Russia’s Beslan, even ten years later, is still a mystery to many. Beslan: it is one word that defines itself, defying every convention of grammatical form. In a single word it forms its own sentence, its own paragraph, its own volume of terrifying reality. The tragedy at Beslan happened ten years ago, and hopefully will be remembered with perhaps lessons to be learned.
On Monday, an editorial in the Moscow Times opined that the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine has crowded out the memory of the Beslan school siege. Perhaps so, but even ten years later, the subject of Beslan still stirs heated debate among Russians.
In one terrifying incident, 334 persons were needlessly killed; 186 of those deaths were children who had earlier in the day held flowers, lined up behind their homeroom teachers, and posed for photos taken by proud parents. Russians call it the “first bell” (первый звонок), the traditional first of September opening of the school year, also called the “day of knowledge” (День знаний).
Russians also have a traditional term for the last day of the school year, the “last bell” (последний звонок), and sadly for those who died, the first bell was their last bell. Russians also have a special expression for remembering those who have passed on from this life. Rooted in Russian Orthodox Christian tradition the expression is “Memory Eternal,” as in wishing that the individual will pass from one life to the next and to be remembered by God.
Over 1,100 had gathered for the first day of school. Standing at the front of the school, the students were ready for a program of speeches by administrators and introduction to teachers. Bearing flowers and gifts for their teachers, many of the students stood alongside their parents. Russian tradition dictates that parents attend the first day of school with their children, if possible, and so on the first of September in 2004, the school yard at Beslan school number one was crowded with children, parents, and teachers.
For those who live in Beslan, ten years later seems like yesterday to some. Shortly after 09:00 am local time, 32 heavily-armed gunmen broke into the school and opened fire. Several Russian civilians were killed in the shootout between the attackers and local police who ran to the scene after first gunshots were heard. Militant Islamic gunmen stormed the school, gunning down anyone who tried to run, and herding teachers and children into a gym area.
For 52 long hours the terror continued. The gunmen, representing the Russian republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, rigged the gymnasium with bombs, and then contacted Russian authorities to demand that Russia withdraw troops from those republics where two fierce civil wars had been waged in recent years.
News of the hostage situation spread quickly and local residents rushed to the school. With police and military surrounding the school, inside the terrorists refused offers of food and water for the children. Three days into the siege, and with militants still demanding independence for Chechnya, military forces rushed into the school after a series of explosions were heard inside. Pandemonium ensued and 334 individuals were dead by the time the incident was over.
The town of Beslan is located in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia-Alania in Russia, home to an air force base that had been used by Russian forces against Chechnya during the civil wars. Some speculate that this was perhaps one reason why the terrorists chose the school. But sadly, Beslan at ten years later remains a riddle, shrouded in government secrecy.
Only one terrorist survived the Beslan firestorm, and today Nurpashi Kulaev serves a life sentence in a Russian prison. In a special RT documentary on the Beslan tragedy that aired on Monday, he told reporters that he was just a foot soldier who obeyed orders. As for sorrow for the children and others who died, “I don’t feel guilty that women and children died,” he said. He continues to blame Russia’s war on Chechnya for what happened at Beslan school number one.
To the survivors, even ten year later, Russia’s Beslan seems like something that occurred yesterday. For those who perished, may their memories be eternal.
By Jim Hanemaayer