BESLAN, Russia — Tuesday would have been Georgy Daurov's very first day of school. His mother, Svetlana, scoffed at the idea that the passage of time could ease the sorrow of losing her 2-year-old son five years ago in Russia's worst terrorist attack.
"Time heals all wounds — the person who thought that up never had anyone die, never mind a young son," she said, tears streaming down her face. "We live with this every day of our lives."
The ragged wails of mothers, fathers, grandparents and neighbors echoed again out the jagged roof and broken windows of Beslan's School No. 1 on Tuesday. What is the first day of school for millions of children around Russia will forever be a day of unspeakable grief in this small town in the turbulent North Caucasus.
Thirty-two heavily armed militants seized the school on Sept. 1, 2004, herding more than 1,000 men, women and children into the gymnasium — including parents and younger siblings who had accompanied the school-age boys and girls.
The militants — from Chechnya and elsewhere — demanded that Russian forces withdraw from the war-wracked republic.
The hostages were packed in for nearly three days, thirsty, hungry and terrified until the afternoon of Sept. 3, when mayhem and gunfire broke out after explosions tore through the gym, and images of bloodied, mostly naked children fleeing the crossfire shocked the world. In all, 334 people died — more than half of them children.
The fallout was widespread, prompting President Vladimir Putin to push through sweeping changes to the electoral system that tightened the Kremlin's grip on the country's political life.
With violence spiking through the North Caucasus, few survivors or relatives of victims believe much has changed since then. Few are satisfied with the official investigations, which largely absolved police of blame for not preventing the attack.
Many also maintain that law enforcement agencies botched the rescue, using flame-throwers, grenade launchers and heavy guns that only made the situation worse. Survivors insist the explosions that sparked the chaos came from outside the building.
"The ones who are guilty in this tragedy here are not only the terrorists, but those who should have stopped them, the generals. And the authorities support them, they don't allow any (outside) investigation," said Ella Kesayeva, with the group Voice of Beslan. Her then-12-year-old daughter Zarima survived the ordeal. Her two nephews and brother-in-law did not.
The only attacker known to have survived, Nur-Pashi Kulayev, was sentenced to life in prison in 2006.
Scores of people — many sobbing openly — filed clockwise Tuesday through the burnt husk of the gymnasium, stopping to light candles or lay carnations on the floor. Bottles of water, in remembrance of the victims who drank nothing but their own urine, were propped on the edges of the room. Orthodox priests chanted the prayers for the dead.
At 9:15 a.m., a school bell rang to mark the moment five years ago when the children and parents gathered in the school yard for opening day ceremonies, sending waves of sobbing through the crowd.
"I can't do it, I can't do it. I can't go on anymore," shrieked one woman, who staggered through the gym.
"Five years on and no one's been punished," yelled Matras Tsallagov, whose brother Timur, sister-in-law and nephew all died in the siege.
"It's easier to visit the cemetery than to come here, where so many suffered for so long, without help," said Fatima Lohova. Her brother Ruslan was shot by a terrorist sniper as he ran to save his 6-year-old niece, Dzerassa, on the first day of the ordeal. The girl died on the last day.
Svetlana Daurov, 40, said her son Georgy suffered through the thirst, the hunger, the heat and the fear along with her 12-year-old daughter, Alyona, and her mother-in-law, Inessa.
Her husband, Vadim, was killed on the first day, shot by a sniper as he heard gunfire and rushed to the school. Georgy died when shrapnel shredded his spine above his neck. Inessa was shot through the head from the front — suspiciously, Daurov said. since her back was to the militants as she fled. Alyona is the only survivor.
Daurov pointed to a row of photographs of another mother and her four children, who all died during the siege, and sobbed.
"Either everyone should die immediately altogether as one family, or everyone should remain alive together as one family," she said. "It shouldn't be that just some live and some die."
Many victims and activists have accused the Kremlin of failing miserably at bringing peace to the North Caucasus, despite the sweeping political changes Putin pushed and his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, has continued.
A recent increase in violence across the region has further undermined the Kremlin's claims. In the republic of Dagestan on Tuesday, a passer-by was killed and 13 people wounded when a man detonated explosives in a car at a traffic police post.
Poverty, corruption and crime, radical Islam and heavy-handed government policies have all helped spawn desperation among the region's countless ethnic groups.
"Given the situation that you see in the Caucasus, we should all be terrorists now," Kesayeva said.
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