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    Thursday, August 2, 2007

    Beslan questions linger

    As we approach the third anniversary of the massacre at Beslan's School No. 1, the same questions about why and how 365 people - nearly half of them children - died that fateful week back in September 2004.

    A new video (see it here, the link's on the left-hand side) published by the Beslan Mothers' Committee appears to show that the bloody climax was sparked not by an explosion inside the school, as the Kremlin has always claimed, but by shooting that originated outside the school.

    While the video isn't conclusive, there is audio of voices - identified by Russia's Kommersant newspaper as army engineers -examining the evidence and discussing what happened inside the gymnasium where most of the hostages were held until the final minutes. "Inside the building, there was no explosion," one of the men says.

    In the face of utter obfuscation from the Kremlin, you can see why the mothers of the dead children remain furious three years on.

    Covering the Beslan school siege was one of the toughest gigs, psychologically and otherwise, I ever did as a reporter. It's also one that landed me in deep trouble with the Kremlin for my coverage.

    That said, I think this one article in particular I did for The Globe and Mail stands the test of time. It was published a week after the siege ended:

    By Friday, the captors' mood had changed for the worse. 'We'll make a bloody mess of you.'

    BESLAN, RUSSIA -- Zinaida Urutskoyeva was awake for most of the second night she spent in the gymnasium at Middle School No. 1. It was hard to sleep on the cold floor, packed shoulder to shoulder with other hostages. But she remembers her short dream well.

    "I dreamed of having some water before I died," the Grade 3 teacher recalled. It was Friday, Sept. 3, and like most other hostages at Middle School No. 1, she had had nothing to eat or drink since Wednesday, the first day of the deadly siege.

    Dozens of people had already been killed -- most of them men who, survivors say, were the most physically fit and may have been considered a threat by the militants who seized the school. The remaining hostages had been reduced to drinking their own urine.

    But even after more than 40 hours of terror, the hostages now say, they could feel something different in the air on Friday morning. Their captors' collective mood had changed for the worse. They had become more hostile to the schoolchildren, teachers and parents they held at their mercy. For some reason, they seemed to know the police were going to make a move.

    "There will be a storm today. We'll make a bloody mess of you," one of the hostage-takers told those around him in the gym.

    The true story of the Beslan hostage-taking is chilling, gory and heart-rending. Survivors and witnesses tell stories of incredible suffering, inhuman cruelty and acts of individual bravery during the three days of hell that shocked the world and traumatized this tightly knit community.

    On several important points, their stories contrast sharply with the Kremlin's version of events.

    There is no confirmation of Arab involvement, despite the story the Russian government tells -- a tale backed by what is probably pressured testimony from the sole surviving hostage-taker. Nor is there information on the role played by "international terrorists," or about a motive other than forcing Russia to pull its troops out of Chechnya.

    Witnesses across a wide spectrum agree that the gunmen spoke Russian, even among themselves, and that most were either Chechens or ethnic Ingush from Ingushetia, a region not far from Beslan. Others may have been Slavic mercenaries.

    Even at this late date, the numbers of dead and missing don't add up. One ex-hostage died in hospital yesterday, bringing the official death toll to 360, including 30 hostage-takers. But journalists who were in the morgue in the chaotic first hours after the siege ended say they saw more than 400 bodies.

    The local Red Cross says about 200 families are still looking for their kin, but authorities say only 90 bodies are still to be identified.

    Not included in the count are 38 body fragments, which may increase the death toll.

    Survivors also cast doubt on the Kremlin's assertion that officials were actively seeking a negotiated end to the crisis. They say the hostage-takers frequently expressed frustration at not being able to get authorities to talk to them, and told the hostages they expected the police to storm the school at any minute.

    And they say their captors appeared to believe authorities were deliberately misleading the public about the number of hostages, in order to be able to lie about the number of dead if the drama ended badly. Officials said during the siege that there were 354 captives, but there were more than 1,200.

    The gunmen were annoyed at seeing the lower figure reported, recalled Margarita Komoyeva, a teacher who was huddled in the gym with her three daughters. "They told us that if the authorities are saying there's just this number of people inside, they will be storming -- get ready for the storm," she said.

    Even before sunrise on Friday morning, tension had begun to build. The previous day, the militants had released some of the youngest children and their mothers after a visit by the former president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev. But shortly after 1 a.m. they fired a rocket-propelled grenade at government forces surrounding the school, injuring one police officer.

    Petrified hostages watched after daybreak as the gunmen began rearranging the explosives they had set up on the first day, placing more of them near the gym windows in apparent anticipation of an attack. They forced small boys to stand in the windows as human shields.

    Children who only a day before had been chanting for water sat in silence, sensing the new, more dangerous mood. Survivors recalled trying to inch closer to the exits, hoping to save themselves and their families from whatever came next.

    The siege leader was a man referred to by his followers as Colonel.

    Zara Medzeva, a 65-year-old grandmother, said she heard him speaking Russian as he used his mobile phone to call someone outside the building, apparently an official negotiator.

    The Colonel said: "We've done our part. We've done what was asked of us. What should we do now?" Ms. Medzeva recalled. He apparently didn't like the answer he received, because he slammed his phone down and shouted: "How long should we wait?"

    It was barely minutes after 1 p.m. when the bloodbath began. Exactly how it was triggered remains unclear.

    What is known is that negotiations suspended early in the morning were back on track. At 12:45 p.m. the hostage-takers agreed to let rescuers from the Ministry of Emergency Situations retrieve about 20 corpses that had been rotting in the sun since being thrown from a second-floor window early in the siege.

    As they approached the school, an explosion rocked the gym. Many hostages believe a mine suspended from a wire between two basketball hoops, attached only by tape, came unglued and fell into the crowd below. But no one seems to have seen this happen, and the story appears to be based on the fact that many of the hostages had stared at the hanging explosives for three days, worried they weren't firmly attached.

    In other accounts, a mine was set off when someone accidentally touched a foot pedal rigged as a detonator. In another version, floated by the Kremlin, the hostage-takers quarrelled just before the explosion, with one group wanting to escape while others planned to fight to the death.

    Whatever the cause, the explosion occurred on the west side of the gym. "When the first bomb exploded, it felt as though everything inside me were on fire," said Alik Sagolov, a 54-year-old physical-education teacher who was sitting perhaps 20 metres away. "I put my hand to my chest -- I thought my chest was injured. Then came the second explosion." A week afterward he popped heart medication as he walked through the ruins of the school. "I just said to myself 'God save me,' and covered my head."

    Soslan Beteyev, 12, was stationed by a window as a human shield when the shock wave hit him. "I was just about to step down from the window and there was an explosion, and I fell on some children," he said. "I tried to get up again and there was another explosion. There was panic and everybody tried to get out." He spoke so fast he was almost incomprehensible, his words spilling into each other without pauses, as if he had gone over it a million times in his head.

    Soslan climbed out a window and dashed across the courtyard to a store on the edge of the school property. He escaped, along with Ms. Komoyeva's two older daughters, who had been forced to stay behind when their mother was allowed to leave on Thursday with her youngest child.

    "They were shooting at our backs," Soslan said robotically. His arms and back were covered in tiny shrapnel wounds, but it was his mind that seemed to have suffered the most damage.

    Asked why he returned to the school, he broke into tears. "I don't know," he said. "I thought maybe I could help find some of the missing."

    The chaos spread outside the gym after the initial explosion. The hostage-takers, apparently believing it was the beginning of a police effort to storm the building, began firing on the emergency workers and then on hostages trying to escape.

    Security forces outside had ruled out using force to free the hostages, and had no set plan for seizing the building. But with the shooting, they decided they had no choice but to move in.

    "When they started killing civilians, there were no other options," said Vitaly, an Interior Ministry officer who was crouching behind a tree about 50 metres from the gym door when the order came. The operation, he said, was made up as it went along. "It was a total mess."

    After the second explosion, the remaining militants moved around the smoke-filled gymnasium looking for survivors. They rounded up everyone moving and took them down the hall to the school cafeteria, planning to make a final stand.

    Mr. Sagolov was one of several hostages who fled upstairs in the confusion and hid behind a curtain on the stage of the assembly hall. They were discovered and also taken to the cafeteria.

    "The terrorists were shouting 'hurry up -- walk quickly or we will kill you,' " said Ruslan Margiyev, a short-haired 12-year-year-old, who by this point was bleeding from a shrapnel wound to his hand. "But we were afraid to step on the corpses."

    Bullets were pouring into the cafeteria from outside, he said. He took cover behind an oven, but the hostage-takers ordered the children toward the window. "They said, 'if you do not wave a cloth in the window, we will kill all of you.' "

    One woman got up on her knees and was hit in the chest by two bullets fired from outside. Eight-year-old Zaur Bitsiyev, whom Ruslan recognized, was killed at the same time -- shot in the back by someone in the cafeteria.

    A Russian spetznaz, or special-forces officer, stepped through the window and told Ruslan to run. The officer was shot and killed by a Chechen who had been hiding in the kitchen, his body falling on top of the boy. Ruslan said he hid under the body until the shooting ended, protected by the soldier's bulletproof vest.

    Vitaly, the Interior Ministry officer, was among the first of the troops to reach the blackened shell of the gym. "I saw a sea of blood and corpses -- adults and children -- all over the gymnasium," he said, his husky voice dropping low. "Everything was burned. It was impossible to recognize anything."

    Mr. Aushev, the former Ingushetia president, said that even after the initial explosion, negotiations might still have worked if it hadn't been for well-armed local citizens -- many of them with family inside the building -- who decided to take matters into their own hands.

    Shortly after the first bomb went off, he spoke by telephone with the hostage-takers. He later told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper they were convinced the explosion was the beginning of a police operation to storm the building, but were willing to stop shooting if the Russian forces outside did the same.

    "They said, 'We have stopped shooting, you are shooting,' " he said. "We gave the command to stop the shooting. But a stupid 'third force' intervened . . . . Some militia with assault rifles decided to free the hostages themselves, and they opened fire at that school."

    Kazbek Torchinov, a former deputy in the local parliament, said that version of events fits with what he saw from the window of his home opposite the school. "Armed civilians opened fire first. I called the operations centre and said 'What the hell are you doing?' "

    None of the survivors saw Arabs for sure during the siege. Twelve-year-old Soslan said one man "might have been an Arab," but the rest were Chechens and Ingush and possibly some Russians and Ossetians.

    "They had Chechen and Ingush accents," Ms. Komoyeva recalled. "By appearance they were Chechens, but when Aushev came, we realized some were Ingush."

    Beyond ending the war between Russian troops and separatist forces in Chechnya, the only demand the hostage-takers made was for the release of 24 Chechen and Ingush fighters detained after a raid on Nazran, capital of Ingushetia, in June.

    The Kremlin's claim that 10 of the hostages were Arabs was repeated by President Vladimir Putin. But Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov contradicted his bosses, saying no Arabs were among the corpses identified. Those whose names are known are Chechens and Ingush, apparently members of a unit led by notorious warlord Shamil Basayev -- a thorn in Russia's side for 10 years.

    Many in the region known as North Ossetia, where Beslan is located, are talking about taking revenge against the neighbouring Ingush as soon as the 40-day Orthodox Christian period of mourning is over. The Caucasus is often compared to the Balkans, Ossetians and Ingush are historical rivals, and fear is high that the Chechen war is about to be regionalized.

    But although Ms. Medzeva, the grandmother, would like to see the guilty punished, she is even more anxious to avoid a further wave of killing.

    "I wish I was dead and the small people were alive," she said through tears in the burnt-out gym, as a crowd of people listened, silent with sorrow. "But enough war. Enough bloodshed.

    "I will even come to peace with the man who held a gun to my head if it means this will not happen again."

    (The Globe and Mail; Saturday, Sept. 11, 2004)

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