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Fifteen Years After Beslan Tragedy, Emotions Still Run High

Security forces stand guard outside a school in Beslan while emergency crews work inside in 2004 photo.
Security forces stand guard outside a school in Beslan while emergency crews work inside in 2004 photo.

It started 15 years ago as a hostage taking in a small town in southern Russia. It ended three days later in bloodshed that left hundreds dead, the majority of them children, in one of the worst terror attacks in Russian history.

Some three dozen Chechen militants took more than 1,200 people hostage at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, on September 1, 2004. The drama ended days later after Russian forces stormed the school. The standoff and resulting battle saw 334 people killed, 186 of whom were children.

"I was lining the students up [to address them]. When I took the microphone, the first shots rang out. We all fled into the hall," recalls Yelena Ganiyeva, then a teacher and now the principal at Beslan School No. 1.

The siege began on the first day of classes, with many parents accompanying their kids to School No. 1.

The militants launched their raid on the school shortly after 9 a.m. local time, forced all hostages into an overcrowded gym, and executed a number of teachers and parents. The hostage takers reportedly wore suicide belts, and bombs were strapped to the basketball nets in the gymnasium.

The standoff continued until September 3, when Russian security forces stormed the school with the support of heavy weaponry, including tank fire and grenade launchers.

Russian forces went in after two blasts were heard in the school and a blaze broke out in the gymnasium where most of the hostages were held.

To this day it remains unclear who triggered the explosions.

The official line was that the militants set off the first explosion and that grenades fired by Russian troops could not have sparked the fire.

But an independent investigation in 2006 by explosives expert Yury Savelyev contradicted that assertion. "We have known for a long time that security services were to blame for killing many of the hostages. But the Prosecutor-General's Office flatly refuses to listen to the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw it."

The disastrous outcome remains a black mark on the presidency of Vladimir Putin, who was in his first term at the time and will not attend any of the planned commemorative ceremonies for the 15th anniversary.

Ganiyeva, her son, and others remain haunted by the memory.

"The worst thing was thirst. There is nothing worse than thirst. My son is now 24 years old and, to this day, he always has a drink of water next to his bed," she says.

A Russian parliamentary commission in 2006 blamed Chechen militants for the high death toll and exonerated Russian security forces.

But the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2017 ruled that Russia must pay nearly 3 million euros ($3.5 million) to the relatives of the Beslan victims, saying that Russian authorities failed to protect the schoolchildren, teachers, and parents. The ECHR also said Russia had not done enough to prevent the attack, despite having information that such an act was in the works.

The hostage takers stated that the recognition of formal Chechen independence was their main demand. Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the attack.

During the 1990s, Russia waged two wars in Chechnya, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian and military deaths.

"The Beslan attack took place against a backdrop of five years of widespread, persistent, and largely unpunished human rights violations by Russian troops against civilians in Chechnya as well as egregious human rights abuses by rebel fighters," Human Rights Watch wrote at the time of the attack.

It remains unclear whether any of the attackers were able to escape.

According to the official version of events, there were 32 of them, and all but one were killed.

Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the only attacker caught, was sentenced to life imprisonment. But surviving hostages and Basayev claim that some of the attackers managed to escape.

In a rare interview with Russia's state-run RIA Novosti earlier this month, Kulayev denied being involved in the Beslan school attack.

"Yes, I agree, I don't deserve this [prison]," he said. "At least not for Beslan. Beslan was not mine."