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     Volume 4 Issue 13 | September 17, 2004 |

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A Roman Column


Reflections on the Beslan School Tragedy

Neeman Sobhan

(I am deferring my article 'Moon Over Luxor' and others on my Egypt trip to write this note. I normally stay away from the world of politics, and ostrich-like dig my head in the sands of Nature, Family and philosophical issues. Call me an escapist; I call it self-preservation. Still, I couldn't watch or read the news about the recent Chechen episode involving the death of school children---plus the recent and unconscionable bomb scare at a school in Bangladesh, without raising my head to make some comment.

In my writings I am apolitical by conscious choice but I am not apathetic. Yet, every political issue, however compelling, does not engage my heart. But as a mother, I just couldn't digest the news about the hostage taking of school children and the tragedy without a public cry.)


So humans eat their young too! Welcome to the jungle. Shame on the new religion of extremism, which sanctions the slaughter of babies at the altar of political means and ends. Shame on the savage society that political oppressions have spawned where 'freedom-fighters' use schools as political stake-out points and tremulous children as bargaining chips; and where strong-arm governments, more concerned about territorial integrity than human rights and predicaments, disregard the safety and sanctity of children to bulldoze their enemies.

I am heartsick at the inevitable outcome of the Beslan school crisis. As a mother, of two young men who have unfortunately entered the world at one of the most dismal point of human history, I am struck hopeless when they ask in despair, "What kind of crazy world have we inherited?"

I have no answer except to clasp them to my heart and reassure them that there is a world beyond the one of political exigencies; a world of justice and compassion that we must believe in and help create in our individual ways. Humanity's causes must be those to LIVE for, not to kill or die for.

For the dispossessed and victimised this is easier said than done. At the bottom of the killing fields of the world lurks the basic need for people to claim a tract of land to call their home, where they can be free to conduct their lives as they deem fit. (If only the deluded knew that gaining freedom over a tract of land does not necessarily mean freedom from other oppressions, as is true of Bangladesh today!) Nevertheless, any attempt by powers to obstruct this impulse towards territorial imperative seems to trigger people into the most volatile acts.

The writing is splattered in red on the walls. No one likes to behave like animals but no one can tolerate being subjugated, and any situation that creates socio-political injustice and remains unresolved creates the behaviour of trapped animals. And the feral side of a people victimized by injustice and brutalized by systematic tyranny can lead them to abnormal acts. Abnormality is a system that has broken down and needs to be repaired and redressed.

It is facile and futile to condemn the Chechen rebels without also condemning Putin's policy of non-compromise. It is the business of governments not to put the land before the people. Not to deal fairly with a large section of ones disgruntled population and treat them as humans, forces them to become inhuman. Force is a double-edged sword and terrorism is only a label for what both governments and individuals do to each other when reasoning stops working. IRA was a terrorist organization till Britain made a political settlement with it. Putin's government has to face its Chechen reality at a political level. After all it was political history, which created the hostile situation in Chechnya,

The Beslan school situation showed us a group of rebels who behaved like monsters. But we must force ourselves to understand how this could happen. The saddest elucidation would be the statement of one of the survivors of the Beslan incident regarding her conversation with one of the hostage-takers.

Survivor Santa Zangiyeva, 15 was reported in a BBC interview saying: "There was this man of about 35, a typical Chechen, his right hand bandaged. He was the angriest of our captors, threatening us all the time and firing into the ceiling. It was so stuffy I fainted several times, so my mum asked him to take me to the corridor for a breath of air. To my surprise he agreed. In the corridor, I sat down on a rucksack. But he said: 'Don't sit on this one, there are mines in it, sit on that one instead'... I asked him 'Will you at least let the children go?' He said: 'No - why? Your Russian troops in Chechnya catch children just like you and cut their heads off. I had a daughter, about your age, and they killed her,' he said.

And to this must be added the fact that Russian forces and security operations in Chechnya have been accused by human rights groups of committing abuses against the population. Men disappear, and there are many reports of rape and summary executions. Also, during the last 10 years of a vicious war in Chechnya, Moscow carpet-bombed complete villages, and some destroyed towns are now inhabited almost exclusively by old people, abandoned by younger men who escaped to the mountains to continue fighting. Many of the suicide bombers now are women - the "Black Widows" - sisters of dead Chechen fighters, sworn to avenge their families at the cost of their own lives.

Thus the Russian military has created fertile grounds for terrorism. A glance at the bitter history of Chechnya will cast more light. Towards the end of World War II, Stalin ordered the deportation of Muslims from Ingush, along with their ethnic cousins the Chechens, to Central Asia, accusing them of potential collaboration with Hitler's Germany. Many Ingush and Chechen homes were occupied by other nationalities, including the neighbouring Christian Ossetians. When Khrushchev allowed the deported nations to return in the mid-1950s there were inevitable conflicts over occupied homes and territory. Chechens and Ingush remained bitter over the deportation, and there was a strong current of separatist feeling.

Moscow fears that if Chechnya broke away it could provoke demands for independence elsewhere in the region and become a centre of lawlessness and Islamic militancy. Having lost so much of the old Soviet Union, Russia would not be affected by the loss of Chechnya worse than it is now! Professor Margot Light of the London School of Economics said, "Putin has to start talking to … Aslan Mashkadov who was the Chechen president until the '99 invasion. Mr Putin argues that this is international terrorism. Frankly this is rubbish. Any involvement by al-Qaeda to train or fund the Chechens post-dates the conflict."

Not just in Chechnya, many other parts of the world have been abused and the victims are unleashing abuse back. They are crying out. They need to be listened to, their scars healed. Beating these criminals cannot help. Their crime is not written in their natures, but imposed on them by their oppressors. Remove the oppression; listen to their demands. Let people have their freedom. Peace does not mean an artificial pause between fighting. Peace is a natural state, which can only grow in a world that is free, that respects freedom. And only in a free world can our children be safe from man-made horrors: Russian children, Chechen children, the children who died at Beslan and who will be reborn in love and hope.

(And from next week I return my head ostrich-like into the sands…of Egypt).



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