I waited for the Aeroflot plane to Moscow with the three war correspondents who were coming back from covering the troubles in Chechnya. They were the only other people waiting who spoke English. The flight on this December afternoon was already three hours late, and the front doors to the old terminal at Vladikavkaz Airport were wide open. Everyone stamped around in the cold. We were in Northern Ossetia, a tiny Russian republic surrounded by uprisings and border disputes. The war correspondents had traveled from Grozny, the Chechen capital, which was 80, maybe 90 miles down the road.
"Did you wear your flak jacket, Sebastien?" the correspondent from The Times of London asked the correspondent from Agence France-Presse, who had been in the mountains with the Chechen guerrillas.
"Yes, I did," Sebastien replied. "I don't know why, though. I don't think it can do much for you if you're in the way of something troublesome."
A discussion ensued about the efficacy of flak jackets. Sebastien was not a big believer in them, especially the Kevlar jackets. He said flak jackets were fine for stopping a pistol shot or maybe some shrapnel, but he had heard that the Kevlar jackets might cause a bullet from a higher-caliber weapon, such as a Russian Kalashnikov rifle, to flatten out and bore an especially gaping path through the body. The wound would be larger than usual, and probably fatal. Then again, who could say for sure? "It's all fate, anyway," Sebastien said.
The Times' correspondent nodded. Fate, yes. The correspondent from London's Evening Standard also nodded. I was not sure what to do—I was a sportswriter. I nodded to make the vote unanimous.
"What did you say you were doing here?" the Evening Standard correspondent asked.
"I was here for the wrestling," I said. "There are some very good wrestlers in Vladikavkaz. The best wrestlers in the world."
Wrestling. I had been in Vladikavkaz for four dark days. The sun never appeared. Low clouds obscured the nearby Caucasus Mountains. Old Russian army trucks bounced through the streets, with their drivers not caring about the potholes but swerving to miss the many manholes whose iron covers were missing. Russian soldiers drank vodka at night in the 40-watt shadows of the bar at the Intourist hotel.
Wrestling. On the day I arrived there was a raid at a border outpost within three miles of the Vladikavkaz airport. The Ingush to the east—as opposed to the Chechens to the north—had killed three Ossetian guards and wounded four. The next day, within a mile of the Intourist, a man exploded two hand grenades in a kindergarten schoolroom. The man was wounded, as were three kids; three others were killed. On the third day...well, on the third day Malik Tedeyev, an assistant coach on the Russian national wrestling team, described the geopolitics of his native region.
"We are here," he said, sticking his right thumb into the air. "This is Ossetia. We are Christian.