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Beslan’s year of agony

As the first anniversary of the bloody school siege in Russia approaches, grieving parents are looking for catharsis by attending the trial of the sole surviving attacker.
A mother kisses a portrait of her daughter, who was killed in the Beslan school siege, at the cemetery in Beslan, Russia, earlier this month. To mark the first anniversary of the bloodbath, workers are laying polishing red granite tombstones at the graveyard, where the victims were buried under simple wooden crosses.
A mother kisses a portrait of her daughter, who was killed in the Beslan school siege, at the cemetery in Beslan, Russia, earlier this month. To mark the first anniversary of the bloodbath, workers are laying polishing red granite tombstones at the graveyard, where the victims were buried under simple wooden crosses.Ivan Sekretarev / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As they were approaching the first anniversary of the schoolhouse horror that ripped their lives apart, the mothers of Beslan were told to go to the cemetery where their children are buried. They were given no explanation.

Then an ambulance suddenly pulled up and dropped off a coffin full of body parts.

Why it had taken nearly 10 months to deliver the remains from the lab where they had lain unidentified? No official was on hand to explain, or at least to comfort them as they wept and fainted. The women say they were told the officials were too busy.

To these bereaved parents of Beslan, in southern Russia, the incident is part of a pattern of indifference, callousness and cover-up that has kept their wounds festering since the terrorist attack on the town’s school one year ago.

“We were outraged that no officials came ... when they carry responsibility for what happened. These body parts were also our children,” said

Susanna Dudiyeva, one of the women present when the coffin was brought.

Of the 1,128 children, relatives and teachers taken hostage, more than 330 died, 186 of them children — killed by the terrorists and, for the most part, in the botched rescue operation that followed two days later. It was the worst terrorist bloodbath in post-Soviet history.

Sole surviving attacker faces wrath of bereaved
For Thursday’s anniversary of the start of the Sept. 1-3 attack, workers are laying concrete paving stones and polished, red granite tombs in the graveyard where the victims were hurriedly buried under simple wooden crosses.

But for many, the only catharsis comes from testifying at the trial of Nur-Pashi Kulayev, who authorities say is the only one of the 32 attackers to survive the maelstrom of explosions and gunfire that ended the 52-hour standoff at Beslan’s No. 1 School.

Zemfira Agayeva, 35, recently riveted the trial with her account of being held in the sweltering school gymnasium with her husband and two sons on the first day of the school year.

There was no food and very little water. On the first day, Agayeva, her breasts swollen with milk for her 7-month-old daughter whom she had left at home, sacrificed her dignity to help those suffering around her.

“You hear this, Kulayev? Instead of your child, you have a 12- or 14-year-old boy sucking from you!” she exclaimed. Kulayev listened impassively from his courtroom cage.

Agayeva, whose 9-year-old son Georgy is among the dead, had even more anger for the authorities. “This is what negligence and corruption leads to. Instead of just Kulayev, many others should be on trial here,” she spat out.

Authorities under suspicion
Beslan’s people widely believe that the hostage-takers bribed corrupt law enforcement officials to let them cross heavily policed territory to reach the school.

They also are incensed at the lack of negotiations and the chaotic assault mounted by police and soldiers after they heard explosions inside the school.

Five senior policemen have been charged with criminal negligence for failing to guard the school on the opening day. Two of them are in the neighboring territory of Ingushetia, where the rebels allegedly had a training camp, and three in North Ossetia, Beslan’s territory.

Prosecutors say there is no evidence that any officials acted as accomplices, arguing that the rebels didn’t need them.

“They took back roads and there may have been no police posts, so that’s why they got through without obstacles,” said Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel, who is responsible for southern Russia.

But Dudiyeva, head of the Beslan Mothers’ Committee whose protests pressured North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov to resign in May, accuses the Russian government of a cover-up.

A public voice for the victims
Gray-haired at 44, with a black scarf tied tightly over her head, Dudiyeva lost her 13-year-son Zaur in the siege. She has defied patriarchal tradition in this Caucasus Mountain region to become a public voice for the victims.

She insists that local and federal law enforcement officials face charges of criminal negligence.

“Only if all the guilty are punished can we prevent other terrorist acts occurring,” said Dudiyeva. “I think the rescue operation was absolutely unsatisfactory, disgraceful,” she said. The survivors “were saved by luck or God, but not by ... the leaders.”

The parents want to know what caused the explosion inside the gymnasium that prompted the hostage-takers to set off other blasts and open fire on Russian forces outside.

Defendant Kulayev has suggested a sniper shot the militant whose foot was holding down a trigger wired to explosives. Shepel, the prosecutor, disagrees, saying witness accounts show that the man accidentally moved his foot.

After the explosions a fire broke out, bringing down the roof and burning or choking many hostages to death.

Some survivors accuse Russian forces of using flame-throwers on the gymnasium, but Shepel insists the fire was ignited by the explosions and militants’ grenades.

Harangues, angry rebukes punctuate trial
Another focus for criticism is the behavior of the now resigned Dzasokhov and his Ingushetian counterpart, Murat Zyazikov. The hostage-takers wanted them to come to the school to receive their demands, but they refused.

Before the refusal, hostages say, the attackers had promised to release smaller children.

In the tiny courtroom where Kulayev is being tried, the atmosphere is rowdy at times. The audience, packed onto wooden benches, is mainly women who occasionally stand up to harangue the court, provoking angry rebukes from the judge.

When the trial began in May, mothers who lost children said they wanted to tear him apart. Now they see him as their main hope for information and have offered to petition for a lighter sentence if he reveals all he knows.

His court-appointed lawyer, Albert Pliyev, says Kulayev has confirmed that weapons were stored at the school ahead of the raid — something the authorities deny — but otherwise can’t shed much light. Kulayev, the attorney says, maintains he ended up at the school by chance with his rebel brother.

“He has said all he knows. He just didn’t know much,” the lawyer said.

Scene at school unchanged
At the school, closed since the attack, the blood has been washed away but the scene is otherwise unchanged: charred timbers in the gymnasium, bullet and shell holes on the walls, schoolbooks scattered in classrooms.

Water bottles and children’s toys, left as tributes to the dead, litter the ground.

The mothers’ committee has warned President Vladimir Putin to stay away during the anniversary.

“People here are very emotional. His visit could provoke huge protests,” said an organizer, Julietta Basiyeva.

Ruslan Aushev, a respected former regional president of Ingushetia who went to the school and secured the release of 26 women and children, says Putin has to share the blame.

“If a terrorist act happened, then obviously all the government bodies and law enforcement agencies are responsible for the fact that an armed group gets into a peaceful town,” he said.

“They are all guilty, from the top to the bottom.”