Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Life After Beslan

IWPR’s North Caucasus editor reflects on the tragic events in North Ossetia.
By Valery Dzutsev

Photos: After the Tragedy
Everything has changed in North Ossetia since the Beslan siege, and it is impossible to go back to where we were before September 1. It feels as if the image that we once had of the mighty Russian state shielding us from danger has gone - stripped away by the nightmare in Beslan’s school No. 1. Life – and death too – now appear governed by a new and outlandish set of rules.

Indeed, the first thing that surprised me when we arrived in Beslan on September 1 was the lack of any build-up of security forces in the town. At first sight, life outside the immediate area of the school seemed quite unaffected by the seizure of the children. The school itself was so closely surrounded by civilians that if the armed men inside the school had suddenly broken out at that point, there would have been plenty of casualties.


I had a sense of the surreal for virtually the whole time I spent standing outside the school, and I am not sure it has left me yet. It often felt as if the whole thing was a performance, and the director would shortly call out, “Well done everyone! You all acted brilliantly, you can go home now!”


But there was a man lying dead in front of the school and there was live gunfire, so sometimes it suddenly seemed all too real.


Some of the parents could not believe that anything bad could happen to their children. Many of them talked about the Chechen war and about pro-independence rebel president Aslan Maskhadov, who they hoped would be able to free their kids. They cursed all political leaders, from North Ossetian and Ingush presidents Alexander Dzasokhov and Murat Zyazikov to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.


But officials gave the impression they didn’t care, even though people were desperate for the smallest drop of information.


Anger was the most widespread feeling. I spotted it in myself, too. When a fat Ossetian policeman casually told one of the parents in the crowd asking for information, “Look, you’re not the only one who has relatives in there,” I was amazed he didn’t get a slap in the face - I wanted to give him one myself.


But I restrained myself with the thought, “I can’t - I’m a journalist, I wouldn’t be doing my job and it wouldn’t really help anyone.” On another occasion, when an official protested that an argument he had with a parent was filmed on camera, I intervened and told him had no right to complain.


I mostly felt comfortable in my role as a journalist, but I often wanted to able to do more. A relative of mine had two sons inside the school, and I never told him I was a reporter, somehow thinking it would undermine my expressions of sympathy. Yet I was hardly able to hold back my tears all the time I was there.


I now recall with shame how rarely I prayed to God to come to the rescue of the hostages, and of all of us.


As for my relative’s two sons, they found them one of them alive, but badly injured. The other was unaccounted for until a full week after the September 3 disaster, when he – or what was left of him – was recovered from the morgue and buried.


On September 3, the waiting came to an end with two explosions that set off an afternoon of violence. From that moment, the relatives knew that no good news was going to come out of the school. Their wailing was heart-rending and extremely hard to bear.


The former hostages started to arrive in the safe area where we were waiting. I expected a whole tide of them, but there were just several small groups. Not a thousand people, for sure.


Volunteers in private cars quickly took the victims away. Later on I was shocked to hear rumours that some of those volunteers were actually comrades of the hostage-takers, rescuing militants as well as hostages – and that the latter were then found slaughtered in nearby villages. And I was there watching them do it! The police say the rumours are untrue, but the trouble is that no one has much trust in them these days.


There was a strange sense that everyone was going about his business and that the state had very little involvement. Civilians fired guns, rescued hostages, and did anything else they thought right, and no one was really in command.


The only thing the state authorities seemed to do well unfailingly was generate lies. The number of hostages taken was first given as 120, then it grew to 354 – this precise figure apparently given in order to appear more credible. But everyone in Beslan knew there were over 1,000 people inside the school, and this indeed turned out to be the case. One of the former hostages quoted his captor saying, after watching a TV report, “OK, we’ll leave 354 and shoot the rest now!”


Moscow steered clear of the crisis and no high-ranking officials came to Beslan until it was all over. The demands of the hostage takers were not made public. Had the demands of the terrorists been made public, had Putin himself come to Beslan and failed to resolve the crisis, he would probably be facing the toughest challenge of his career, in the shape of outraged and despairing parents.


The local, North Ossetian authorities appeared to be following Moscow’s directions on how to handle the crisis. It seems that Dzasokhov played by the rules set by the Kremlin, but lost.


If only the lives of innocent people had not been at stake!


The overall impression is that keeping intact certain abstract principles of how the Russian state should operate, and more disturbingly, the tough reputation of the Russian president, were deemed more important than people’s lives.


In Beslan I noticed how when the state stops meeting people’s basic needs, including the right to life, they start organising themselves. If the authorities lie all the time, society begins to treat them as an alien organism. Of course, people still long for stability and want the state to deliver it, but they are no longer confident that it will do so.


In North Ossetia, the true identity of the killers has become less important than who they are believed to be - a group of Ingush with a smattering of Chechens.


Rumours and horror stories abound. Many people believe, for example, that women and children were raped in the school, or that the hostage-takers escaped taking some of their captives with them. It is widely believed that many of the people still unaccounted for are in Ingushetia, Chechnya or elsewhere. That leads desperate people whose loved ones are still missing to believe that they will get their children back - and it makes others burn with the desire for revenge.


Someone once said that the invention of nuclear weapons made a world war senseless. I have the same feeling about this hostage taking. A slaughter like this makes all causes meaningless to me, whether they be independence, statehood, sovereignty, dignity or even revenge itself.


“How should we react?” – this question is the greatest challenge now facing Ossetian society.


Taking revenge on people who may be completely innocent would not only be unjust, it would lead straight along the path to war and more bloodshed.


Yet something has to be done, and things cannot be left as they are. One constructive response could be a move for domestic reform within North Ossetia – much needed given the prevalence of corruption and moral decline. But who will take the lead? The corrupt state that has just failed its people? The intelligentsia, who largely serve the interests of the state? Grassroots organisations, when they simply don’t exist? I wonder whether it is at all possible to transform this anger into something positive and constructive.


So far, sadly, the tragedy has merely enabled politicians to resolve other problems. President Dzasokhov sacked a government which had long been said to be ripe for dismissal. By introducing reforms to end the direct election of regional governors and dispense with constituency-based members of parliament, President Putin seems to have deprived the Russian nation of basic democratic rights.


At the moment, no one has ready answers. A hostage who escaped with one of his two small boys told me, “I can see now that my boy will again never be the same as he was before the siege”.


I believe none of us will ever be the same again.


Valery Dzutsev is IWPR’s North Caucasus coordinator and editor. Click to view some of his photographs of the Beslan school.