- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

Second of two parts

BESLAN, Russia - Beslan School No. 1 remains an open wound. No security guards stand on duty. No yellow police tape cordons off the site. No one has bothered to clean up the books, worksheets and school supplies, now covered in a fine layer of dust and grit, that litter every classroom in the school.

Three months after the bloody siege by Muslim terrorists that riveted the world, a visitor can walk right into the school’s gym, the heart of the horror, its large windows blown out, its red floor and pale walls charred black, only a few burnt rafters interrupting the view of the open sky.

“I come here because I have nowhere else to go,” said Alma Khamitseva, whose sister Lema, a single mother of two, was killed in the siege. “I come here, and I cry and feel a little bit better, because I feel her soul is here.”

Sept. 3 is the date that this small, close-knit southern Russian town became the latest global byword for unimaginable horror, an anonymous place made famous by the evil visited upon it.

It was here that a band of nearly three dozen terrorists held some 1,200 Beslan residents — children and teachers and their relatives gathered for a ceremony marking the first day of school — hostage for three tense days. At 1 p.m. on the third day — Sept. 3 — the standoff exploded into violence.

An intense firefight between the heavily armed terrorists and Russian special forces and dozens of local residents killed more than 330 hostages, including nearly 190 children.

The federal troops and the hordes of journalists are long gone. A cycle of revenge attacks — which many experts predicted and which the terrorists may have been banking on — has yet to materialize.

But ex-hostages, Beslan residents and town officials all say their city hasn’t even begun to heal. The looming holiday season only underlines the scores of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who have been lost.

“The more time passes, the more I think people are feeling the tragedy,” said Tuaev Mairbeck, who heads a new city council charged with coordinating humanitarian aid to the victims.

“People walk around like they were hypnotized, like robots. People just now are truly feeling the vacuum inside.”

Raisa Karyaeva lost her daughter, Emma, a popular teacher at the school, and her granddaughter, Karina Melikova, Emma’s only daughter, in the siege. Townspeople say Emma Karyaeva — one of 17 teachers who died in the attack — courageously stayed with her students throughout the siege, helping them to escape in the desperate final moments.

“They tell me she saved all these other children. Why couldn’t she save her own child?” asked Mrs. Karyaeva, her eyes filling with tears and her voice cracking.

She recalls her 11-year-old granddaughter filling the small apartment two blocks from the school with singing. Karina dreamed of being a teacher like her mother, or perhaps a dentist.

“No one expected such a tragedy could happen here, to us,” Mrs. Karyaeva said. “We have lost the sense of our lives.”

While Beslan’s women readily pour out their grief to a visitor, Yuri Karyaeva, Emma’s brother, is one of the few local men to talk openly of the effect of the massacre.

“I knew almost everybody who went there, everybody who died. I went to the school myself as a boy,” he said. “This neighborhood basically had a whole generation wiped out. It’s not a thing that can be forgotten.”

One modest apartment block near the school lost 32 residents in the attack. Some families were spared altogether, while others lost two, three, even four relatives.

Alexander Dzadziev, a sociologist from the nearby city of Vladikavkaz and a leading expert on ethnic tensions in Russia’s South Caucasus, has many relatives in Beslan, and said the loss has been both devastating and indiscriminate.

“Beslan has 35,000 citizens and 350 people died,” he said. “That’s one out of every 100 people here. Everyone on the streets knows somebody who was in the school those days, knows somebody who died.”

Interrupted school day

Stunned visitors troop silently through the school building itself, rarely making eye contact. Bullet holes pock the walls of the gym, the school auditorium (where many other hostages were held), and individual classrooms.

A large bloodstain is visible beneath a window the captors used to toss out victims in the early hours of the takeover.

Forming a layer of dust-covered debris nearly ankle-deep in places are the remains of a brutally interrupted school day.

Hundreds of little blue and green test booklets, many with the teacher’s red correction marks; dictionaries, atlases and library books; a Pokemon notebook; pink and green plastic backpacks; a plastic tray of rocks in the science lab, with each specimen neatly nestled in its compartment; postcards; LP records; a punching bag and set of barbells; paint sets; combs and brushes; copies of “English for Leisure” and E.B. White’s “Stuart Little” in the language room; small plastic flowerpots holding dried-out seedlings; world maps; a copy of the periodic table; portraits of Lenin, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Hans Christian Andersen.

Along with the prosaic there is the poignant. On the stage of the auditorium lies a poster, in English, showing a heart-shaped scene of a couple embracing on a beach at sunset. Alongside the drawing are the complete lyrics to “Tea for Two” and “Only You.”

A large new wing of the cemetery just outside town looks out on what used to be Beslan’s main claim to fame: one of Russia’s largest vodka plants. Today, visitors are drawn instead to row upon row of fresh grave sites, some bearing multiple members from the same family.

The Russian Orthodox graves typically have a picture of the deceased on the bare wooden post marking each site. The Muslim graves — it is estimated more than half of the victims were Muslims — are bare.

The birth dates range from the 1940s to 2002, but virtually every one ends in the same, numbing “03.09.2004.”

Tsara Shotaev, a quiet, bearish man with oversized glasses, had a front-row seat on the tragedy. His ground-floor apartment, with its well-appointed study and large library, faces the large blacktop where the students, teachers and relatives had gathered Sept. 1.

Complimented on his large collection of books, he says almost without emotion, “I’d give every one of them away to get my children back.”

Like Mrs. Karyaeva, Mr. Shotaev lost a daughter, Albina Kuchieva, and his 7-year-old granddaughter, Zarina, in the siege. His wife and his surviving grandson are away at the Black Sea, leaving the large apartment unnaturally quiet.

The 62-year-old retired banker said that when the masked terrorists emerged from the truck that pulled up outside his door, he initially thought it was some kind of game. It took just five or six minutes to herd the more than 1,200 people into the school building itself, he said.

Police ordered him to leave his apartment in the first hours of the siege, and he said in the three months since then, he has only once visited the school that sits less than 100 yards from his front door.

“I have no interest in going over there. A devil lives there now,” he said.

“People still feel very depressed. A lot of my friends never leave their houses. You used to hear music in the streets, and you never hear that anymore. We had eight kids killed right on this little street. Can you imagine that? Eight kids.”

Mr. Shotaev suffered a heart attack in October, which he blamed in part on the stress caused by the attack.

“We plan to move as soon as we can sell the house,” he said. “I cannot remain here. It is too hard on my heart.”

Standing on crutches in the middle of the wrecked Beslan gym, Sveta Margieva points out to a companion where the terrorists forced her to sit for the three days of the siege. The spot is covered by a profusion of Coke, Sprite and mineral water bottles — brought by visitors as a symbolic gesture to the hostages who were denied drink and food for the final two days of the ordeal by their captors.

She explained that this was the place where her 12-year-old daughter, Elvira, died in her arms.

Like many of the wounded, Mrs. Margieva had been sent to Moscow for medical treatment, and was making her first visit back to the gym.

“I don’t even remember the explosions,” she said. “We were all so tired and thirsty. I just remember that my daughter was in front of me, and then she was in my hands. But she was already dead.”

A teacher’s guilt

Zarina Zumanovskaya-Khutsistova, a large woman with swept-up jet-black hair, taught Russian and Ossetian language and literature courses at Beslan School No. 1 for 40 years. She said the terrorists demanded the children sit still on the floor and “threatened to shoot them if they cried.”

She was asking one of the captors if she could have a chair on Sept. 3 when a large explosion went off in the gym, which appeared to take the terrorist by surprise as well.

People began pouring out the gym’s windows in the confusion, but she found she could not move her legs, which were covered in blood. Finally, two Russian soldiers lifted her from the floor and carried her to safety.

She learned later that eight of the children in her group on the gym floor died. Like many Beslan residents, she has not been able to return to work, is “afraid” to return to work.

“It’s only now that you can realize the whole tragedy,” she said. “I blame myself that I’m still alive when so many of my own students died.”

Svetlana Kalagova is vice director of Beslan Regional Hospital, which sits across the railroad tracks that run past the ruined hulk of the school. She said the past two months “have seemed like an eternity for us,” as hard in a way on her staff as it had been on the families of the victims.

“Everybody on our staff knew exactly the number of wounded and dead from the first days when they brought the bodies here,” she said. “Everybody on the staff knew where the wounded and the dead lived and knew their families.”

All of the wounded have been discharged from the hospital, “but we’re still seeing grave psychological problems on the rise, both with the children and the adults,” Mrs. Kalagova said.

Many residents have been unable to resume work, and some, like Mrs. Karyaeva, rarely leave their apartments. Beslan children report intense fears — of the dark, of loud noises, even of beards like those worn by the terrorists.

For many, the aftermath has brought for many here intense anger — at ethnic Chechens and Ingushetians suspected of masterminding the attack; at the Russian government, whose investigation of the incident is widely dismissed as a whitewash; and at the school’s principal, vilified by many for reportedly drinking tea with the terrorists during the siege and for surviving when so many of her pupils and teachers perished.

“The government tells us only lies, and people are just getting madder and madder,” said Felisa Batagova, who holds on her lap pictures of her sister, her granddaughter and niece — all killed in the siege.

“Everyone who had responsibility to save our children has gotten a new job. We are the lonely ones left suffering,” she said.

Residents repeatedly cite a large hole knocked out of the floor of the school library, insisting it held a cache of buried weapons the attackers had placed there previously. Ethnic-Ingush construction workers, Beslan residents say, secreted the guns, grenade launchers and bombs beneath the floor while working at the school over the summer.

Many in Beslan doubt the government’s insistence that it killed or captured all 32 terrorists involved in the takeover. Skeptics such as Mrs. Batagova say the figure was much higher, that many escaped in the chaos of the climactic battle, and that sympathizers in the crowd outside the school helped the attackers flee.

Last month, more than 300 Beslan residents signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin and a parliamentary committee probing the attack. The letter said “corruption, permissiveness and incorrect national policy” were to blame for the attack, and demanded punishment for negligent local officials.

“If Russia does not change after this tragedy, it has no future,” the letter said.

Searching for normal

The ruined school lies tucked away on a site not visible from Beslan’s main roads, and there are few obvious reminders of the massacre on the street. Surviving students in mid-November returned to classes at a neighboring school, and construction work is already under way for two new school buildings in another part of town to replace Beslan School No. 1.

The Russian government set up a compensation fund for victims of the siege, including payments of $3,700 to families of residents killed. Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov last week announced a new $49 million reconstruction project, to finance the schools, an art institute, a nursery school, a hospital and new apartment blocks for victims in Beslan.

But residents say it will take decades for Beslan to once again become a “normal” city. Some doubt it ever will be the same again.

Tatyana Yagoda is the brisk, efficient principal of the Beslan Municipal Children’s Musical School, where many of the survivors now take music-therapy courses.

Proudly showing a visitor the center’s well-furnished practice and audition rooms, she catches herself when pointing out a bulletin board with photos of the school’s prize pupils. Two spots have been left blank — for two of the school’s 26 pupils who died in September.

“We had 250 students at the beginning of the school year, and now we have just over 200,” she says, her voice breaking. “Me, myself, I find myself crying at any moment when I think of that.”

Said Mrs. Khamitseva, “It can never be normal here for me. I don’t even leave my house because I don’t know what to do or where to go. We have all lost sense of our lives.”

Sergei Bassiev coordinates operations for the Catholic charity Caritas in Beslan, dispensing full school backpacks, medicine and other supplies to victims.

“It will be 50 years before people here even begin to forget what passed,” he said. “We see every day mothers, fathers, grandmothers who have lost a child. How do you forget a child?”

Part I:

Neighbors, worlds apart

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