One year later, Beslan's school tragedy still haunts
Siege that ended with 331 dead leaves sorrow, ire
MOSCOW -- Divided in grief, the town of Beslan began three days of remembrance yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the school siege that left 331 people dead and a community in ruins.
Stepping through the blackened shell that is now Beslan School No. 1, thousands of people carried roses and candles into the gym where more than 1,000 hostages were herded a year ago as the first day of school began. Portraits of the dead, 186 of them children, hung on the blacked red-brick walls, and mourners leaned their heads against the pictures and sobbed and prayed.
But the grief was joined by rancor as survivors blamed their government, and each other, for the death toll in the country's worst terrorist act. Russian President Vladimir Putin stayed away after some relatives of the dead said he was not welcome. The former principal of the school, herself a former hostage, had to be protected by security officials when she attempted to lay flowers in memory of her murdered students. And some survivors and relatives used the occasion to issue a statement requesting political asylum in foreign countries.
''We do not want to live in this country, where human life does not mean anything," said a statement that initially appeared to be from the Beslan Mothers Committee, a prominent local group at odds with the authorities. ''We are requesting political asylum in any country where human rights are observed."
But the executive director of the mothers group, Juliet Basiyeva, said, ''The petition is coming from former hostages, not the Beslan Mothers Committee."
''Several members of the committee signed off on the appeal, but that is their personal point of view," she told the Russian news agency Interfax. ''This is being done to disrupt or thwart a meeting of the former hostages' delegation with the federal president. It is nothing but skillful black PR."
The siege ended after 52 hours on Sept. 3, 2004, in circumstances that are still in dispute. An explosion detonated in the gym where a group of heavily-armed terrorists demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya had strung bombs above and among the huddled hostages. One surviving terrorist charged in his ongoing trial that the explosion was triggered by a Russian sniper who took out a terrorist with his foot on a bomb trigger; government prosecutors dismissed that claim. A chaotic firefight ensued, and fire raced through building as hostages were killed by shrapnel, bullets, flame, and falling debris.
Two investigative commissions have yet to report, but many Beslan residents have little faith in their ability to answer some key questions and assign blame: How did such a large group of terrorists cross territory dotted with police checkpoints? Who among the authorities was responsible for what many residents view as a botched response after the first explosion? And did government forces employ excessive force, including tanks and flamethrowers, adding to the death toll?
''We have been waiting patiently for nearly a year for words of truth about the savage murder of our relatives and for the day when the perpetrators are brought to account," said the statement by some victims and relatives. ''However, time and the authorities have shown us that the truth will never be spoken, because it is absurd and horrible. What happened with the hostages was like cattle to the slaughter. The majority of those killed were blown up, shot by tanks or grenade-launchers or burnt by flamethrowers."
Taimuraz Mamsurov, the president of the Russian republic of North Ossetia, where Beslan is located, said in an interview with journalists that Russian forces had acted ''abominably." Two of Mamsurov's children were among the hostages, and were wounded.
''As a man, as a father, as a resident, as a leader, as an Ossetian, we all should feel guilt," he said Wednesday.
Mamsurov and Dmitry Kozak, Putin's special envoy in the North Caucasus, met with the Beslan Mothers Committee for an hour yesterday, but it did little to assuage the sense of anger.
''This does not work for us at all," shouted Ella Kisayeva, one of the mothers, after the meeting. ''The fact is, our children were burned, our children were executed, and no one wants to get involved in this question."
Putin is to meet with representatives of the mothers committee, and other survivors and relatives of the dead, at the Kremlin today, where he will be pressed to account for his own role during the three days and to take action against senior officials who survivors believe should have done more to prevent the siege's bloody ending.
No senior Russian official has been punished or has resigned because of the siege.
Yesterday, Putin was in the southern region of Krasnodar, about 300 miles from Beslan, where he met students at an agricultural college.