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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Children in Caucasus Learn Not to Hate

ReutersChildren playing at a UNICEF-backed summer camp in the Dagestani town of Michurino, near the Caspian Sea.
MICHURINO, Dagestan -- Alexander, a 14-year-old Christian from Vladikavkaz, achieved two firsts over the summer -- he saw the sea and formed a friendship with a Muslim boy from Chechnya.

Watching the Caspian Sea lap gently against a sandy beach, Alexander draped his arm around the shoulders of Magomed, his new friend.

"When I agreed to go to the summer camp, I expected hostilities and I was nervous," he said. "But I've made great friends and, of course, we're by the sea."

The two boys spent part of their summer at a camp partly funded by the United Nations, where children from different parts of the turbulent North Caucasus come together to try to bridge the region's ethnic and cultural divides.

"Stereotypes, prejudices and mistrust have been growing because communication between the groups has decreased," said Yelena Kharitonova, communications officer at the UN's children's organization, UNICEF.

Sometimes it is children who bear the brunt. In 2004, attackers linked to Chechen rebels seized a school in Beslan, in mainly Christian North Ossetia. More than 330 people were killed, half of them children.

That massacre deepened the mistrust between the region's Christians and their Muslim neighbors, and between the North Ossetians and Ingush, who fought a brief war in the 1990s over a disputed border.

Alexander and Magomed were in a group of 150 children aged 11 to 16 who attended a weeklong summer camp on the banks of the Caspian Sea in Dagestan.

This is the third year the camp has been held in Dagestan, and this summer there were also camps in North Ossetia, Ingushetia and a Chechen-hosted camp in Kabardino-Balkaria.

The camp in Dagestan, around 150 kilometers from regional capital, Makhachkala, was built to house Soviet Pioneers.

"At the beginning, the children are shy and don't want to communicate much and stay in national groups," Kharitonova said. "At the end they see that their foods, songs and national dresses are similar and they have become friends."

Morning lessons focus on breaking down prejudices, the afternoons on games and the evenings are set aside for singing, dancing and presentations from the different nationalities.

Weeds and grass grow between the concrete slabs on the floor, paint peels off the gray building and bottles and plastic bags litter the beach, but the air is filled with the sound of children laughing.

In a ground-floor classroom, decorated with hand-drawn pictures of the North Caucasus, a dozen children hover around 11 chairs. In this game the children on the chairs have to keep moving round, working as a team to block out the child in the middle who is trying to sit down.

A little girl from Ingushetia has been struggling to escape from the middle. Eventually an even smaller girl from Dagestan deliberately fails to move in time, allowing the girl in the middle to sit down. "We have to help each other," explained Dana, the 11-year-old Dagestani, in a shy whisper. "That is what we are learning."