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Russia: Questions Remain On Beslan's Third Anniversary

By Andrei Sharyi and Tatiana Valovich (RFE/RL) August 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On September 1, 2004, a group of terrorists laid siege to a school in Beslan, a town in North Ossetia.

As a result of their actions and the operation to free the hostages, more than 330 people lost their lives, 186 of them children.

Families of the victims weren't at all satisfied by the conclusions drawn by the authorities; they suspect that the blame lies not only with the terrorists, but also with the special forces, who they believe were careless with the value of human life.

On the eve of the third anniversary of the tragedy, there has been a change in leadership within the Voice of Beslan nongovernmental organization. Its previous leader, Emma Betrozova, who lost her entire family in the terrorist attack, intends to appeal to the North Ossetia Supreme Court the decision made by a court in Vladikavkaz.

Betrozova says that Judge Ilya Panaiotidi, having approved the appeal of one of the former members of Voice of Beslan, Marina Melikova, acted on government orders.

Voice Of Beslan

Betrozova's supporters are certain that the authorities in Moscow and Vladikavkaz are irritated by attempts by Voice of Beslan to establish the truth about the circumstances of the tragedy and to bring to justice all responsible parties. Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Sharyi spoke with Voice of Beslan member Ella Kesayeva.

Ella Kesayeva: Voice of Beslan forcefully appointed a different membership, absolutely loyal to the authorities. The process is clearly rigged. The civil organization has been committed to a relentless battle for the truth around Beslan, for the punishment of all officials, all those to blame for the tragedy. We have achieved certain results. We have gone through three complete court trials, appealed to [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg, and more and more people are joining us. The authorities saw that our popularity was growing and decided to end our existence by forceful means."

RFE/RL: Who exactly are the people who are now leading the organization, the former Voice of Beslan?

Kesayeva: The people whom we have expelled from the organization a year and a half ago, completely, legitimately, [and] by majority opinion. They were sent to the organization to create discord, to discredit and to provoke us. Specifically, Melikova called for the physical liquidation of the chapter of our republic [of North Ossetia]. We expelled her. We acted lawfully, respectful of the law.

"It is a crime scene, a place of barbarism. It will teach people that it cannot be this way. Cannot be."

RFE/RL: Do you consider it a coincidence that your organization was essentially shut down on the eve of the anniversary?

Kesayeva: No, this is no accident. This is how the authorities regard the tragedy. Emma Betrozova, a mother who lost her entire family and organized the civil organization, has been expelled. Where is the morality there?

RFE/RL: When you say "the authorities," who do you mean? Did the local North Ossetia government disperse your organization, or did the orders come from Moscow?

Kesayeva: This is absolutely an order from Moscow, since here in our republic there is a puppet government, set up by the Kremlin. It follows orders from above.

White Angels, White Birds

In St. Petersburg, on the eve of the third anniversary of the tragedy, a monument, "To the children of Beslan," has been unveiled. The stone arch, from which a mother is carrying a child in her arms, is next to the church of the Assumption of Malaya Okhta. Monuments to the victims of the terrorist attack in Beslan have already been set up in Vladikavkaz, Lipetsk, and Florence, Italy.

"White angels, white birds, tell me -- where are you flying? And why are you so scornfully silent?" -- these verses, written by a Beslan schoolboy, are inscribed on the monument's granite plaque. Within it has been placed a capsule containing earth that the church's prior, Father Aleksandr, brought over from Beslan.

St. Petersburg monument to Beslan (epa)

Vladimir Dzotsiev, one of the leaders of the native Ossetian community in St. Petersburg, says, "We would like to ask the people of St. Petersburg, on September 3 at 9 p.m., to light candles in the windows of city houses, in memory of the children of Beslan and all the victims of terror."

On the official website of Mothers of Beslan, an NGO representing the victims of terrorist attacks, one of the latest publications reads: "We are sure that the prosecution and especially the Federal Security Service (FSB) have all the answers to our questions. And we are now afraid that they will prematurely shut down the case."

In North Ossetia itself, fervent arguments are taking place about what to do with the school where the terrorist attack occurred. The authorities have suggested demolishing everything and building a church on the site, or laying out a park. Families of the victims are categorically opposed to this.

Ella Kesayeva and Rita Sidakova lost loved ones in the siege of the school.

"The school must stand until we, the victims, exhaust all legal possibilities. We appealed to the court at Strasbourg, and until a verdict is carried out, no one has any legal right to demolish and build any memorials," Kesayeva says.

"If this is done, it will be a lawless action. Let this be on the government's head. Because the territory and the school building are tangible evidence of the government's crimes.

"The school must remain," Sidakova says. "It is a crime scene, a place of barbarism. It will teach people that it cannot be this way. Cannot be."

Marina Litvinovich, who runs the Truth of Beslan website, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service about the current stage of the investigation into the Beslan tragedy.

"A big criminal case pertaining to the terrorist attack in Beslan has continued for three years, and it hasn't proceeded without interruption. During the whole proceedings, victims submitted various questions, new facts, new witness testimonials, but unfortunately the investigation committee hasn't paid any attention to these details, to all of these important facts, and constantly dismissed them. For half a year already the investigation has been at a total standstill and isn't looking into the conclusions drawn by the independent parliamentary commission. The prosecution promised to check, but unfortunately this hasn't been done."

She continues:

"The scene described by the official investigation differs considerably from that of the independent investigation. According to the official version, terrorists activated explosive devices, after which the onslaught began. The conclusions drawn by the independent commission, confirmed by nearly all of the surviving hostages, are that the first explosions were heard from outside the gymnasium, fired from two neighboring five-story buildings. When, after the explosions started a fire in the gymnasium, some of the hostages ran inside the school and were already there, the school was engulfed with fire from outside -- shots were fired from flame throwers, grenade launchers, and tanks. Very many people were killed during this bombardment.

(The above is a transcript of a program broadcast by RFE/RL's Russian Service.)

Returning To Beslan

Returning To Beslan

RFE/RL's Russian Service Moscow bureau correspondent Oleg Kusov, who was in Beslan immediately after the tragedy of 2004, returned last week and made these observations:

In Northern Ossetia, three years after the tragedy, there is an impression that memory of the tragedy is fading by degrees. Everyday worries erase memory. Even in conversations with local politicians and society officials, the Beslan issue more and more often recedes into the background.

But all it took was making the trip from Vladikavkaz to Beslan, coming up to the ruins of the former school No. 1 for the memory of September 2004 to suddenly return to me. The tragedy will not be forgotten, primarily, because of the destroyed school building and due to the work of the mothers of Beslan.

The authorities, apparently, are annoyed by all of this. They have already broached the question of demolishing the building, but the Beslan mothers came to its defense. The victims believe that the former school cannot be demolished until the investigation of the terrorist attack is complete.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Orthodox Church took the initiative of suggesting rebuilding the school gymnasium into the foundation of a future temple. Many residents of Beslan branded this project as merely another scheme to liquidate the school, and priests were asked not to ascribe religious meaning to the tragedy.

We will speak separately of the countermeasures against the Voice of Beslan organization . But on the whole I received the impression that the victims in the republic are not being approached correctly. Rumors are being spread that the political activism of the Beslan mothers is generously remunerated abroad. I heard maddeningly cynical phrases that the women are simply using the deaths of their children for personal profit. Ordinary people understand the nature of such rumors.

Beslan residents insist that after three years they still haven't found out the truth about the tragedy, and the authorities still haven't realized that the victims will not stop in their pursuit of that truth.