Ambulance sirens screamed and naked, bleeding children wailed in the arms of soldiers amid earth-shattering grenade blasts as the three-day school hostage crisis in Beslan ended in a chaotic bloodbath.
Distraught children wearing little more than underwear scrambled to find a safe spot amid heavy gunfire, with stretchers carrying the wounded bodies of their friends, many of them shaking in fear, pain or shock.
“They were shooting at us from the roof,” said one child, the elder speaker of a group of three, recalling how the hostage-takers opened fire on kids who were trying to escape their captors amid blasts that opened an escape route.
“No, they were shooting from the second floor,” corrected a child who looked no older than six.
“And they did not give us water,” said the third boy, who looked like he may still be in kindergarten.
Another naked boy at a different spot later said: “We drank urine.”
They rushed past armoured personnel carriers that hid heavily armed soldiers firing at the building from which they escaped.
The scenes of mayhem lasted for hours and at one stage saw camouflaged soldiers with guns and helmets crawl into the school through side windows because they believed that the hostage-takers had mined the main entrance.
There was a massive explosion. One of the walls of the school partially crumbled.
No one knew what was going on, but one version that quickly spread was that the rescuers decided to destroy the wall to give the children, their parents and teachers a safe escape route.
“They are alive! They are alive! They are alive!” screamed rescuers to parents crying in horror and confusion, shocked onlookers, friends who brought out their guns to fight the rebels, as they carried out the kids toward ambulances.
But then reports filtered in that dozens of bodies were buried by rubble in a gym when the roof caved in. The kids running away knew nothing of it.
Shocked, not everyone realised where the rescue cars and vans were and people ran around in circles, wounded, frightened and half-undressed children in their hands.
Bullets screamed over their heads. More gunfire rang out further out in the distance, rumours spreading that some of the hostage-takers had escaped — perhaps in civilian clothing — and now fighting for their own lives.
A woman hostage was brought out on a stretcher, crying: “You have to go back in, my child is still in there.”
Out on the streets, vengeful, outraged parents, some with their own guns in hand, were smelling blood, carrying out justice as they saw fit.
One bearded man who the locals assumed was a rebel was jumped on by dozens, if not hundreds, of people; first kicked, then beaten, then rescued by police from seemingly imminent death.
“He is a journalist! He is a journalist!” one officer screamed as he tried to drag the man away into a police station.
A fire broke out at the school building. People rushed to the scene, then fell to the ground, rolling and trying to avoid bullets apparently still coming from the brick two-storey structure.
Men who had been keeping vigil at the school’s gates for nearly three days ran from tree to tree, dodging bullets, trying to find their sons, daughters or kidnapped relatives.
Women gathered outside the entrance to homes and shrieked with each new explosion. — AFP