Saturday, September 04, 2004

The children of Beslan 

I was saddened by the resolution of the hostage crisis in North Ossetia - but I can't say that I was surprised. Whenever something bad happens in Russia, it seems to involve a massive loss of life. I'm not talking here about natural distress, which after all tend to leave far greater numbers of dead around the developing world, but of man-made catastrophes, of which Russia continues to have more than its fair share. Hostage standoffs end in bloodbaths; technical mishaps like the "Kursk" disaster, which in the West would arguably have a happy or at least happier ending, in Russia end with no survivors. The Chechen capital Grozny looks like Baghdad would today if the US Army had the same sensibilities that the anti-war activists accuse it of having.

One things that always terrified us in Poland about our Eastern neighbour is this seeming low regard for human life. People were always the one resource that was most abundant in Russia, and her rulers from the Middle Ages onwards were never reluctant to expend it with little care and consideration. This characteristic was only exacerbated during the communist years. The purges, gulags, mass population transfers, political famines, monumental infrastructure projects built by slave labour still have few parallels in modern history. The Soviet Union had suffered astronomical casualties during the Second World War not simply because millions of civilians perished due to hunger and Nazi brutality, but because the Soviet military leadership crushed the German war machine with a bloody steamroller made of millions very expendable Red Army soldiers. Stories abound of whole units sent forward to clear minefields with their bodies. All throughout the Eastern campaign, the Red Army casualties ran at about 10 to 1 to German ones. A whole generation was wiped out to the extent that would be incomprehensible even to those who survived the trenches of World War One.

Sadly, the history continues, albeit on a much smaller scale. For that we can only be very thankful, even if it's no consolation to the hundreds who are still dying in Russia these days. In Beslan today, 27 out of 30 terrorists are dead, but so are anywhere between 80 and 200 hostages, most of them children. It's a tragic reminder not only of the fact that the war on terror is being fought on many fronts, but also of the many different ways it is being fought.

Update: Just to clarify my position - I'm not by any means excusing the Chechen terrorists responsible for this or any other attack; I'm merely noting that Russia sadly continues to be underprepared to deal with emergencies of this type, with the result that every time more civilians die then otherwise would.


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