At the roadside entrance to the burnt-out shell of School No. 1 stands a tap, where children who escaped the explosions and gunfire in the school gym five years ago ran for water. Today, two small girls were playing around it. One held up a toddler for a drink, laughing. Plans were revealed last week to turn the school into a memorial museum. An idea to erect a glass case around the tap has been dropped, however, so that children can still drink from it.
Amid a tragedy that has yet to find a semblance of closure, the memorial, designed by a German firm, and intended to keep what remains of the school largely intact, seemed hardly to be noticed by the families who are still reliving the hostage-taking, and by the children, some of whom are still too traumatised to stay in Beslan for the anniversary of the tragedy.
“It feels like we’ve just been forgotten. The more time passes, the worse it gets. All the old wounds surface,” said Marina Khudalova, whose apartment is just a block from the school, and whose building was pocked with gunfire after the siege. “Five years later - it seems worse than all the previous anniversaries.” Her son, Sarmat, was eight years old when he became one of 1,116 hostages locked in the sweltering gymnasium, deprived of food and water, and held at gunpoint by masked attackers. Sarmat escaped sometime between the first and the second explosion — the two blasts whose origins are still debated.
A gunman saw him running and threatened him — but was apparently blown up by the second blast. Sarmat was brought to the hospital, suffering from burns, a broken jaw and another head injury. Some days after, he still had someone else’s brain matter matted in his hair.
Reliving the trauma
Sarmat, now 13, is staying with relatives in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinval, just as he has for the last two years. Nearly every Ossetian family in Beslan has relations living across the border. “These days he just doesn’t want to stay here,” said Marina Khudalova, who was eight months pregnant with her second child, Milana, at the time of the attack. “The first days after the siege he would run off to the school every day, I couldn’t get the smell of soot and blood out of his clothes.”
In the days after he escaped, Sarmat was eager to talk to journalists about what happened in the gym, and was asked to testify during the trial of Nur-Pashi Kulayev, who authorities say is the only known surviving hostage-taker. Kulayev was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2006, and is so far the only person to be jailed in connection with the attack.
Today, Sarmat still suffers from headaches, high blood pressure and epileptic fits, his mother said. He is afraid that what happened on that first day of school can happen again, and he doesn’t want to relive the trauma each time the anniversary comes around.
“Every year, there are hysterics. He doesn’t want to go to the doctor. The psychologists try to convince him that it’s all over, that he’s making it up, that he’s perfectly healthy. But how can he forget, if he was running and the child who fell next to him had blood coming out of his mouth?” Khudalova says that the regional government has generally been doing a reasonable job of taking care of the survivors, but she is exasperated with the annual visits to the doctors and the psychologists, all of whom, she says, try to convince the children that they are fine.
There is still much controversy surrounding the whole Beslan tragedy, with no consensus about the numbers of people involved.
According to official figures, 331 hostages and rescuers died, including 186 children, but some people investigating the attack independently give 333 as the total death toll. There is also controversy over the number of hostage-takers: officially there were 32, but activists from the Beslan Mothers group, who have been fighting a Sisyphean battle to hold authorities to account over the last five years, are convinced that there were many more. The government officially blames separatist insurgents and Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev for the attack — and says all of them, except for Kulayev, are dead. But Khudalova, like most of the survivors, doesn’t believe that.
A man, about 50, walked into the gymnasium, put the palms of his hands on a portrait, and leaned on his hands on the wall where portraits of hostages killed in the attack were hanging. He stood like that for a few moments, then began to leave.
“That was my brother,” he said, on seeing a reporter taking notes. “His son comes to me and asks me, what was his dad fighting for?” He waved his hand, and walked on. “My wife described how the children were tormented, they told her, you are crazy.” He declined to answer any questions, but said angrily before leaving that no officials had been punished over the attack.
Inside what was once the gym — the newest part of the building and the only part that hasn’t been cordoned off — there are wreaths, flowers, water bottles and an army of stuffed animals. There is also, in place of a book of remembrance, graffiti left by visitors that covers most of the space that isn’t covered by photographs of victims. “The Turks remember you,” says one.
Another consists of one word, “Voskresnut” (they will be resurrected), and the word “Minsk” underneath. That graffiti is set be removed when the memorial is constructed. After years of debate about what to do with the building (including plans for a church) and calls to leave it untouched, officials settled on a memorial that would keep it as a museum.
The German contractor that will work on the memorial, KnaufKassel, now wants to preserve the area in a similar way to the Nazi concentration camps in Germany have been looked after. According to the latest plans, the gym will be climate-controlled, and visitors will enter via a bridge on an elevated walkway through where the windows were, so that the floor is left undisturbed.
There will be a “neutral” place of remembrance for people of various religious faiths, a museum and a grass lawn in place of the yard where the hostage-takers shot at the children as they tried to escape.
Still seeking answers
Five years after her small organisation was founded, Susanna Dudiyeva still blames the authorities for what happened. The Beslan Mothers Committee works out of a small ground-floor office a few blocks from the school. They are having trouble paying the rent, and they may be evicted soon. But they get help from unexpected places: Some officials from the regional FSB brought them an Internet modem; Dudiyeva, jokingly, told them to take the bugs out first. “The truth about Beslan has not been told,” said Dudiyeva, whose son Saur was held hostage and died in the attack. “All the questions that asked investigators and the federal government” have not been answered, she said. Then-President Vladimir Putin met with representatives of the group one year after the tragedy, in September 2005, but the meeting proved a disappointment, Dudiyeva said. “We told him who was to blame. He agreed with us, and said that he had been misinformed. He said he would take measures and punish those who had misinformed him.” But nothing happened, she said.
The Beslan case has now been merged into one giant investigation. It is still renewed on a regular basis, but doesn’t seem to yield any results. There were a number of court cases involving regional and district police officials from North Ossetia and Ingushetia, but all were acquitted — mostly under an amnesty for members of counter-terrorist operations.
“When we carried out our own investigation, the negligence of people occupying [senior] posts was evident,” Dudiyeva said, when asked why she blamed people in high places. “When people of high rank are not punished, their subordinates get the message that minor violations are allowed.”
The Beslan tragedy, it appears, was built on just such minor violations. “The police officers with sniffer dogs said that the doors to the school were closed,” said Viktor Yesiyev, whose 37-year-old son was among the men shot by the hostage-takers on the first day they took over the school. “They walked around the building, called their bosses, told them they couldn’t get in, and just left.”
His son had gone to the school to drop off his pre-school daughter with his wife, who had brought their older daughter. (Yesiyev’s granddaughters survived the attack and are feeling fine, he said.) The reason he had to leave his pre-school daughter with his wife before work was because the kindergartens were closed that day, due to a problem with the gas mains.
Dudiyeva said she was annoyed at the authorities’ double standards last month, when President Dmitry Medvedev fired Ingushetia’s interior minister in the wake of a suicide bomb attack in Nazran. “Are we living in a different country all of a sudden? It’s the same negligence — shouldn’t the other officials [in North Ossetia] be held responsible for the terrorist attacks they allowed to happen in the past?”
Dudiyeva said she plans to ask Medvedev to punish those responsible for allowing the attack to happen.
If he is serious about fighting legal nihilism, he should start with Beslan, she said. — RIA Novosti