Ossetia Villagers Cut Off

Authorities turn deaf ear to calls from Ossetians stranded in disaster zone to be resettled.

Ossetia Villagers Cut Off

Authorities turn deaf ear to calls from Ossetians stranded in disaster zone to be resettled.

For almost a year, 200 mountain villagers in North Ossetia have been virtually cut off from the world. The inhabitants of a five-story block of flats, and the villages of Kani and Tmenikau, found themselves locked in by a mammoth landslide when it descended from the mountains last year.

Now, they say, the local authorities have ignored their calls for resettlement.

The Kolka glacier thundered into the Genaldon Gorge on September 20, 2002, covering a wide area with rock and ice in a matter of minutes. More than 100 people died, including the famous Russian actor Sergei Bodrov Jr, who was shooting a film in the gorge at the time.

The glacier destroyed the only road linking Kami and Tmenikau with the city, cutting off communication. Despite the fact that the area has been declared a "zone of alienation" by the Russian emergencies ministry, no offer has been made to the locals to move.

There is a mountain path leading to the outside world, but it is barely accessible for vehicles. In heavy snow, the path becomes impassable as it did last winter. It was not until six months after the tragedy that the government of North Ossetia-Alania, NOA, provided a minibus shuttle carrying residents of the landlocked villages to Vladikavkaz and back once a day.

Bread and newspapers are delivered here twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Natural gas is delivered irregularly. The latest delivery was four months ago, but the canisters were half empty. The driver told the villagers no more gas supplies would be coming.

There are quite a few young people among the captive villagers. Some of them went to college in Vladikavkaz, but getting a job in the city is no longer an option for them. It takes two hours to get to Vladikavkaz instead of 30 minutes before the landslide. Aida Tovsoltanova, who graduated from the economics college in Vladikavkaz, has given up hope of finding a job in the city.

Home to some 100 people, the five-story block of flats is only 200 metres away from where the ice mass streamed down. Built in 1969, the building underwent major renovation in 1973. The house lost its connection to central sewers during the summer 2002 succession of floods that hit all of southern Russia. When the glacier collapsed, the house was rocked by a powerful earthquake that left many cracks in the walls on the top floors. Housing inspectors subsequently pronounced the building unsafe for human habitation.

The more than 200 residents have the services of two policemen, one doctor who occupies a vacant medical office and one telephone number with three extensions.

Power failures are the latest addition to the list of woes. Few, if any, of the locals have any source of income, and the villages have run up a monumental electricity debt. They have been repeatedly notified that power will be cut off completely unless they pay up.

But the locals themselves consider economic hardship and communication breakdown secondary to the environmental threat they are facing by staying in the danger zone.

The mass of ice and rocks that swept through the Genaldon Gorge last year, buried the hot sulphur springs that were abundant in these parts. Now, the locals say, poisonous gasses issue from the cracks as the mass settles. Many experience skin itching and burning; some complain of "black spots" on their skin.

However, Alexander Polkvoi, an official with the local environment ministry, told IWPR that all the springs in the upper Genaldon Gorge "are open and the physical health of the people there is not threatened". Polkvoi said this was confirmed by a scientific study carried out by the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The stranded villagers have petitioned government institutions asking to be relocated from the danger zone, but no one has offered any help. Officials tell them they are not recognised as disaster victims and, therefore, not eligible for financial or other aid from the government.

The residents of Kani and Tmenikau complain that their problems are being overlooked, while people in another village, Gornaya Saniba, have received government compensation. Valentina Gadzieva, a resident of the five-story block who lost her granddaughter, told IWPR the reason is that Gornaya Saniba is the "home of the rich and powerful".

Last October, the residents of Kani and Tmenikau wrote a letter to the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and received a promise that the federal government would look into the issue. But they say North Ossetia's government has taken no action on their behalf.

When Mikhail Shatalov, North Ossetia's prime minister, visited the scene of last year's tragedy, several villagers blocked the road for his motorcade, and demanded to speak with him. Responding to the locals' complaints about the lack of basic conveniences and requests to help them move away, Shatalov allegedly replied, with a smile, "Do you really want to leave all this beauty?"

The press office of the North Ossetian government said they could not comment on the allegations made by the villagers, as local officials were all away on their summer holidays.

As the anniversary of the glacier tragedy approaches, the suspicions of the isolated villagers grow. "We are hostages of the tragedy that happened a year ago, they have forgotten about us," said Dezdemona Batayeva, one of the residents of the apartment block.

Alan Tskhurbayev is a freelance journalist based in Vladikavkaz.

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