Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
As the first anniversary of the Beslan tragedy approaches, the people of the town say they have lost confidence in the official investigation into the mass killing in School No. 1 in September last year.
Over a thousand hostages spent more than two days inside the besieged school, most of them packed in horrific conditions inside the gym. More than 330 people died, over half of them children, as the siege unravelled in bloodshed.
Since then five investigations - including the main federal enquiry by the prosecutor-general - have been initiated into the bloody events, but no results have been published to date.
But the version of events put publicly by a number of Russian officials leading the federal probe has differed sharply from what many locals believe, and is causing open tension between the North Ossetian authorities and Moscow.
Taimuraz Mamsurov, himself from Beslan and the new head of North Ossetia since May, has expressed frustration with the main enquiry. “I am not satisfied with the course of the investigation,” he said. “I want to be told who is guilty of what. I also want to know what I should do and if I can punish anyone for this.”
In addition to the Russian prosecutor-general’s criminal investigation into Beslan, there are two parliamentary enquiries, one by the federal parliament in Moscow and one by the North Ossetian parliament, and the people of Beslan have leading their own probe.
At the same time, there is an ongoing trial in the Supreme Court of North Ossetia of the one surviving hostage-taker, 21-year-old Chechen Nurpashi Kulayev.
The trial of Kulayev, now three months old, has unexpectedly thrown up the biggest challenge to the main investigation, as the accounts of former hostages and the frank testimony of Kulayev himself have provided much fresh new information on the siege.
An investigator with the prosecutor-general’s office in the North Caucasus, who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity, said that the Kulayev trial was putting a big strain on the official version of events.
“But the testimonies which are being heard in court won’t be reflected in the materials of the ‘main case’ [the prosecutor-general’s investigation], because they are materials from a separate case,” said the official.
In a series of public pronouncements over the past 11 months, officials close to the federal enquiry have been advancing one version of what happened.
This is that on September 1, 32 gunmen left the territory of Ingushetia, travelled without being stopped in a single GAZ-66 truck carrying all their weapons and explosives with them and seized School No. 1 and hundreds of pupils, parents and teachers.
On the third day of the siege, this version contends, an explosion happened inside the school because of a short circuit, two more explosions followed in which most of the hostages died and then an unplanned storming operation to free the hostages ended the whole drama. At the end of the third day, all but one of the hostage-takers had been killed.
The then head of the FSB intelligence service in North Ossetia Valery Andreyev called the operation “successful”.
Russia’s prosecutor-general, Vladimir Kolesnikov, told a meeting of Beslan residents that his investigation would rely only on proven facts and dismissed their attempts to put different versions to him.
Beslan people are challenging almost all aspects of the official version of the siege, starting with the true number of attackers. Many former hostages say that there were no fewer than 50 militants in the school and that they believe the weapons were brought in earlier. A former special forces soldier from the Alfa brigade told a wake shortly after the end of the siege, “When we went into the school there was a fighter at every door and window…. there were around 70 of them.”
Most official statements on the siege have blamed “international terrorism” or “Chechen separatism”. However, many Beslan residents believe that there were many more militants of Ingush nationality in the school than has been confirmed. So far, only 22 of the hostage-takers have been named.
If this turns out to be true, it could be politically explosive, as Ingushetia and North Ossetia fought a conflict over the disputed Prigorodny Region in 1992 that resulted in several hundred deaths and inter-ethnic relations are still tense.
“The identification of the terrorists has been deliberately held up because the group had many different nationalities in it,” asserted Mairbek Tuayev, who heads the Beslan public commission, the local residents’ enquiry.
At his trial, Kulayev, an ethnic Chechen, said the hostage-takers consisted of two groups, one from Chechnya and one from Ingushetia. Kulayev, who was recruited in Ingushetia, said he knew only four other Chechens beside himself and his brother in the group of militants.
Former hostages are also contradicting the official version of events that none of the hostage-takers escaped.
Kazbek Misikov said that a very tall militant had disappeared on September 2. “I am 1.90 metres tall and he was taller than me,” said Misikov. “He was not among the dead fighters.” Others talk of a small man with a scar who disappeared from the school.
Kulayev also told his trial that he believed three of his comrades had survived.
Another former hostage, Larisa Tamayeva, said she had seen three men with black sacks over their head being taken away alive at the end of the siege by special forces.
Several people believe that the Ossetian hostage-taker Vladimir Khodov survived the siege. IWPR has spoken to a guard of former Ossetian president Alexander Dzasokhov and a member of the parliamentary enquiry, both of whom said that Khodov was taken alive.
“There were three men in the FSB basement,” said the source in the parliamentary commission. “They were Kulayev, Khodov and a Beslan resident who was detained by mistake.” He said he believed Khodov had died in custody.
There are still important unanswered questions about how the siege ended and whether many of the hostages may actually have died at the hands of those storming the school, rather than the extremists.
Several former hostages said they thought that the fighter whose foot was on the explosives detonator was hit by a shot that came from outside and that he fell over and triggered the explosion. One ex-hostage told the Kulayev trial that a minute before the explosion she was wounded in the arm by a shot from outside the hall where the hostages were.
Kulayev said at his trial that as soon as the first explosion went off, the leader of the militant group known as Polkovnik (or Colonel), identified by investigators as Ruslan Khuchbarov, rushed into the hall and shouted out, “Snipers have taken out our man.”
An investigator in the prosecutor-general’s office in the North Caucuses said that no ballistic investigation had been carried out into the weaponry in the school and they were not allowed to take possession of the special forces’ weapons for the enquiry, even though this was allowed by law.
“No weapons of either the special forces or the [local North Ossetian] volunteer militias who took part in the storm operation were confiscated, there was no expert study of the bullets taken from the bodies of the dead. [So] it is impossible to prove whether the hostages died at the hands of volunteer militiamen, the military or the terrorists,” said the investigator.
The Russian parliamentary commission, consisting of members of both houses of parliament, uncovered one controversial fact which the prosecutor-general’s office later confirmed. This was that the fact that Shmel flamethrowers were used in the storming of the school.
Nikolai Shepel, Russia’s deputy prosecutor-general, has conceded that they were employed but asserted that technical tests had proved they could not have set the building on fire.
Elbrus Tedtov, a Beslan parent who lost his son in the school and has been taking a leading role in investigating this aspect of the tragedy, said that Shepel had not backed up his assertion that the flamethrowers could not set fire to the roof and that the fact that the school and bodies were burnt to cinders suggested the opposite.
Tedtov has also questioned the official version of the quantity of weapons in the school. “According to Shepel there were 20 automatic weapons, five Kalashnikov machine guns, two anti-tank grenade-launchers and some other things that could fit in a GAZ-66.
“But we have the testimony of former hostages that they brought huge rolls of barbed wire and explosives in boxes and gas masks into the sports hall. That either proves that there were already weapons in the school or that the fighters came in more than one vehicle and that there were more than 32.”
The growing split between the version of the tragedy in Moscow and that in North Ossetia will soon become more public.
The North Ossetian parliamentary commission, led by Stanislav Kesayev, has been talking far more closely to the Beslan residents. In September, Kesayev’s commission will deliver its first report to the local parliament. However, he stresses it will contain questions rather than answers.
Shepel has dismissed Kesayev’s commission, saying it was “created illegally” and calling its activities “shameless and not those of good citizens”.
As the first anniversary of the Beslan tragedy approaches, tensions are high and there is anxiety about new attacks in North Ossetia. Anger is also growing as relatives still yearn to know the true story of how their loved ones died.
“If they don’t tell us the truth in the end, if they don’t agree to accept obvious facts and take account of the testimony of witnesses, we will demand an international investigation,” said Beslan mother Susanna Dudieva.
Madina Sageyeva is a reporter for ITAR-TASS news agency in North Ossetia.
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