Russian security’s role in school siege still unclear nine years on
The sadness of 334 deaths lingers but cover-ups still obscure the truth
Ella Kesaeva: her daughter was injured in the Beslan gym atrocity and two of her nephews killed.
Basketball hoops still hang at either end of the gymnasium and lines are still marked on its scorched wooden floor. The air seems acrid and dank, as if the fire that blackened the walls was only recently put out. But it is nine years since gunmen seized School Number One in Beslan, southern Russia, on the first day of the school year. They held more than 1,100 people hostage in this small gym for more than 50 hours, before a chaotic battle with special forces and armed locals that killed 334 people, including 186 children.
As Russian schools prepare to start a new term, so Beslan is again braced for the anniversary of an atrocity that devastated this small town, and turned some of its people against the political leaders and security services they blame for the deaths of their sons and daughters. Several dozen masked militants from the restive, nearby regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia herded people into the sports hall and, over the next two days, a hellish stand-off ensued.
The militants became more edgy as the government failed to respond to their demands, which included the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, and they executed some adult hostages and refused to give the children any water.
Confusing information from officials stoked the tension. They claimed that only about 350 hostages were in the school before admitting the real number was some three times larger; and they said the hostage-takers had not made any demands, which was also clearly untrue.
At about 1pm on September 3rd, two explosions rocked the school, triggering panic inside and out. Children and adults tried to escape amid a fierce battle between the militants, security forces and armed civilians; the gym caught fire and the roof collapsed, trapping many inside.
The siege was declared over later that afternoon, with the school a smoking ruin, hundreds dead and injured, and one surviving militant in custody. Almost every family in this town of 35,000 people was touched by the attack, and many people will never recover from the physical and psychological trauma that they suffered.
But the attack also left behind a series of crucial questions that the Russian authorities have to this day failed, and refused, to answer.
How did a big group of armed militants meet and travel unhindered through a region littered with checkpoints? Why were known insurgents who took part in the raid released from detention or removed from surveillance lists in the months before the attack? Why did hostages report seeing their captors remove weapons from hiding places in the school? Why were negotiations with the militants abandoned? What caused the blasts that triggered the final firefight? And were tanks and flamethrowers unleashed on the school while the hostages were still inside?
“The official story is that terrorists came here and killed people and the security forces saved people. But for us, the security forces are terrorists too,” says Beslan campaigner Ella Kesaeva. “They brought their tanks and flamethrowers and started firing. They shot and burned innocent adults and children. How dare they do that?”
Kesaeva’s daughter was injured in the school and two nephews were killed. She and others see the government report on the attack as a whitewash.
No senior officials were punished over the siege and some were promoted, while local policeman accused of failing to prevent the raid were cleared or released on amnesty. Beslan women ransacked a courtroom after one such ruling.
Kesaeva recalls how, in the aftermath of the siege, President Vladimir Putin abolished direct elections for regional governors in a supposed bid to impose order on the provinces. The Kremlin also tightened its grip on Russia’s media, and two prominent reporters were apparently prevented from even travelling to Beslan: Anna Politkovskaya said she was poisoned on her flight south and Andrei Babitsky was arrested at Moscow airport. Kesaeva is convinced that the security forces triggered the final, bloody battle for the school.
She cites the findings of Yuri Savelyev, a respected weapons expert who believes the first blasts in the school were caused by shots from outside. She and many other witnesses also insist that tanks and flamethrowers fired on the school while the hostages were inside.
“If this was not in the interests of people in power, why can’t we have a proper investigation?” says Kesaeva. “It is hard to accept that the state shoots its own people and tries to bury the truth. But in Beslan, the state showed what it was capable of. And Putin showed that he is a coward.”