- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

BESLAN, Russia — This city of 35,000 in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia faced overwhelming grief as the evening light faded yesterday.

“They killed people here, not just people, children, children. They killed children here,” said Vitaly, 29, throwing out his hands and spitting out a string of profanities at the charred shell of the gymnasium at School No. 1.

For the many trying to understand what befell the town, there was grief and then anger yesterday as authorities allowed residents into the husk of the school.

“The people who did this weren’t human beings,” said Alon Tseloyev, 30. His neighbor’s son was among at least 1,000 other hostages.

In the gymnasium, many of the hostages spent more than two days — hungry, thirsty, crowded in and barely able to sit, mocked and threatened with death by the Islamist militants who hung explosives in the basketball nets.

The stench of burnt plastic hangs in the gymnasium along with that of sulfur and mildew. A blackened basketball hoop rests in the corner, and the floor is littered with glass, shrapnel and wood splinters. The windows are smashed, the walls riddled with bullet holes.

The open sky above is framed by the rafters that supported a roof until Friday afternoon, when an explosion brought it down on terrified hostages. More than 340 hostages died in the explosions and fighting that followed, officials say. Townspeople expect the death toll to rise.

Many of the bodies were taken to the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, where they were lined up in rows in a courtyard in body bags as relatives wandered among them, looking for loved ones.

At the school, in the middle of the gym floor, a bouquet of red carnations has been placed on a wooden school desk chair, along with two matchbox-sized Orthodox icons as a makeshift memorial. Underneath is a blue school notebook for Vadik Zubayev, ninth grade. Subject: Ossetian language. He didn’t live to use it again.

“I don’t know what to say. I don’t have the words,” said a weeping Nadina Mourasoueva, 40. Her good friend’s two children escaped the mayhem Friday.

Workers with masks or cloth over their noses finished removing decaying bodies from the gym and the rest of the building. Military engineers completed the search for explosives.

Next door to the gym, under spotlights, an excavator tore down adjacent brick walls in plumes of dust and loaded the debris into a dump truck.

Mr. Tseloyev stood with his arms resting on the windowsill overlooking the workers. For him, as for many in Beslan, there is only one thing to do with the remains of school No. 1.

“Destroy it; raze it to the ground and build a monument to those who died,” he said. “How could a student ever study again in a place as cursed as this?”

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