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04 Sep 2004 08:22
All that was left were the ashes. On the floor of the gym at Middle School No 1 yesterday lay the mangled, black detritus from Russia’s worst hostage crisis.
Corrugated iron roofing, loft insulation material, soggy wood and an endless black, unidentifiable mulch, still smoking.
It was a skeletal scene.
It is hard to believe that hundreds of women and children had been held in the gym.
An intricate series of wires, in which mines were strung between the gym’s two basketball hoops and along its outer walls, had malfunctioned. When the militants fulfilled their unspeakable threat to blow themselves and their schoolchild hostages up if Russian troops stormed the school, only two mines went off.
Yet the damage was still immense in its scale and inhumanity, killing at least 150 hostages. Interfax news agency later put the toll at 250 on Saturday, quoting regional health ministry sources. More than 700 people were hurt.
The intense firefight erupted at 1.05pm. Two huge blasts sounded out across the town of Beslan, sending families, officials and ranks of media into panic. It remains unclear what final spark unleashed the force of two sides practised at trying to extinguish each other.
One local official confirmed that emergency workers had been admitted into the schoolyard to collect the bodies of 20 men executed by the hostage-takers in the first few hours of the crisis. They had been dumped out of the windows of the second floor of the main school building.
The official said: “When the rescuers came to the bodies, a mine laid by the militants went off. And then the federal troops began the siege.”
Other reports suggested that the battle flared after one of the hostage-takers, a woman with explosives strapped around her waist, unintentionally detonated the bombs, blasting a hole through the gym wall.
Ilfa Gagiyeva (33) a local investigator trapped inside with her daughter Diana (7) witnessed what happened inside the gym when the militants finally made good their threat to blow up themselves and the building if the Russian military stormed it.
“There had been shootouts all day between the terrorists and the troops,” she said.
“We were all undressed. It was like a sauna in there. No water or food and we were all burning up with fear.
“They had put mines all around the room, running two wires between the gym’s basketball hoops and hanging mines off them.
“But when they tried to detonate them, only two of the mines worked. Both blasts missed me, although one was very close.
“One militant, Hassan, who was in the toilet for the explosion, tried to help us get fresh air into the gym. I ran to grab my child and we hid in the small hall near the gym. There we stood for 20 minutes, dealing with the wounded and hiding, until the spetznaz found us and led us out.”
All around the school, intense fighting had broken out. Next to the local administration building, 300 metres away from the school, the doors of the nearby cafe, whose back door connected to the school, burst open at about 1.10pm.
Women and policemen carried out grimy, naked and bloodied children, paralysed by fear. “Help us carry them,” screamed one man. Most of the 20 or more victims appeared alive and petrified as a series of impromptu cars came to drive them away.
The growing clatter of gunfire and grenade blasts sharpened the fears of local police. It was unclear who was shooting at who, or why, yet it was getting fiercer and louder.
One local ministry of interior officer said at 1.20pm: “We’ve not killed any of the militants, and I don’t know about our troops, but there was an explosion, and many hostages died.”
Rescuers panicked to extract the children - often their own children - from the continuing gun battle.
From one side of the school, they smashed a hole through a garage wall, to provide a wide corridor to the fire trucks, Ladas, vans and ambulances that waited to take the dead away. Heaving with fear, sweat and anger, they braved stray bullets and shrapnel to push through the walls with axes and a telegraph pole so they could reach the school courtyard.
Then the bodies came out through the damp, dark garage.
A limp woman, her crimson top covered in soot and her skirt ripped off. Two injured soldiers. Two scared children, naked in the arms of frantic policemen, having discarded their clothes in the intense heat and panic of two days as hostages to Russia’s brutal Chechen conflict.
In the street, ambulance drivers struggled to understand directions barked at them.
“Come here now,” one man shouted, yet as the gunfire picked up again another begged the ambulance to head back down the street.
Above the garages were the blown-out and blackened windows of a block of flats where the troops had holed up, their posts destroyed by militant grenade launchers.
Down in the street, a Russian special forces, or spetznaz, commander managed to crack a joke for his men, their smiles a brief change from the sweaty and red-faced grimaces from beneath their protective helmets.
The blasts continued and files of spetznaz began to run towards the railway line that runs past both the local government building and the school. Mi-8 and Mi-24 attack helicopters circled above the school and at 1.45pm the gunfire fell silent.
As anxious government workers cowered around the building, a local security service officer said: “Wait, there will be more to come.”
The police beckoned the hordes of angry local men - infuriated at their children being targeted - to step back from the building.
Many refused, one shouting: “Give me a gun, I’ll get them.”
At the front of the school, the dead came more quickly.
A girl with shrapnel embedded in her face. A man with severe head injuries. Two young girls, their bodies covered in soot, the sight causing men to hold their heads in their hands.
And then a young militant, his slight body battered heavily by local men and dragged, his underwear pulled down, across the concrete and dumped in the back of a medical truck.
Bystanders peered in, grinned at his fate, and cursed his purported Chechen nationality.
Fatima Bazoyeva, a nurse, said she had heard of 500 wounded in the hospitals and that a boy she had treated said he’d seen 20 dead inside.
A doctor said he did not know the number of dead, simply that there were “many”. Another said he had heard 96 children were freed alive. Rescue workers ducked persistent, random fire from the back of the school.
By 2pm, as the gunfire began again, spetznaz began to file down the railway track towards the school.
A Kremlin aide appeared to shout into his phone: “They have taken some children.” Down the track, a spetznaz soldier said of the start of the siege: “Tell everyone everything is OK, and everything is fine. Look at me, I went there [pointing to the siege] and I came back.”
Across the rail tracks gunfire sounded, a local policeman saying some militants had headed across the line and sought to escape the way they came. The report could not be confirmed, but helicopters swarmed above as gunfire was exchanged in that part of the town for over an hour. Many young local men came to the scene armed with hunting rifles, and often wearing police smocks and webbing they had bought privately. They kept offering help to the federal forces, blurring the line between troops, police and local vigilantes.
A local policeman’s radio directed him to organise a secure perimeter in case the militants managed to get out.
Back near the Palace of Culture, where relatives had waited anxiously, the bodies began to pile up.
A long glade that ran from near the palace to the school filled with emergency workers and stretchers, providing an endless stream of limp bodies for ambulance workers.
Two of the dead were laid on the grass verge near the pavement, their dignity maintained by a white sheet as media and local men milled around rescuers. Then the noise of gunfire and hysteria was pierced by a terrible groan. One of the women beneath the sheets was still alive. A passerby knelt down and held her head in her hands.
Numbers of dead, militants, hostages and wounded troops eluded most officials and combatants.
One military radio operator, his arm bandaged, said: “How could I know how many of anything there are in that mess?
“There are many dead, that’s all.”
The stretchers bore the news of another Russian siege ending in bloodshed.
A middle-aged woman, lifeless. A young girl probably aged seven, roof materials scattered across her limp, grimy body.
The stream had been constant all afternoon, witnesses said, their bodies ferried off to the local hospital or the larger facility in Vladikavkaz, about 20 minutes’ drive away.
The exchange of fire continued, resilient militants digging into the back end of the school, and refusing to budge after endless grenade launches.
Five hours of intense violence had brought Russia’s biggest hostage crisis to the bloodiest of ends. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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