On 1 September 2004, parents, students, and teachers gathered in the courtyard of School No. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia to celebrate the Day of Knowledge, the festival marking the first day of the new school year. The headmistress of School No. 1, Lydia Tsalieva, recalled that the “first of September was always the happiest day” of her year and “children, teachers and parents alike all loved it” (Phillip, 10). Around eight o’clock in the morning, students and parents began gathering in the school’s courtyard for the nine o’clock ceremony. Just after nine, the new first-year students started down the stairs into the courtyard to begin the ceremony. Over one thousand people were at the school that morning to watch the children.
1 September 2004
About half of the new students were in the courtyard when thirty-two armed pro-Chechen militants surrounded them. An older student who was running late ran into the ceremony to warn everyone that there were “bearded, masked terrorists outside” (Phillip, 26). Thirty-five-year-old Kazbek Dzarasov recalled:
Naturally I didn’t believe the lad. Terrorists? What Terrorists? But just as soon as I turned around, I saw these men running into the school grounds. I had no chance to run away before one of them turned on us and started shooting into the air from his machine gun (Phillip, 26).
Many people were so involved in the ceremony that they did not realize how close their attackers were and they mistook the machine gun fire for popping balloons, which many of the children had. The terrorists forced the spectators and students into the school and very few were able to escape due to the speed and suddenness of the attack. Once inside the school, everyone was directed to the school gym. More than 1,200 hostages were taken (“‘Mondrage’ in Beslan”).
Bombs were then placed around the perimeter of the gym and hung from the basketball hoops “like Christmas decorations” (Wide Angle). The three terrorists in the gym stood on switch plates, which controlled different chains of explosives. A fourth terrorist stood on a switch plate in a second floor hallway and controlled the entire chain. He was the only one who could “blow the lot” (Wide Angle). Video footage taken that day from inside the gym also shows two female suicide bombers who were positioned at each end of the gym. The terrorists told the hostages at the outset that “we came here to die because that is how our children are dying. If Putin takes pity on you, if he or anyone needs you at all, then you’ll be released” (Wide Angle). By the afternoon of the first day, the terrorists selected twenty-five of the heaviest men and executed them. At the time, it was not clear to the remaining hostages what happened to these men. This action was a “political action against Moscow” (Wide Angle).
2 September 2004
The situation continued to deteriorate on the second day. The terrorists watched Russian news reports on the hostage situation. The authorities were grossly downplaying the number of hostages; the terrorists knew they had over 1,200 hostages but the news was reporting between 300 and 400 hostages (Bullough, 363). In retaliation, the terrorists denied the hostages water saying that, if Russian authorities “want there to be only 354 hostages in here, then we can do that for them” (Phillips, 118). Children began to drink their own urine because of thirst.
In the afternoon, Ruslan Aushev, the President of Ingushetia, entered the school and began negotiations with the Chechen terrorists (“Beslan Timeline”). He asked to see the hostages and was particularly moved by the mothers and babies in the gym. When Aushev left the school, he took eleven mothers and fifteen babies with him. These were the first hostages released by the terrorists.
3 September 2004
On the morning of the third day, the conditions in the gym were “unbearable” (“Beslan Timeline”). The hostages had gone three days without food and two days without water. One child died of a heart attack (Wide Angle). Russian forces and townspeople began to move in around the school but Putin forbade any assault on the school. At one o’clock, the people of Beslan were listening to the news when two explosions went off in the school. It is believed that the first explosion was accidental, the second, however, was probably deliberate as the “terrorists responded to the first, thinking an assault was happening” (Wide Angle). These explosions prompted a storming of the school, even though it went against President Putin’s orders.
Chaos set in: terrorists fired from inside the school, Russian soldiers and the Beslan townspeople fired back, the roof of the gym caught fire, and tanks, helicopters, and armed vehicles surrounded the school (“Beslan Timeline”). Hostages began to run from the building. There was no gunfire for the first three minutes because of the smoke and dust (Wide Angle). In video footage of the events of the third day, children can be seen running from the building in nothing but their underwear. As the fighting continued, the Chechen terrorists herded hostages into the cafeteria and classrooms where the militants were “waging a full-scale battle” with the Russian soldiers (“Beslan Timeline”). Children were forced to line up in front of the windows to serve as human shields. The “final shots” of the battle were fired that night and the bodies of the dead hostages and militants were “spread out on the lawn” (“‘Mondrage’ in Beslan”). Of the 334 victims, 186 were children (Bullough, 367). Only one of the original thirty-two Chechen terrorists survived.
The British journalist Oliver Bullough was in Beslan during the siege. Without access to accurate information, he decided to visit the morgue after the end of the hostage crisis in order to see the true number of deaths. The morgue, he says, was “a vision of hell” (Bullough, 363). He recalled:
To my right was a row of stretchers, with transparent plastic sheets covering the bodies. The row receded for a few metres to a broader courtyard where dense rows of stretchers held still more people: children, men, women, all mixed up together. At least a hundred bodies in all. And among them were the living, sleepwalking from body to body (Bullough, 363-365).
When he left the morgue, his clothes were “saturated with the smell of the dead” (Bullough, 365). His friend who had covered the many wars and the “worst disasters Russia had thrown at him” vomited after he left the morgue having just witnessed the worst thing he had ever seen (Bullough, 365). Horror and despair resonated throughout the city.
The terrorist attack on Beslan School No. 1 was a defining moment in the lives of the child hostages. In 2009, British journalist Viv Groskop spoke with children who had survived the Beslan hostage crisis. Fifteen-year-old Aniran Urusov said:
I try not to think about what happened and just to forget it. How has it influenced my life? Negatively. This town has become boring. I can’t count the friends I’ve lost. Maybe 20. … I don’t know how these events have influenced my parents or how they feel about it. We don’t talk about it and we just want to forget (Groskop).
Similarly, fourteen-year-old David Tserekhov wanted to forget about his experiences as a hostage; he declined professional help because he could not see how it would help. Bella Gubyeva said “she could just keep on counting” the people she lost in the attack on her school, but this tragedy taught her the value of life and she believed that her town would be able to heal (Groskop).
Groskop also spoke to fifteen-year-old Fatima Dzgoeva, the “worst injured of the children who survived the siege of School Number One in Beslan” (Groskop). Fatima was pronounced dead twice, has survived two comas and countless surgeries, and has had her skull reconstructed with titanium plates. Because of her injuries, Fatima has had “intensive care and psychological help” in both Russia and Germany which enabled her to speak with relative ease about what happened to her over those three days, unlike many of the other children who simply wanted to “forget” (Groskop). Fatima now lives with her aunt so her parents, who lost their younger daughter, can grieve and care for their infant son.
Nurpashi Kulayev, a Chechen carpenter, is the only surviving attacker of the Beslan School No. 1 hostage crisis (“Beslan Militant Gets Life Sentence”). He helped the investigators piece together what happened in the school during the three-day siege though he was “almost lynched by locals after being found hiding under a lorry near the school after the siege ended” (“Beslan Militant”). On 26 May 2006, Kulayev was found guilty of murder, hostage-taking and terrorism but “was spared the death penalty because of Russia’s current moratorium on executions” (“Beslan Militant”). Kulayev was tried in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia in Southern Russia. He is held responsible for causing the deaths of over 300 people, shooting children, and “inflicting material damage of around £700,000” (“Beslan Militant”).
There are still many questions surrounding the events of the Beslan School No. 1 hostage crisis. Before the death of the alleged mastermind of the siege, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, he published a letter saying, “we have much to tell about Beslan” (“Shamil Basayev”). He claimed that Russian security services allowed the Chechen terrorists safe passage to the school and, therefore, bore responsibility for the siege. Some citizens in Beslan even believed there was a “cache of weapons” hidden under the school’s floors in advance (Lukov). No high-ranking Russian official, however, has been held responsible for “mishandling the siege” since it ended in September 2004 (“‘Mondrage’ in Beslan”).
Although two new schools have been built in Beslan, the old school still stands as a “witness to the wrongs done inside its walls” (Phillips, 3). The gym where the hostages were held has become a place to mourn the victims of the siege. Flowers, stuffed animals, pictures, and banners reading “We Are Crying With You” and “You Are Not Alone” lined the walls (Phillips, 6). Monuments have been constructed to honor the victims: the Tree of Grief overlooks the new cemetery in Beslan that was constructed for the victims and the other is located in St. Petersburg, Russia.
- “Beslan Militant Gets Life Sentence,” The Guardian, 26 May 2006, accessed 6 April 2012, www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/may/26/russia.
- Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucuses (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
- Viv Groskop, “The Beslan siege five years on,” The Guardian, 7 August 2009, accessed 6 April 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/aug/08/beslan-siege-five-years-on.
- Yaroslav Lukov, “Beslan siege still a mystery,” BBC News, 2 September 2005, accessed 7 April 2012, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4205208.stm.
- Kelly McEvers, “Beslan Timeline: How the School Siege Unfolded,” NPR, 31 August 2006, accessed 6 April 2012, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5740009.
- Kelly McEvers, “‘Mondrage’ in Beslan: Inside the School Siege,” NPR, 31 August 2006, accessed 6 April 2012, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5739902.
- Timothy Phillips, Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1 (London: Granta Books, 2007).
- Wide Angle, “Beslan: Siege of School No. 1,” Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2005, accessed 4 April 2012, http://digital.films.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=15903&xtid=36146.
- “Shamil Basayev: ‘We have got much to tell much about Beslan…’,” Kavkazcenter.com, 1 September 2005, accessed 5 April, http://www.kavkazcenter.com/eng/content/2005/09/01/4039.shtml.