by Sacha Plukchi

Many of you will need to google Ossetia to see, let alone remember, where it is. After all, this territory of 760,000 population does not often make international headlines – and when it does, it is unfortunately not for good reasons. Our region is sadly one of the most violent throughout history. It is right in the middle of ethnic and religious fault lines. Low level violence is constant in the Caucasus provinces and occasionally breeds into military conflict or wars of independence, like in neighbouring Chechnya in the 1990s and again in the early 2000s.

Tragedies make me rethink my life

Growing up in such a place isn’t easy. Only about 5,000 children study in South Ossetian schools. On the border with Georgia, they do not go to school at all. There are almost no activities for children. When I was young, I treated people arrogantly and loved to fight and organize all sorts of clashes between various groups of people. We were a bunch of fearless, athletic youths who feared nothing and liked to destroy everything. And I was the ringleader. Then one of us was involved in a murder and eventually went to jail for a long time. Soon afterwards, my mother died due to medical error. I knew I needed to rethink my life and look for its meaning. But I felt powerless to do so.

So one day, I fell on my knees and I cried out to God. After this I began to go to a Baptist Church. This was totally new for me as my parents never knew about God (Ossetia is predominantly Christian only in official records – most of its people worship and sacrifice animals to pagan gods). I had so many questions, but I just said: «Lord, come into my life and change it. I trust You». It was as if a heavy burden fell from my shoulders, and peace and joy came to my soul. Such was the change in my life that I became a youth leader in that church and started Bible college. Every summer, I would go to camp with children and this became my calling.

Helping families after the Beslan massacre

In Autumn 2004, I felt a call to move to North Ossetia. It is a Russian Republic and ten times more populated than its Southern counterpart. That was the year that terrorists held a whole school hostage in Beslan, resulting in an awful bloodbath. We provided social and psychological support to those families who had suffered in the attack. After that, I went every summer for camps in Chechnya, Ingushetia and South Ossetia. Only 250 people in South Ossetia are protestant Christians and by analogy with Russia, the local administration actively opposes all religious groups except the Orthodox.

3,000 children reached through sporting events

Still, we managed to raise money from churches and Christian organisations to hold sporting events like KidsGames, movies, camps and humanitarian projects. Short-term volunteers from Moldova also came to help. This worked well since opportunities for entertainment for children and youth are sorely lacking. Children came to the day camp where they received food and Bible lessons and stories. The result was the organisation of Sunday School at the church, with 35 children regularly attending.

In 2010 the Christian centre with which we work in Tskhinvali (capital of South Ossetia) held various sports and outreaches for about 3,000 children in different places, even centres for rehabilitation of children of prisoners. We also cover nearly 10,000 teenagers and students through a social program. With various partners in the Caucasus, four residential camps were organised for 350 children.

A stone heart melts

Among them was Ayub. At ten years old, this very closed and rude boy reminded me so much of what I was at his age. Ayub’s relatives are poor and warlike people, with a strong Wahhabi (Sunni Islam fundamentalist) influence. Not so long ago, the boy still considered dying as a terrorist martyr, because this would earn his mother, who lives in abject poverty, some compensation.

Last year, though, Ayub visited our Christian camp. He hated the whole world people irritated him. But he experienced a real crisis among us, hearing the songs and the prayers but even more, being impacted by the atmosphere of love and compassion. He even confessed to his counsellor Sergei: «I wanted to break everything at the camp and at the same time, some force led me here again and again». His stone-hard heart began to melt. There were surprising changes in his character during the camp. Real artistic skills showed up and an ability to strongly influence his friends. He participated in the closing ceremony of the camp where he explained to his friends the meaning of biblical skits. His mother is happy about the change.

If God could turn me from a loose and lost teenager to a god-fearing and compassionate youth worker, certainly he can do the same for Ayub, with the help of committed counsellors and international donors.