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Hundreds Held Hostage in Russia School

Hundreds Held Hostage in Russia School

Old 10-12-04, 10:58 AM
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After school siege, Russians' grief turns to anger
Beslan still reels from tragedy that touched whole city

Ivan Sekretarev / AP
An unidentified woman touches a portrait of Zelim Chedzhemov, a 9-year-old boy killed in the Beslan, Russia, school massacre in early September. This week marks the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period since the hostage-taking in which 330 people, more than half of them children, died.

By Peter Baker

Updated: 12:44 a.m. ET Oct. 12, 2004

BESLAN, Russia - The people of Beslan buried two more children on Friday, a 7-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl. They still dig graves at the cemetery nearly every day. The weekend before there were yet another 23 funerals.

Three of those laid to rest that weekend were children of Taimuraz Totiyev and Raya Tsolmayova. They had already buried another child, as well as a niece. Yet another niece's body is still missing. Of the eight children who left the Totiev brothers' adjoining homes on Sept. 1, only two came back alive.

More than five weeks after hundreds perished in the seizure of School No. 1 by Chechen separatists, Beslan remains a town reeling from grief, shock, rage and disbelief, a town whose suffering seems only compounded by the day. Dozens of burned bodies remain unidentified. Many believe the government is covering up the real death toll. Millions of dollars in donations have not reached the victims. And as the traditional Orthodox Christian mourning period ends this week, there are renewed fears of violent reprisals fueled by ethnic animosity.

Ethnic discord growing

Many here in North Ossetia harbor a seething hatred for Ingush in the neighboring republic. The Ingush, who are predominantly Muslim, and the Ossetians, most of whom are Christians, have a history of ethnic rivalry that culminated in a brief but bloody territorial war in 1992.

When the 40-day mourning period ends Wednesday, some Ossetians may lash out at the Ingush. "We are very concerned that there be peace, no revenge," said Marina Tuayeva, 41, a volunteer helping school victims. Sergei Tsomartov, 27, another Beslan resident, added, "The older people are trying to convince the younger ones to have peace."

"People are all filled with anger because the tragedy touched practically everyone," said Totiyev, sitting at the table where his children used to celebrate birthdays. "People today are angry ... some with the government. The majority of the terrorists were Ingush so people are angry with Ingush and many want to take revenge. What is going to happen?"

Hundreds, even thousands, of people wander solemnly through the burned-out, pockmarked school building each day, leaving flowers and lighting candles. Many traumatized children refuse to go to other schools. Local television ends its evening newscast with names of missing people whose families are still seeking information about them.

Conspiracy theories abound

Prosecutors on Friday began criminal proceedings against three police officers in Ingushetia accused of criminal negligence connected to the case. Amid conflicting official accounts, conspiracy theories have multiplied. In the latest quest for scapegoats, many residents have turned on the school director, covering the school with graffiti painting her as complicit, although there is no evidence she was.

"Everybody's still shocked," said Elza Baskayeva, editor of the local newspaper, whose own daughter was among the hostages who survived. "It's so hard. I wake up in the morning with these thoughts in my mind that go back to those days. It doesn't let me go."

The town is eerily silent. "At nine in the morning," Baskayeva said, "you walk to work and there are no cars, no people. It's scary. In the morning, you don't hear the roosters anymore. Even the dogs have stopped barking."

For some, early stoicism has given way to inconsolable anguish. "At first the heart turned to stone and wouldn't let the pain in," said Murat Dzheliyev, 27, who lost family friends. "But as the days went by, it started to hurt even more. The pain really took over. It hurts whenever you look at children."

No one knows for sure why the guerrillas targeted School No. 1. As the fall term opened on Sept. 1, 32 gunmen raced into the courtyard, took at least 1,200 hostages and rigged the gymnasium with bombs. For 52 hours, they held Russian forces at bay, demanding an end to the war in the nearby separatist region of Chechnya.

Day of horror

At midday on Sept. 3, an explosion ripped through the gym, followed by another, sparking pandemonium. As children began leaping out the windows to escape, the guerrillas shot some of them in the back. By most accounts, Russian troops initially held back, hoping to prevent an all-out battle, but local men armed with their own guns had penetrated the perimeter and began firing back, setting off a daylong battle in which hundreds were killed.

Exactly how many died has become a point of controversy. Although the government sticks to an official death toll of 331, there are indications it may have been much higher.

A local committee set up by teachers to assist the victims has compiled a list of 1,220 hostages that it has posted on a Web site, www.beslan.ru. As of a week ago, according to the committee, 329 people had been identified and buried, while another 76 were still listed as missing, for a total of 405.

Fatima Ramonova, a math teacher who serves on the committee, estimated that the actual death toll would be "not less than 500." Yelena Kasumova, the deputy school director who heads the committee, said in a separate interview that "unfortunately it seems to me the figure will reach 500." Another source who has closely followed the issue and did not want to be named for fear of reprisal suggested it could be 600.

Government stays mum

Aleksandr Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia, declined an interview request and his spokesman refused to answer questions or make available any other official to comment.

The government has little credibility with residents after lying during the siege about the number of hostages held in the school, a deception it later admitted on state television. Officials also claimed at first that 10 Arabs and an African were among the hostage-takers, but never produced any bodies to prove it. The only bodies identified publicly have been Chechen, Ingush and Ossetian. Former hostages have said they saw no Arabs.

Many residents are convinced that Chechen or Ingush workers hid weapons inside the school during a summertime renovation. A newspaper account from August reported that a crew working on the school was led by a man whose name sounded Chechen or Ingush. But teachers and neighbors insist that that they painted and fixed up the building themselves and that no other workers were brought in.

The renovation theory has provoked recriminations against the school director, Lydia Tsaliyeva. Graffiti on the walls around her office, using the diminutive of her first name, says, "Lida Sellout. Couldn't you see when they brought the weapons?" And, "Your place is in hell, Lida. God will punish you."

Yet Tsaliyeva, her sister and three of their grandchildren were held hostage, and the director was injured so badly that she remains hospitalized, according to colleagues. "They can't find the real guilty ones and for some reason they blame it on her," said Kasumova, her deputy. Another deputy, Olga Sherbinina, said the man mentioned in the newspaper was actually the school custodian's Dagestani brother, who was helping with repairs last summer. But no one has explained this to a vengeful public.

Aide delayed, stolen

Little humanitarian assistance has found its way here. Donations in Russia are often stolen, and many fear the same will happen here.

Like other media outlets, Moscow's Silver Rain radio station set up its own fund rather than give to a charitable organization. "There are too many frauds and violations and money doesn't reach the kids," said Olga Popkova, the station's chief editor. "When people brought us money, they expected us to avoid the fraud where money ends up in the bank accounts of dishonest people." So far, she said, the station has delivered $300,000 of $1.2 million collected, mainly buying equipment for hospitals where hundreds of former hostages remain.

All the money in the world, however, could not replace the laughter in the homes of the Totiyev families. Deeply religious Baptists in a largely Orthodox town, they said they took solace in the hundreds of letters they had received from fellow believers around the world, most of which they could not even read. And they said they took solace from their faith in God. But their children are gone and their homes are silent.

Taimuraz Totiyev and Raya Tsolmayova had five children. Four died in the school. Totiyev's brother, Konstantin, had six children two were too old to go to school and one too young. Two of the three who went to school that day died. One of those two, Dzera, 14, has not been found.

"We never had a quiet home like now," said Tsolmayova, 44, as her sole surviving child, Madina, slipped upstairs without a word, a day before her 13th birthday. "We had 11 children together, so sometimes we'd have two birthdays in a month."

She and her husband talked about each of their lost children Larisa, 14, the oldest who loved writing secrets in her notebook; Lyuba, 11, who survived the blast only to die in the hospital; Albina, 10, the one they called "the aristocrat"; and Boris, 8, the doted-upon son who would steal the neighbor's flowers to give his mother. "Only the memories are left," said Totiyev, 42, a baker.

The passage of time has not helped. Many nights, Tsolmayova said she dreamed she was in the school as the terrorists were killing children.

The bodies of Larisa, Albina and Boris were identified by DNA only a week ago and buried a week ago Sunday.

"It's just getting harder," said Totiyev. "A man has a big family, has all these plans. Then in one moment, everything disappears the family, the plans, everything in one moment collapses. It's so hard."

An update to remind everyone that their pain and suffering continues on to this day!

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Old 10-12-04, 12:01 PM
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Would be nice if Bush sent $5 million their way.
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Old 10-12-04, 12:11 PM
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Perhaps just after he drops of the daisy cutter for the Ingush.
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