Tuesday, 29 March 2011

North Caucasus Journal- Day 1- Grozny to Pyatigorsk

It had been a cold night and I kept my sheets wrapped tight to keep the warmth in. Up at 6.30am, I looked out on a snowy Grozny. It had fallen the day before and was busily turning to brown mush everywhere except on roofs and verges.

We set out, four of us packed into a lada priora, (a less than salubrious Russian saloon) crossing the thin wedge of territory that is Ingushetia and into North Ossetia, passing through check points, all staffed by heavily armed police. A man wearing a balaclava checked our documents and tried to ‘fine’ one of us for not having his documents in order. Only about £5, a little extra cream I’m sure he feels he deserves. Our guy dug his heels in and we didn’t end up paying. We drove on.

Although there are hills in the distance the land around here is wide and flat, not dissimilar to Lincolnshire, though snow still covers most of the fields. Next we passed through Beslan, the site of the infamous 2004 hostage taking of over a thousand children and teachers in the town’s School No1. The botched rescue raid turned into a bloodbath with the Islamist terrorists from neighbouring Ingushetia and Chechnya butchering most of the 330 casualties, over half of them children. The town is busy today with some new building amidst the heathland and half derelict apartment blocks and a lot of cars and vans passing past the packs of scrapping dogs.

After another 30 minutes we entered the foothills of the Caucasus. When we stopped to stretch our legs the air was rich with the scent of sheep dung (not helped by me treading in it) and the soil was loose and moist. It probably looked richer and thicker than it was. We arrived in Pyatigorsk to a lot of snow but not too much cold. The town is part of Russia’s Stavropol region but is an administrative centre for the North Caucasus.

Our first interview was with the head of a local university. Two students from Pyatigorsk recently brought home the threat of radical Islam in a shocking way. The first, Zeynab Suyunova, was arrested on suspicion of being involved with the group that accidentally blew one of its female members up in Kuzminki park on New year's eve 2010/11. The group was later thought to have carried out January's Moscow airport bombing as a contingency plan. Suyunova was arrested in Volgograd.

Also linked to the group was Maria Khorosheva, another student from Pyatigorsk. She was an ethnic Russian who fell in love with and was converted to Islam by another Russian student, Vitaly Razdobuko. They became more extreme in their views, and joined the group planning the attack on Moscow. When it went wrong they fled back to the Caucasus. But they knew the net was now closing in. On Valentines day they both blew themselves up in Gubdan in Dagestan, taking two policemen with them and wounding twenty five others. It was a terrifying end to a tragic tale.

The rector of Pyatigorsk Linguistic University laments what happened and notes how unusual it was for ethnic Russians to have been radicalised as well. "It starts with people who are believers anyway," he says, then extremist groups prowl mosque attendees looking for those they can control. "Of course it requires more detailed psychological research," he adds, "but those doing the indoctrinating probably have a good grasp of psychological techniques for controlling potential suicide bombers.”

The answer, at least on the university's part is to encourage students to have strong personalities, and to engage with society and other cultures, including Islam. Cultural and language centres have been set up to help students learn more of other cultures, including ones from the Arab world and the North Caucasus. As he points out Islam has its own local identity in these regions. In the north Caucasus, it’s a traditional form of Islam tied up with local customs. This is important, as Sharia law or Wahhabism is not the norm here.

When we leave the main entrance, with flocks of students milling about, we see it, a MacDonalds, sat just across the road. Is that a symbol of tolerance and free choice, or of moral decay and selfish individualism? I wonder how many students here see it as a threat rather than a treat.

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