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First day of school was study in terror

Some of the people who escaped from a school in southern Russia taken over by guerrillas are recounting tales of horror.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Teenager Sado Nazriyv was excited about the first day of school. He put on his pressed white shirt and his fancy black suit and joined his lifelong friend, Kazbek Dzaragasov, in front of the red-brick School No. 1 for opening-day ceremonies.

A pop song from the 1980s played on the speakers, a musty oldie, something about childhood, a song about innocence.

"As soon as the song ended," Sado recalled, "the terrorists showed up."

Just like that, the elation of a day of flowers and family in this little town in southern Russia dissolved into a nightmare that would be broadcast across the world. A small army of guerrillas, some in black, some in camouflage, some with masks, some without, stormed through the schoolyard with rifles and explosives Wednesday morning, barking orders at hundreds of students and parents.

"Lie on the ground!" they shouted.

Most of the students complied. Sado and Kazbek did not.

"They started shooting," said Sado, 16, still reeling from the experience a day later. "At first we thought it was a joke. Where I was, there were 10th-grade students and 11th-grade students. We saw them running, and so we started running, too."

Sado and Kazbek raced as fast as they could, bullets whizzing overhead. Sado cut down a side lane, he recalled, but Kazbek did not follow.

Suddenly Kazbek, 15, realized that his younger sister, Agunda, was still back at the school in her third-grade class, a captive of the mysterious attackers. So he turned and rushed back into the school, giving up his escape to become a hostage alongside his terrified sister.

"They're very close kids," said their grandmother, Rosa Dzaragasova, 76. "They're great friends. He just couldn't leave her, so he went back for her."

The last word anyone has had of the teenage boy came Thursday afternoon when one of the women released by the Islamic guerrillas told Sado that she saw Kazbek and his sister huddled together on the floor of the school gymnasium along with hundreds of other hostages.

Filled with sorrow
This is a town filled with stories now, some of them heroic, most of them harrowing. With as many as 1,000 children and adults out of a population of 30,000 trapped in the school, virtually everyone in Beslan has a loved one inside or knows someone who does. Not far from the school, inside and outside the local House of Culture with the glittering disco ball hanging from the ceiling, it seems the entire population is standing around waiting and worrying.

Beslan is a simple place, where dawn really is greeted by the crowing of roosters and dusk finds a woman walking her cow through downtown. The major employers are a vodka plant, a brick factory and a two-story, red-brick building constructed in 1899 that serves as School No. 1.

Muslims represent about a third of the population in this region of North Ossetia, with the rest mostly Christian, creating at times an uneasy mix. The mosque here was turned into a meat factory during the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's rule, then restored following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Beslan was spared major fighting in a 1992 war when fighters from the largely Muslim republic of Ingushetia invaded, but resentment against them lingers.

When a group of Muslims from other North Ossetian villages decided to offer themselves as hostages in exchange for the students Thursday, officials discouraged them from coming to Beslan to present their proposal for fear of stirring violence. "We told them it's too dangerous," said Yuri Sidakov, head of the region's human rights commission. "They would dress in Muslim clothes and it might provoke a reaction."

Stories of the human toll from the crisis have spread quickly across town. There was the woman who had five children held inside, not to mention four nieces and nephews. It was unclear if any were in the lucky group that made it out Wednesday. It was the same with the mother who brought her 6-month-old child with her to send off older children to class; all were taken in the initial seizure. The school was being defended by three security guards when the attack began, officials said. One of them was killed, and the other two were injured.

At first, no one could fathom what was happening. "We ran to the police and started screaming at them that the school had been taken captive," Sado said. "They didn't believe us at first. They were confused."

Holed up in a boiler room
Kristina Varziyeva, 16, was among a group of students collected by the intruders. "All the students were being herded into the gym at gunpoint," said her mother, Sima Varziyeva, 55. "One of the guerrillas who was herding them turned away and she understood that she wasn't being followed and ran to the boiler room."

An English teacher grabbed Kristina's hand and quickly shuffled her and a dozen other students into the room as well, slamming a heavy iron door shut behind them, according to her mother. The guerrillas, realizing they had lost several hostages, tried to open the door with no success. They threw a grenade at it, but the explosion did not blow it in; a second grenade failed as well.

For hours, the teacher and the students holed up in the boiler room, worried about more explosions and unsure of what to do. Finally, Varziyeva said, they smashed a window, climbed out and ran to safety. "She was hysterical," Varziyeva said of her daughter. "She was terribly scared and shocked. She's now scared to be in darkness, she's scared to be alone. She keeps seeing images of what she lived through."

The ordeal was not over for Sima Varziyeva. She got her daughter back, but an 8-year-old grandson remained inside.