Ingush authorities estimate that 60,000 Ingush fled their homes, up to 500 were killed and 183 are still missing.


According to data given by Ingushetia's State Committee on Refugees, 13,500 Ingush displaced persons have returned to Ossetia. However, the Ossetian authorities have declared several places - including the villages of Ir, Kambileevskoye and parts of Chermen and Vladikavkaz - closed to returning Ingush.


Since 1992, 159 Russian presidential and government decrees and agreements between the two republics aimed at dealing with the aftermath of the conflict have come into force. They have promised to speed up the rate of return of Ingush refugees, rebuild destroyed houses and restore good relations between Ingush and Ossetians in the Prigorodny region.


In a televised interview, President Zyazikov insisted that the October 11 agreement was different. "The possibility of the development of good neighbourly relations, the strengthening of political, economic and cultural ties between the two neighbouring republics have acquired a real shape," he said.


The chairman of the committee on refugees Mukhtar Burzurtanov believes that the accord has created optimism in both republics. "The difference between this treaty and previous ones is that this one has been adopted in completely new circumstances, when our presidents are providing an example of good neighbourly relations," he said.


However, others warn that the accord will be doomed if it is not backed up by concrete actions. Ordinary Ingush are demanding temporary living accommodation, building materials and financial help, as well as security guarantees for those living in the former conflict zone.


The Ingush political scientist Isropil Sampiev believes that the conflict cannot be called over, because its prime cause, the status of the Prigorodny region and who will administer it, has not been solved. "The so-called 'Ossetian-Ingush' conflict is not ethnic, but political, it is a continuation of the polices of 1944," he said. "Everything that is happening now around this conflict is cosmetic make-up, a sprinkling of deodorant in a very dirty privy."


Ordinary people are the most fearful. Leila Amirkhanova, a resident of Maisky camp, lives in one room with her three sons. She talked to IWPR at the central market in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia, where she sells women's clothing and shoes at a stall.


"Our whole family was held hostage in Ossetia for seven days in a damp cellar," Amirkhanova said. "My son, who was nine-years-old, got an incurable disease from the beatings and the damp. My husband and his brother were taken away and we never saw them again.


"We have nowhere to return to, since in Ossetia we were living in a government hostel. This agreement will just be left on paper, like previous ones, although I very much want to believe that something will change. Until the Ossetians give up those who have gone missing, there will be no peace. For some it is a 'page' that can be turned but for us it is something deep down inside."


The village of Dachnoe in the Prigorodny region is one of the few to which Ingush have returned. Although it was completely destroyed in 1992, around 400 new houses have been built, which now rise up amidst other burned and semi-destroyed buildings.


Eleven-year-old Maria has a grown-up face and curious lively eyes. She came back to the village three years ago with her parents and goes to the local school, which reopened in 1998. "I knew that there had been a war here, when I was one-year-old," Maria said. "When I first came here, I was very afraid that the Ossetians and Russians would invade in tanks. I am still afraid that there will be war here again - that's when they kill people."


In a field on the edge of Dachnoe, 17 metal carriages house 20 Ingush families live, all from the village of Ir, one km away. These people are still waiting for official permission to go back to their village.


"It's not true that our Ossetian neighbours are against our return - people will always find a common language," said Issa Pugiev, one of the inhabitants. "The Ossetian authorities are to blame because they think up various excuses." Pugiev said that he hoped the new agreement is a signal that they can finally go back to their village.


Madina Khadzieva is press secretary for the interior ministry in Ingushetia.


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