The Memory of Beslan
September 1, 2017
On the anniversary of the tragedy, Takie Dela remembers the principal witnesses to the events in School No. 1.
On September 1, 2004, terrorists seized School No. 1 in Beslan. The gunmen herded over a thousand hostages, including small children, into the school’s gym. For three days, the hostages were forcibly held in the building without food and water. The security services assaulted the school to free the hostages.
A total of 334 people were killed in the terrorist attack, including 186 children. 126 of the former hostages were crippled. During the assault, the FSB killed 28 terrorists. The only terrorist taken alive, Nurpashi Kalayev, was arrested. A court later sentenced him to life in prison.
Many articles, investigative reports, and special projects have been written about the Beslan tragedy, and several documentary films and books have been released. Takie Dela recalls the primary witnesses to the events in School No. 1.
Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Milashina was in Beslan during the terrorist attack. The first article she filed about the tragedy, “Lies Provoked Terrorists’ Aggression,” was published in the newspaper’s September 6, 2004, issue.
“According to the police officers and special forces soldiers with whom we have spoken, the preparations for the assault were vigorous. That the authorities were learning toward this option is borne out by one other fact. They did not, in fact, negotiate with the gunmen. No one intended to meet even their formal demands. They explained to us, ‘It’s not clear what they want.'”
In 2014, on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, Milashina recalled how events had unfolded before and after the terrorist attack .
“The Beslan terrorist attack will go down in Russian history as an instance when the populace was disinformed on an unprecendented level. Up until the assault of the school, officials concealed the scale of the tragedy (the number of hostages). They also concealed negotiations with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was ready to ask the gunmen to put down their weapons. Akhmed Zakayev, Maskhadov’s emissary, was ready to fly straight to Beslan and take part in negotiations with the terrorists.”
In 2006, Novaya Gazeta published a special issue on the outcome of its investigation, featuring forensic evidence, annotated maps, official reports, and eyewitness testimony. The newspaper came to several conclusions. Reliable information about the upcoming terrorist attack was known to the authorities at least three hours before the school was seized, and Alexander Dzasokhov, president of North Ossetia, offered to replace the children with 800 officials and local MPs, but Moscow forbade him under pain of arrest from entering into negotiations. The biggest public outcry was caused by the newspaper’s claims that the school was fired upon by grenade launchers, flamethrowers, tanks, and helicopters on several occasions when the hostages were still in the building. According to the newspaper, the official inquiry, while it was in full possession of these facts, found no wrongdgoing in the actions of those in charge of the operation to free the hostages.
Twelve years later, Novaya Gazeta special correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko wrote down the dreams of surviving hostages.
“Vladimir’s dream: “I want to pick a plum. “Now,” I say, “I want a ladder to the plum and to pick the plum.” A young girl below me says, “I’m not your little girl.” I say, “And where is my little girl?” She says, “She is not here. I am another girl here.” After all, she was lying with my wife in the grave. “I’m not your daughter,” she says, “Don’t pick me plums.” I say, “Where is my little girl?” She says, “I don’t know. Look for her.”‘”
Kommersant reporter Olga Allenova was returning from Grozny, when her editors called her and told her about the terrorist attack in Beslan. She went to North Ossetia to write a story.
“‘Don’t let the hostages’ relatives on the air. Don’t cite any number of hostages except the official figure. Don’t use the word “storm.” The terrorists should not be called gunmen, only criminals, because terrorists are people you negotiate with.’ This was what several national TV channel reporters, located in Beslan, heard immediately from the top brass. We were all side by side, and I saw how hard it was for those guys to carry out the orders of the top brass. And I saw one of them crying in the evening after the school had been stormed.”
On October 17, 2004, the newspaper published an article entitled “How Did We Help Them?” The story dealt with the fortieth day after the terrorist attack. [In Orthodox culture, the fortieth day after a person’s death is usually remembered and marked by a ritual.]
“In Moscow, we say that forty days have passed since the school in Beslan was seized. Here those days did not exist. In their place is a black hole, like the hole made by a grenade in the floor of the assembly hall. And every day is a day of mourning.
“The entire city of Beslan is dressed in black. There are houses here in which not a single child is left, and entryways through which three caskets a day are carried out.”
In 2011, an infographic was posted on the newspaper’s website: it features a map of the school on which the main locations where the events took place are illustrated by short excerpts from archival video footage.
In 2006, the Russian edition of Esquire published an article [in Russian] by New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, in which he retraced the events in Beslan School No. 1 hour by hour: from the beginning of the ceremonial, first-day-of-school lineup at nine in the morning of September 1 to the medical care administered to the victims in the Vladikavkaz Hospital on September 4. Chivers had written the article [in English] o understand who the hostages had felt the whole time.
“Like many people who have been to Beslan, I subsequently thought a lot about what had happened. Like the people of Beslan, I was infuriated by the endless contradictory statements, the lack of information about many important episodes in the hostage crisis and the actions of the Russian authorities.”
Ten years after the tragedy, Tom Balmforth and Diana Markosian published a story on the Radio Svoboda website about the lives of the surviving schoolchildren. The former hostages talked about their memories, features, and thoughts of the future.
“The children behaved heroically. We all grew up immediately. We really supported each other. In fact, we came together like a family there. Even many of the adults did not behave with as much dignity as the children. Apparently, the adults understand everything in terms of their being grown-up and wise, while we children saw it all through rose-tinted glasses, maybe. I know for a fact that, after those three days, we became completely different people,” recalls Zarina Tsirikhova. She was fourteen when the terrorist attack occurred.
Takie Dela published Diana Khachatrian’s story about how, in September 2016, the memorial events in Beslan ended in arrests. During the ceremonial school lineup at School No. 1, five women staged a protest. They removed their jackets, under which they were wearing t-shirts that bore accusations against the regime.
“The female activists of Voice of Beslan stand apart in the gym. The five women are wearing handmade t-shirts on which the inscription “Putin is the executioner of Beslan” has been written in marker pen. This is not a hysterical slogan. Based on their own impressions and evidence from the investigations, the women argue that on September 3, 2004, Vladimir Putin or a member of his entourage gave the orders to storm the school in order to expedite events and prevent negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov. They argue the hostages could have been saved.”
Photographer Oksana Yushko has for many years produced unique photograph projects on the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy. Yushko takes pictures of the children who were taken hostage in September 2004 at different stages in their school careers, both in everyday life and during graduation from school.
In 2005, some of the relatives of those who were killed during the terrorist attack established the grassroots organization Mothers of Beslan. That same year, due to friction within the group, a number of committee members left the group and founded another organization, Voice of Beslan.
Rodion Chepel’s The Committee, released on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, focuses on Beslan’s female activists.
Chepel discussed how the film was made in an interview with Rusbase.
“We have never met such people. They are such uncompromisingly honest people, it was if they would be shot for lying. From a distance it seems that Beslan is god knows what, part of Moscow’s war with terrorism. But when you go there, you understand it is just human grief that has made them so tough and very honest. It’s not a matter of politics. They’re in touch with their humanity. You talk to them and you realize you simply have not met such people. This was what we wanted to show in the film: what these ten years have done with these people is incredible. They just want someone to explain to them what happened, for someone to say, “Forgive me. It was my fault.” Instead, they have been threatened and slandered. People have tried to sick them on each other, drive a wedge through them, and present them as insane.”
Filmmaker Vadim Tsalikov has shot four documentary films about the terrorist attack in Beslan. One of them is Beslan: Memory.
Foreign filmmakers have also shot films about the tragedy in North Ossetia. For example, Joe Halderman shot the film Beslan: Three Days in September for Showtime. The picture was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006.
In 2012, one of the hostages, 14-year-old Agunda Vatayeva, decided to publish her memoir of the terrorist attack. The young woman launched a diary on LiveJournal and wrote three posts in which told from beginning to end the story of the three days she spent in captivity.
“If you deliberately searched for my diary, you probably want to read my memoir of the terrorist attack in Beslan: Day One, Day Two, and Day Three. It is unlikely that you will find my LiveJournal exciting or at least positive reading. It was started once upon a time for quite different purposes. It was a kind of psychotherapy for me.”
In April 2017, the European Court of Human Rights award three million euros to the relatives of the victims. There were over 400 plaintiffs in the case. The court ruled that the Russian authorities had not taken sufficient measures to prevent the terrorist attack and had violated Article 2 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: the right to life. In addition, Russia had not prevented a threat to people’s lives and had not planned the assault on the school properly. The European Court of Human Rights likewise deemed that the Russian authorities had not properly investigated all circumstances of the terrorist attack and the causes of the hostages’ deaths.
The Kremlin reacted to the ECtHR’s ruling by saying that “an emotional assessment is hardly appropriate.”
“Of course, we cannot agree with this formulation. In a country that has been repeatedly attacked by terrorists, and the list of such countries has been growing, unfortunately, these formulations and purely hypothetic arguments are hardly acceptable. An emotional assessment is hardly appropriate.
“All the necessary legal actions related to this decision will be taken,” said Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman.
Translated by the Russian Reader