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Russia: Beslan Slowly Returns To Life

An "Izvestia" photographer captured the events two years ago in Beslan (official site) MOSCOW, August 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Beslan residents are preparing to mark the anniversary of the tragedy that rocked their quiet North Caucasus town two years ago.

On September 1, 2004, some 1,100 children, parents, and teachers were being taken hostage in school No. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia. The siege ended two days later in a storm of fire and bullets that took the lives of 332 hostages, more than half of them children.

The commemorations will begin early on September 1, exactly two years after dozens of armed militants burst into a local school on the first day of classes. The hostage takers later demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from Chechnya.

The ceremonies will conclude on September 3 with schoolchildren releasing 332 white balloons -- one for each victim of the chaotic battle that ended the three-day siege.

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Two years on, psychological wounds remain largely unhealed for the families of the victims and those who survived the massacre.


But very slowly, Beslan is regaining a taste for life.

Raisa Lukutsova, the executive director of the Russian Red Cross, shared her impressions with reporters in Moscow this week after a recent trip to Beslan.

"It was very good to see that on this land that soaked up blood and tears, on this square, smiles could be seen on people's faces. And perhaps even more importantly, there are now babies who were born after this terrible tragedy. Those are the signs that life is going on," Lukutsova says.

Aleksander Venger, a psychologist who has been following former hostages and their families, says that both children and adults are starting to recover from the trauma.

"The general condition has changed greatly, people are much calmer now then they were a year ago. Parents don't suffer as acutely as they used to, they've started looking after their children more. This used to be a big problem -- many parents who lost a child focused on this child and spent little time with the ones who stayed alive," Venger says.

Svetlana Margiyeva had no other child to look after. She lost her only daughter, Elvira, in the siege.

A few months ago, she adopted a two-year-old boy. This adoption, she says, has brought her some comfort.

Kulayev Trial

The life sentence handed in May to Nurpashi Kulayev, who officials say is the sole surviving hostage taker, has failed to bring a sense of closure to Svetlana and other grieving families.

Nor has the reported death on July 10 of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for the hostage taking.

"They've convicted Kulayev, but other perpetrators have yet to be sentenced. Why put Kulayev on trial when others are free? As for Basayev, if they really killed him, he took away a lot with him. He had things to say," Margiyeva says.

Kulayev's year-long trial has been an emotional event for the relatives of the victims.

Many have dismissed it as an attempt by the authorities to deflect public anger over the botched rescue operation, and over the many questions left unanswered.

Anger At Authorities

But Kulayev's public sentencing has failed to soothe Beslan. Just like before the trial, anger continues to be directed less at Kulayev -- and the Chechen separatist movement he symbolized -- than at the Russian government.

Nurpashi Kulayev (TASS)

"Without Grozny, there would have been no Budyonnovsk and no Nord-Ost [hostage tragedies], none of this terror. And who is responsible for Grozny? [Former President Boris] Yeltsin. Is Yeltsin less guilty than Kulayev? I, for example, don't hold any grudges against either Chechens or Ingushs. Chechens were made into what they are now, they were made into terrorists," Margiyeva says.

Margiyeva is no exception.

With time, many grieving relatives have come to condemn Russia's military campaign in Chechnya as the direct cause of the Beslan tragedy.

Ella Kesayeva, who heads the victim-support group, Voice of Beslan, says Kulayev's fate is a huge tragedy for the Chechen people.

"We have never justified terrorists, but this war in Chechnya has produced a great number of rebels and terrorists who have harmed other Russian citizens," she says. "A government has to analyze and study this before taking responsibility for going to war with a people on its own state. War spawns people like Kulayev."

Public anger means that government representatives will this year again be conspicuously absent at the commemorations.

Beslan's second victim-support group, Beslan Mothers, has warned officials to keep away from the ceremonies:

"We would see their presence at the graves of our children and loved ones during these days of mourning as an insult to all the dead and the living," the group said in a statement.

Investigating The Beslan Tragedy

Investigating The Beslan Tragedy
A woman holds a picture of her son, who was injured during the Beslan hostage taking, while she listens on May 16 to the verdict in the only Beslan-related trial to be held (TASS)

WILL THE TRUTH BE KNOWN? As the second anniversary of the Beslan tragedy neared, Duma Deputy Yury Savelyev, a member of the official investigating committee, issued a 700-page report that veers sharply from the official explanation...(more)


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