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North Ossetia Hoaxers' Delight

Vladikavkaz universities are paralysed by bomb threats, suspiciously close to exam time.
By Yana Voitova

On a sunny May morning, Spartak, a second-year student at Vladikavkaz’s agricultural university, is walking happily along the street to see his friends. He and his classmates have just been sent home, and now he can go and play computer games.


One man’s delight is another’s despair. In recent months, a series of bomb hoaxes has virtually shut down North Ossetia’s university system, preventing thousands of students from doing their final exams and severely stretching the law enforcement agencies.


Spartak was sent home because of a hoax call to his university warning that a bomb had been planted in the building. The third case since the beginning of May, it followed 16 similar calls in April. March was relatively quiet but there were 12 such calls in February.


According to North Ossetia’s emergencies ministry, the agricultural university, which has 5,700 students, gets the most false calls. North Ossetia State University, which has 12,000 students is the second most likely target.


“Recently, a boarding school has been receiving more calls,” said Vladimir Ivanov, press spokesman for the emergencies ministry. “In April students were sent home at least ten times because of the danger of bombs. We can’t ignore the phone calls, even though sending out a fire engine costs about 5,000 roubles [around 170 US dollars]. And that’s not counting all the other organisations involved.”


North Ossetia’s problem is that it cannot afford to take the threats lightly because the republic has suffered many real bomb attacks in recent years. An explosion at Vladikavkaz central market in 1999 killed more than 50 people.


Ivanov said he is worried about what might happen if the security forces are distracted by a hoax and a real incident then occurs. He said that at least twice a month they find genuine explosive devices at markets in Vladikavkaz.


On May 5, Vladikavkaz was thrown into chaos once again by a new hoax. Kirov Street, near the agricultural university, was shut down as the security forces checked out the whole area with dogs. Everyone was forced to take a wide detour to avoid the closed-off area.


“I am sick and tired of this,” said a minibus driver. “I have to make so many extra detours just to go around the bridge. Either one street is blocked or the other. Besides, the passengers get angry as though it’s my fault”.


Natasha graduated from the State University three years ago and now lives nearby. “We used to get calls like this, but not so often,” she said. “We would be sent home, but I was in my final year and knew how to keep myself busy as I was writing my dissertation. We went home, to the library, or to see friends. But now when I look at this crowd of enforced idlers, I’m horrified thinking where they go. Out on the streets looking for adventures?”


Even Spartak’s initial enthusiasm for all this free time has worn out. “We haven’t been studying properly for a long time,” he said. “I cannot complete my course-work in several subjects. Exams are approaching but I haven’t learnt anything properly yet and we almost have no lectures. To be honest, all this is very difficult psychologically as well. What if a bomb really does explode one day?”


Lecturers are panicking as well. “Almost every day we get calls that there is a bomb in the building,” said Marina Basaeva, who teaches English at the State University. “It is very depressing. It also strongly demoralises the students and interrupts the educational process. Most probably the academic year will be extended by two weeks - although some students are hoping that even during this period there will be calls from the telephone hoaxers.”


One of the hopeful ones is likely to be Diana, a student who asked for her last name not to be given. “We are having nice summer weather now,” she said. “I don’t want to be in a stuffy classroom. Imagine how great it is when you can miss lectures without being punished, go to a café or go to the country with friends.”


The university authorities are increasingly angry.


“We are explaining to our students the consequences of the hoaxes,” university rector Boris Basayev told IWPR. “Firstly, we emphasise that they cost the budget 80,000 roubles per hoax, secondly we tell them about the moral side and the psychological damage, and then we tell them about how this reduces the efficiency of training specialists. About 75 per cent of the students of the agricultural university come from rural areas, and they have to travel a long way to get there. It means they are just wasting their time and money.”


A police official told IWPR that at least eight students are under investigation. If convicted they could face a heavy fine or up to three years in prison.


Another day, and another telephone call comes through threatening a potential explosion. De-mining experts arrive, but the students are so used to this situation that they are in no hurry to leave the scene. They ask for permission to stroke the sniffer-dog.


“I would love to pat this black dog,” a laughing girl with long hair tells her friends. “And this guy, his master, isn’t bad either.”


Yana Voitova is a journalist for the Moscow Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, www.cjes.ru , in North Ossetia.


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