BESLAN, Russia — The cemetery plot reserved for the 300 victims, mostly children, of last year's hostage-taking and siege in Beslan fills up a football field.
The makeshift wooden crosses that marked the gravesites during last September's heart-wrenching funerals have been replaced by smart, polished red granite tombstones, plant pots, and water fountains.
Towering over the cemetery, a statue symbolizing hope and freedom will be unveiled at a ceremony on Saturday.
At 1:05 p.m., a minute of silence will be held, at the very moment when, one year ago, Russian Special Forces stormed the Beslan Middle School's gymnasium, ending a horrific three-day standoff in a blaze of bullets and death.
Trying to rebuild Beslan's 'Ground Zero'
The hostage crisis has been called Russia's own 9/11. Returning to Beslan one year after covering that tragic incident was a little like visiting the World Trade Center in 2002 or 2003.
Beslan's “Ground Zero” — the school gym where dozens of Chechen militants had herded over 1,100 students, teachers and parents, stringing bombs from basketball hoops — remains a gutted, burnt-out memorial to those who died there.
Today, Beslan is rebuilding. Ironically, the terror attack put the sleepy Southern Russian town of about 30,000 on the map and international aid came flowing in.
Two new, hi-tech schools have replaced the old one. Every street seems to have at least one spanking new red brick house, and another under construction.
But none of that has helped Zalina Badoeva to move on. As she gives the tombstone of her murdered brother, Murat, a delicate wipe with one hand, she wipes away tears with the other.
''They are rebuilding, but I don't know,” she said. ''It's hard for us to even look at all that, and the children are afraid to go back to school.''
Resilience of children
Not all of the children are afraid. Some of the investment in counseling and rehabilitation — again from mostly international funds — has paid off.
A year ago, Georgi Farniev became the very face of the Beslan disaster. He was the boy with his hands behind his back and fear in his eyes, captured in a video shot by the rebels themselves. Farniev was seen sitting next to one of the Chechen militants whose foot was toying with a bomb detonator.
Earlier this week, we caught up with Farniev, who is now 11. He managed to escape the initial explosions and firefight, though shrapnel in the knee wounded him. Today, he is looking forward to studying Russian, mathematics and computers in the one of the new schools.
“I'm doing well,” he said. ''My leg is healing and inside, I'm healing too. Every day I seem to forget a little more of what happened. I know how lucky I am.''
But over 180 children were unlucky. And today their families and friends feel their loss as an open wound, just as they did one year ago.
Children like Alina Hubetsova, who would have turned 11 on Wednesday, the day before ''Back to School Day,' if she had lived.
Instead, her family was “celebrating” her birthday at her gravesite, wailing with grief.
''Can you believe we are crying here on her birthday?'' screams her grandmother, Aza.
Like dozens of other children, Hubetsova was mowed down trying to flee the gym, caught in crossfire between the Chechen hostage-takers and the Russian forces, on Sept. 3, 2004.
At her wake, her distraught family spoke of how Alina wrote in her diary of her excitement about returning to school, about her talent for knitting, and her dream of becoming a fashion designer.
Felix Hubetsova, her father, said that the hardest part, for him, was not having anyone to blame for his daughter's death.
''In this country, you'll never know what really happened,'' he said. ''Inquiries come and go, but there's never any truth.''
A year later, Felix Hubetsova had the same unanswered questions: Who was behind the attack? How many terrorists were there, and did any escape? Why didn't local authorities negotiate with the hostage-takers, to free at least more women and children? Who was in charge of the assault on the school and why was it turned into a killing zone?
''It's been a year, and still nobody is telling the truth,'' he said while the chorus of wails bellowed from Alina's grave. ''The press will leak various stories and insights but the official Commission keeps postponing its work for days, even months.''
Rumors of a cover-up
The delays in the investigation have fueled rumors of collusion between the Chechen militants and local officials. Some have suggested the Chechens bribed police to allow their truckloads of terrorists and weapons over the border in North Ossetia.
Most bereaved families — and many others here — believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin knows the truth, but is covering up a bungled rescue operation to protect his chances of winning an unprecedented third term as president.
''It's painful because it's been a year and still no one's been punished,', said Felix Hubetsova. (Thirty-one of the 32 alleged terrorists were killed in the assault. One survivor is on trial but claims to know nothing about preparations for the attack.)
Some Kremlin-watchers see a familiar trend in the signs of bungling and cover-up. ''It's actually an old Russian tradition of authoritarianism,'' explained military analyst Pavel Felgenahuer. ''There's no accountability. Because people do not respond to the public, you answer only to the Czar, sometimes with your head. So public opinion hardly plays any role at all.''
Turning pain into action
But, emerging from the anger and confusion, a group of Beslan mothers, who lost loved ones in the attack, has boldly decided to turn their pain into action, demanding that the truth be made public so they can have some closure.
A small contingent of the Beslan Mothers' Committee flew to Moscow on Friday to meet with Putin, to air their view that the Russian forces' botched operation cost dozens — perhaps hundreds — of lives.
Media coverage of the meeting was restricted, but wire reports quote Putin as telling the group that, while no government can guarantee protection against terrorism, that was ''no excuse for officials' improper fulfillment of their duties.''
Some of the Mothers' appeared downcast after the meeting, but said that Putin had heard them out.
Zalina Guburova did not go to the Kremlin. She felt that the timing of Putin's first-ever invitation, in the middle of Beslan's three-day vigil, was a deep insult.
Zalina Guburova has reason to complain — she lost both her only child, 8-year-old Suslan Guburova, as well as her 67-year-old mother, Vera, who had taken the boy to his first day of school because Zalina Guburova was abroad.
A Chechen militant at point blank range shot Suslan Guburova in the head. Vera died when the gym's roof collapsed in a ball of fire. At the Mothers' Committee headquarters, Zalina Guburova’s eyes burned through her pale, mournful face.
''Now I have no one left. I lived half of my life and now I have no meaning in life. So I intend to fight in order to get the truth,” she said.
It is perhaps the most positive change in a town that symbolizes inhumane violence and misery: despite the hundreds killed, and the thousands of Beslan survivors whose pain may never heal, some experts suggest that we may be witnessing the real birth of Russian democracy in this cursed hamlet.
It may lay with this small group of mothers and fathers who want answers, and who are determined to take action in order to get them.
It could be, beyond the shiny granite tombstones, hi-tech schools and trendy statues, Beslan's most enduring legacy.