Beslan Controversy Won't Go Away

As relatives of victims commemorate another anniversary, the rancorous debate over who was to blame continues to simmer.

Beslan Controversy Won't Go Away

As relatives of victims commemorate another anniversary, the rancorous debate over who was to blame continues to simmer.

Saturday, 16 September, 2006
People stream into School No.1 in Beslan to mourn those who perished in the tragedy that shocked the world two years ago. They light candles and leave flowers and bottles of water – which the militants had denied their captives during the terrible siege.

The walls of the school gym, where the hostages were held and eventually killed, are festooned with photographs of the victims – children, teachers and members of the security forces who died vainly trying to save them. In all, 332 civilians, including 186 children, lost their life in the 2004 atrocity.

Standing beside the photo of her 13-year-old son Zaur, Susanna Dudieva, the head of the NGO Mothers of Beslan, accepts condolences from a stream of people who’ve come to pay their respects to those who died. Other mothers of victims, like Susana dressed in black, stand beside photos of their loved ones. The scene was played out from September 1-3, the anniversary of the 3-day siege.

At 13:05 on September 3, two years on from the moment the first explosion shook the school building, 332 white balloons - one for each of the lives lost - were released from the schoolyard. A minute of silence fell upon North Ossetia.

Two years after the bloody siege, the incident and the course of the investigation into it - which is still ongoing - continue to be the subject of controversy.

“For two years, we’ve been lied to…and we’ve stopped believing anyone, be it [Russian president Vladimir] Putin or our prosecutor,” said Rita Sidakova, who lost her nine-year-old daughter in the siege.

Shortly before this year’s anniversary, a new version of what happened at the school emerged. Yuri Saveliev, a member of the Russian parliament’s commission for investigation into the siege, published a 700-page report which draws on the testimonies of former hostages and witnesses and provides forensic technical assessments.

Saveliev’s conclusions are at variance with the official version of events, which alleges the hostage-takers detonated explosives in the gym or set them off accidentally prior to the storming of the building by the security forces. Saveliev contends that the first two explosions were caused by blasts from an incendiary weapon and a grenade launched from the roof of a neighbouring house. This triggered a fire and a burst of shots that resulted in the deaths of the between 106-110 hostages - and the order to extinguish the blaze came only two hours after it had broken out, said the report.

As commemorative events were taking place in Beslan on September 2, copies of Saveliev’s report were impounded at the town’s airport, according to the editor-in-chief of the website Pravda Beslana, Marina Litvinovich. She told IWPR that around 300 copies had been seized by the police and returned only after protests from bereaved Beslan residents. The books were to be distributed free of charge among relatives of those killed in the attack. In Beslan itself, Saveliev’s report was positively received.

“People in Beslan have known the truth for a long time…the report is of value to those living in the rest of Russia - let them know too what really happened here,” said Beslan resident Vissarion Aseyev.

Saveliev’s report carries conclusions that tally with those of the North Ossetian parliament’s investigative commission, headed by Stanislav Kesayev.

“Two men coming independently to the same conclusions can’t be a coincidence,” said Elbrus Tedtov, who lost his 11-year-old son in the tragedy, told IWPR. “Saveliev is an expert and can be trusted.”

“This is a colossal labour,” said Ella Kesayeva, chairman of the committee Voice of Beslan. “Over the last two years, no one in the federal parliamentary commission has done a job so serious as that by Saveliev. The report has so much technical information that it should become a handbook for us. We’ve known the main conclusions for a long a time. It’s no news for us that the military were the first to open fire at the school, but now we have it proved scientifically.”

Meanwhile, the Voice of Beslan committee has appealed against the conviction of Nurpashi Kulayev - reputed to be sole surviving hostage-taker - on terrorism and murder charges in May. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The committee does not dispute the verdict itself, but insists that the court failed to properly study hostage and witness testimony regarding the cause of the first two blasts and the conduct of the security forces. Voice of Beslan say evidence presented at Kulayev’s trial was sufficient to bring a criminal case against senior Russian security officials.

“We won’t back down on taking legal action against the state, “ said Kesayeva. “We have complaints against Putin too, who has joined in the lying. We are not going to take pity on anyone. We’ll be asking him if he really wasn’t able to prevent the Beslan carnage. And why he’s trying to convince everyone that acts of terrorism are unavoidable?”

The committee’s appeal is now being considered by the Supreme Court of Russia. And in the event that it is turned down, they intend to take their case to an international court, said Kesayeva.

Back in Beslan itself, a decision has yet to be made about what to do with the ruins of School No.1, in particular the gym. Many of those who lost loved ones can’t bear the idea of the latter being demolished. “When I come here, I feel somewhat calmer,” said Anneta Gadieva, mother of a four-year-old girl killed in the siege.

There are plans to build an Orthodox chapel on the site of the gym - but not everyone is happy with the proposal.

“I’m not against a chapel,” said Dudieva. “But let it be built in the school yard… anywhere, but not on the site of the gym, where my son died. This ought not to be forgotten.”

“We think that the school should be preserved, until the investigation is completed and all the guilty ones are named,” said Kesayeva. “The authorities do not want the gym to remind them about the crime they committed. This is why they want to build a chapel, which must not be allowed to happen. The gym is the biggest evidence against the security forces.”

But psychologist Oleg Kisiev, who works in Beslan, felt the continued presence of the ruined building only served to prolong the suffering of bereaved relatives.

“Everyone who lost a dear person in the school experiences the trauma anew each time he comes to the school. This deepens the sufferings and hampers their recovery.”

Alan Tskhurbayev is a freelance journalist.
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