The fear is palpable on the quiet streets of this ramshackle town, which still bears the scars of the last war between the Ingush and Ossetian ethnic groups, a conflict in 1992 that gutted the kindergarten, school and community center here, as well as many private homes.
Kartsa is a small enclave of Ingush people in the North Ossetia region of Russia, and since it became clear that some Ingush were involved in the deadly seizure of an Ossetian school last week, residents here have become deeply worried. They say they can only hope that Russian forces now moving into the area in force will protect them from any vigilantes.
About 100 children from the town who were at a resort in the neighboring state of Ingushetia when the siege began have been told to remain there until tensions ease. Dozens of other children have been sent across the border lest they be caught up in a pogrom, according to local officials and town residents. Russian Interior Ministry troops have been dispatched to the village, and 20 tanks lined up along the road just outside town on Tuesday.
"There is tension, and some people are worried," said Maksharip Murzabekov, 70, a village elder who has lived here since 1959. "Twelve years ago there was conflict. There was hatred, and not all of it has disappeared."
"Now lots and lots of people have taken out the weapons they've been hiding at home," said Oleg Orlov, head of the human rights group Memorial, who visited both North Ossetia and Ingushetia this week. "There is a growing mood of anger and desire for revenge. My fear is that some people . . . won't be able to find anyone to take revenge on, since the terrorists are dead, and will focus on completely innocent people."
The animosity between the Ossetians and the Ingush may be among the world's more obscure ethnic conflicts, but it looms large in Russia in the aftermath of the hostage crisis in which at least 335 children and adults died in a maelstrom of explosions and gunfire in the school in Beslan.
Russian officials in Moscow say they fear the terrorist strike against the school was part of an attempt to reignite the region's long-simmering ethnic tensions. At least four of the guerrillas who stormed the school were Ingush, including one of the leaders, a shadowy commander known as Magas, according to investigators in Ingushetia.
Authorities have identified Magas as a former Ingush police officer, Ali Taziyev, and are also looking for information on four other Ingush, according to a bulletin distributed to police officers.
Now, as many men with guns roam the streets of North Ossetia venting their anger, retribution seems a distinct possibility. "If the Ingush declared a war, we could fight them openly, but instead they shoot our children," said Rezo Guldayev, who lost his 36-year-old cousin and her daughter in the school siege. "We are a patient people, but there is an end to patience. We have to think what to do."
In this town of 5,000, where 90 percent of the people are Ingush, rumors have proliferated in recent days -- that Ossetian men were massing to ethnically cleanse the village, that Ingush were thrown out of a nearby hospital, that Ingush had been taken hostage in North Ossetia.
So far, they appear untrue. "We have chased down every rumor, and they are all false," said Vladimir Pisarenko, a Russian who heads the local administration. "There have been no direct threats, no incidents." Several residents, as well as the community's Muslim cleric and two Federal Security Service officials, confirmed that nothing had happened despite reports of a near-clash over the weekend.
"These are all lies," said Magomet Gadaborschev, head of the local Ingush Cultural Center. "Some people are interested in provocations, but it is peaceful here in the village."
Ingush and Ossetians have coexisted uneasily for many decades. Ingush are Muslim, though many are not observant, and Ossetians are mostly Christian, although a sizable minority are Muslim. But the modern-day enmity between the two stems mainly from repression in the era of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
The easternmost sliver of North Ossetia used to belong to the Ingush, but it was given to the Ossetians after Stalin deported the entire Ingush population to distant Kazakhstan in 1944 on the pretext that they were Nazi collaborators. The Ingush were allowed to return in 1957, but that part of their old territory was left with the Ossetians, who had long since claimed the homes of the ousted families.
In 1991, the central government in Moscow enacted legislation promising the Ingush their territory back but never implemented it, so the Ingush took matters into their own hands. On Oct. 31, 1992, a week-long war erupted between Ingush militia and Ossetian fighters. According to Memorial, 583 people were killed, 939 injured and up to 60,000 Ingush displaced.
Russian troops moved in and stopped the fighting, but Moscow never resolved the dispute, and to this day as many as 20,000 refugees remain in Ingushetia.
Among them is Magomed Gordanov, 41, a construction worker living in a refugee camp in the city of Nazran. "It's still impossible for me to go back," he said. "Almost nobody has gone back."
Mussa Matsiyev, 65, a Kartsa resident, was visiting Nazran on Tuesday and expressed a similar fear of returning. "Now we don't sleep at night," he said. "We're waiting for attacks."
The grievances on both sides run deep, fueled by brutality, real and imagined, perpetrated by one group or the other during the 1992 war. Ingush say they are convinced they would be blamed for the school siege even if the hostage takers had not included some of their ethnic group.
"We Ingush have never known what it is like to kill children," said Tagir Belayev, 54, a playwright. "Ossetians threw our babies to the pigs so the pigs would eat our children right in front of their mothers' eyes. We know what it's like when bandits kill children."
On the other side of the border, which has been largely closed to normal traffic since the siege, Ossetians rallied in their capital of Vladikavkaz on Tuesday, focusing their anger on the regional government for not protecting the school. No one spoke against the Ingush from the makeshift podium in Freedom Square, but in the crowd there were murmurs of ethnic hatred.
"The Ingush have always been hostile to us, for centuries," said Vladimir Dzhanayev, a retired engineer. "Why are they are being protected by the authorities? Are they on the verge of extinction? Are they an endangered species?"
"God is punishing us for our neighbors," added Ruslan Bulatsev.
But there were also voices urging calm. "Ossetians and Ingush want to live in peace, but there are provocateurs, that's the danger," said Murat Kaboyev, a Beslan resident who has taken part in dialogue between the two communities. "We share the same land. We are neighbors. We have to find a common language."
Baker reported from Nazran.