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Photo: Getty Images. A woman cries in the ruins of the school gymnasium in Beslan, North Ossetia, 05 September 2004. The first funerals for the hundreds killed in the Russian hostage siege took place in Beslan, an AFP correspondent reported. Some 400 people were killed as a result of the three-day school siege in southern Russia, the RIA-Novosti agency quoted the spokesman for the regional president as saying 05 September 2004. DRACHEV

Photo: Getty Images. A woman cries in the ruins of the school gymnasium in Beslan, North Ossetia, 05 September 2004. The first funerals for the hundreds killed in the Russian hostage siege took place in Beslan. Some 400 people were killed as a result of the three-day school siege in southern Russia, the RIA-Novosti agency quoted the spokesman for the regional president as saying 05 September 2004. DRACHEV

When Hell Came Calling

 The Beslan Mother Who Could Only Save One of Her Children

It started with children laughing and ended in gunfire and slaughter – a 53- hour siege that horrified the world.

The bloodiest terrorist attack in Russia’s history claimed – in official figures – the lives of 186 children, 118 relatives or school guests, 17 teachers, 10 special forces officers, 2 Emergencies Ministry employees and one policeman. A further 810 people were injured.

The Day of Knowledge, the beginning of a school year. A long-awaited event for first-graders: dressed nicely, with their brand-new school kits they rushed to Beslan’s school #1 for their First Bell ceremony. Many pupils were accompanied by relatives and younger siblings. The noisy crowd of people – including  students and teachers – all gathered in front of the school building for the festivities.

Parents carried flowers and teachers wore their best clothes. A Tannoy played music while the children formed lines alphabetically around the swing bars on the playground lawn.

It was some of the older children who noticed them first – a masked group quickly crossing the railway tracks that run behind the school. Some, giggling, thought it was a joke at first, until they picked up the anxiety of the adults waving at them to run.

‘The kids first ran towards them and then they ran back towards the school.

Shortly after 09:00 am local time 32 heavily-armed gunmen on two vehicles broke into the school and opened fire. Several civilians were killed in the shootout between the attackers and local police who ran to the scene after first gunshots were heard.

The terrorists ordered the people to get inside the school building. Between 50 to 100 people – primarily high-graders and adults – managed to run away, but about 1,100 hostages were forced into the sports hall.

The gunmen barricaded doors and windows in the gym and started mining the building with explosive devices. Russian media reported that there were two women wearing suicide-bomb belts among the attackers.

At around 10am one hostage, an adult man Ruslan Betrozov, was reportedly shot dead in the gym, right in front of the children, after trying to talk to the terrorists and calm down the captives.

By 11am the school territory was surrounded by police forces and residents of nearby buildings were evacuated. Senior public officials arrived at the site. Two authorities suggested exchanging themselves for captured children, but the terrorists turned down the proposal. President Vladimir Putin cancelled his summer vacation in Sochi and returned to Moscow.

The attackers, filming everything that was happening inside the school, announced they would only talk to the President of North Ossetia, president of the neighboring Republic of Ingushetia or Vladimir Rushailo, who was Russia’s Interior Minister in 1999-2001. The latter was however confused with Professor Leonid Roshal, a famous Russian pediatrician, by the hostage who was taking down the note. The terrorists demanded the withdrawal of armed forces from Chechnya (a Russian republic in the North Caucasus) and the release of a group of arrested gunmen.

The hostage-takers threatened to blow up the school in case police attempted to storm the building. They put children in the windows using them as human shields and said they would kill 50 hostages for every killed member of their group and 20 – for every wounded one.

At 3:50pm the Russian Air Force delivered the first groups of Special Forces troops.

Between 4 and 4:30pm, a blast and shooting were reported in the seized school. Several hostages died and their bodies were thrown out of the windows shortly later.

Dr. Roshal, though unwanted by the gunmen, still managed to establish contact with them at around 8pm. They insisted that the presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, along with Putin’s advisor Aslambek Aslakhanov, must participate in the talks as well.

By 9pm a large crowd of people – mainly the hostages’ relatives – had gathered outside the school building. The gunmen refused to accept medicine, water and food for the hostages.

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Negotiations between Roshal and the attackers continued late into the night, but brought no breakthrough.

In the morning, the head of oil refining company RussNeft, Mikhail Gutseriev, offered terrorists money in exchange for hostages. They declined the proposal.

At 2pm President Putin made his first official statement on the situation: “Our main task is, of course, to save the lives and health of the hostages. All actions of our forces dealing with the hostage release will be focused on that exclusive task.”

As a result of negotiations, by 4pm the gunmen agreed to meet with former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev. After the talks, 26 hostages – women with babies – were released. The gunmen also handed a message to Aushev with their demands: the withdrawal of troops from Chechnya and full sovereignty to the republic.

Meanwhile, Roshal continued negotiations with the attackers, asking them to allow food and water be passed to the captives, but the talks yielded no positive results.

Friday, September 3, 2004

Several blasts rocked the school and shooting was reported during the night and early in the morning.

Those released said that the number of hostages inside the building was over 1,000 instead of 354 as it had initially been thought.

Shortly after the noon, the terrorists allowed Emergencies Ministry workers to approach school to retrieve the bodies of those killed that had been lying in front of the building for two days.

At around 1pm, as rescuers got to the site, two powerful explosions ripped through the school gym followed by gunfire. It was not immediately clear what caused the blasts, but later reports suggested that the gunmen provoked them accidentally. According to one version, a suicide bomber blew herself up. According to another, explosive devices placed into hoops in the gym fell down.

The blasts triggered chaos, with hostages trying to flee through a hole in the wall and terrorists opening fire on them. Security forces returned fire and helped a dozen captives run away, often sheltering them with their own bodies. The gunmen attempted to force the remaining hostages from the partly ruined sports hall to the canteen.

At 1:10pm security forces started storming the building. Snipers opened fire on terrorists’ firing points while troops were evacuating the hostages. Federal Security Forces (FSB) officers broke into the gym: there were dozens of wounded and exhausted hostages there, but the terrorists had moved to the school canteen and were shooting from there.

At about 2.20pm a blaze broke out in the sports hall. By the time fire brigades arrived at the scene, the majority of hostages from the gym had been evacuated. About a hundred special forces troops were inside the building. Five militants were reportedly killed.

After 3pm evacuation from other parts of the school was still ongoing amid a continuing gunfight. Mobile medical units were deployed in the area to immediately help the wounded before taking them to hospitals in Beslan and Vladikavkaz.

Between 6 and 7pm, after it was established that there were no more captives in the school building, troops used Shmel rocket infantry flamethrowers against the militants. Two T-72 tanks were also deployed in the nearby area. By 9:30pm the hostage-takers were proclaimed eliminated and shortly before midnight the school was under full control of security forces.

Saturday, September 4, 2004

Rescuers continued recovering the bodies of the victims from the school debris.

Relatives who had not found their loved ones alive flocked to hospitals and examined the long lists of injured placed on the walls, hoping to find names among them. Those who lost hope had to look among the dead bodies. President Putin arrived in Beslan in the early hours on Saturday and visited one of hospitals.

Sunday, September 5, 2004

The official death toll rose as some of the badly injured died. Over 50 remained in critical condition.

The first funerals took place.

North Ossetian Interior Minister, Major General Kazbek Dzantiyev, announced his resignation. He said that “as an officer and a man” he had “no right” to occupy his post after what happened in Beslan.

Monday, September 6, 2004

Mass funerals took place in Beslan. Two days of national mourning began in Russia.

The aftermath of the Beslan hostage crisis

The survivors of the tragedy still cannot forget those terrible days they spent on the verge of death. Those who lost their loved ones do not believe their psychological wounds will ever heal. They keep coming to site of the attack – which has since been turned into a memorial – and to the cemetery, the City of Angels, one of the rare graveyards in North Ossetia where both Christians and Muslims were laid to rest.

There are no Muslims and Christians here. They are children. They are innocent creature. And all people come [to the cemetery] – Christians and Muslims…They come in tears and go in tears,” Kaspolat Ramonov, the keeper at the City of Angels said. His family was taken hostage in 2004. The wife and son seriously injured and his eldest daughter was killed.

Photo: Getty Images. A Russian special police soldier (L) carries an injured colleague as two soldiers and two women take cover behind the APC during the rescue operation of Beslan's school, northern Ossetia, 03 September 2004.

Photo: Getty Images. A Russian special police soldier (L) carries an injured colleague as two soldiers and two women take cover behind the APC during the rescue operation of Beslan’s school, northern Ossetia, 03 September 2004.

Photo: Getty Images. Relatives check the lists of injured at the hospital in Beslan, 4 September 2004.

Photo: Getty Images. Relatives check the lists of injured at the hospital in Beslan, 4 September 2004.

Photo: Getty Images. Ossetians mourn at the destroyed school's gymnasium in Beslan 12 October 2004. The week marks the end of the traditional 40 day mourning period since the wrenching climax to the hostage-taking at School No. 1 on Sept 3 when some 330 people, more than half of them children, died.

Photo: Getty Images. Ossetians mourn at the destroyed school’s gymnasium in Beslan 12 October 2004. The week marks the end of the traditional 40 day mourning period since the wrenching climax to the hostage-taking at School No. 1 on Sept 3 when some 330 people, more than half of them children, died.

Among the hostages was university lecturer Aneta Gadieva, her nine-year-old daughter Alana, and one-year-old Milena. When a deal was struck to allow some mothers to take out one infant, she faced an impossible choice which, as she explains here, still haunts her.

The first day of the school year in Russia, 1 September, is a happy occasion known as the Day of Knowledge. Children put on their best clothes and bring flowers but they don’t take their school rucksacks because there are no classes – it’s a day of celebration and catching up with friends. Parents come along, and if a child is starting school for the first time the whole family will be there – grandparents, uncles, aunts, everyone. So there were more than 1,000 people in the playground of School No 1 that day. There were balloons everywhere. Children lined up in their school uniforms and it was a jovial, wonderful atmosphere.

I was just chatting to Alana’s teacher when all of a sudden we heard the sound of a machine gun behind us. I turned around and saw with horror that a man was shooting and shouting “Allahu Akbar”. My first thought was that he was mad, but then I heard another machine gun on the other side of the school and realised that we were under attack.

I looked around for an opportunity to escape but I couldn’t leave Alana, who was somewhere in the playground. I tried to reach her but it was madness, there was a mass of people running towards me. I fell down, still holding Milena, and lost a shoe. I thought we were about to be crushed, but a woman stopped to help us up.

I kept thinking the same thought over and over: “Where is my girl? Where is my girl? I’m not going to see her any more.”

The gunmen were smashing windows and forcing everyone into the gym. One of them pushed me through with his machine gun.

The conditions inside were terrible. If there is hell on earth, that was hell.

There were 1,200 people crammed into a small gym. There wasn’t room to stretch out an arm or a leg so we were all twisted and squashed into each other. It was horrible. And of course I had a baby in my arms.

I found a table and sat on it, looking out for Alana, crying, calling out her name. Then one of the parents said: “There is Alana, she’s just over there in the other corner!” And I finally saw her. She waved at me. I wanted so much to be with her. There was a kind of path separating the crowd that the terrorists used to walk up and down, so I told Alana to crawl towards me along this path, while I started walking towards her. She was scared. “Mum, don’t go because they’re going to shoot you,” she said. But eventually we were reunited and hugged each other.

At the start of the siege one of the parents tried to calm everybody down – Ruslan Betrozov, the father of two boys in the school, was speaking to us in our native language, Ossetian. Then one of the gunmen walked up to him and shot him from behind. They dragged his dead body from one side of the gym to the other, in front of his sons.

Then the terrorists started hanging explosives along the perimeter of the gym. They made high school students help them hang bombs from the basketball rings. One boy was supposed to hang a bomb right over our heads and he couldn’t. He kept saying that he didn’t want to and he was scared it might explode. I told him to hold Milena so I could help, but they wouldn’t let me, so he had to hang up the bomb on his own.

Then they installed two pedals on the floor to trigger the bombs, and put a terrorist on each. They just stood there, and the whole time we thought that if they moved, the school would blow up.

I couldn’t accept that it was really happening. I kept thinking: “In a moment I’m going to wake up and it will all be gone.”

I had this physical desire to push my children back into my belly, so they wouldn’t have been born, so they wouldn’t be there.

The other dilemma I had was how to protect them if there was an explosion. How would I do it? I even tried stretching out to see whether I would be able to cover both of them.

My neighbour Fatima was there with her children aged 10 and four, and her baby girl, Alyona, who at eight months was even younger than Milena. Alyona was crying so much that the terrorists couldn’t stand it and so at lunchtime they were all taken out – where to, we did not know.

But later that night we saw each other again when all mothers with children under the age of three were sent to join them in the changing rooms. I took Alana with me, even though she was older. Conditions there were a little better – there was a shower, but we were told that the water had been poisoned, so we were too scared to drink from it. Eventually some people started taking small sips because they were so thirsty, but we were too scared to give any to the children.

By the second day, the conditions in the changing rooms had deteriorated badly. There were about 20 very young children, who just couldn’t understand what was going on. They were hungry and crying all the time – it was really loud. There were no toilets and we were standing in pools of urine.

In the early afternoon a rumour spread that an important man was coming to visit. One of the terrorists kept running up and down. At first we thought it might be Putin, but later we found out that it was Ruslan Aushev, the ex-President of Ingushetia, who was coming to negotiate.

Then one of the terrorists came in to the changing rooms and said that each woman could take one baby out. I walked up and asked him if Alana could take her baby sister out instead of me. Where to, I didn’t know, so it was really scary – to leave a child is awful, frightening, especially when you don’t know the outcome.

But he got really angry and shouted: “What did I say? One mother and one breastfeeding infant!”

To be honest, there was no time to think, everything was happening so fast. They kept on shouting: “If you don’t go, someone else will suffer for it. If you don’t do what we say, someone else will pay the price.” They constantly used this sense of collective responsibility against us.

For me, at that moment, there was no choice.

So I dashed up to Alana, who was with another girl from our courtyard, and I said: “Alana, you two stick together, everything will be OK.”

Then I walked out with Milena.

What was going on in my head was pure horror.

They shouted at us: “Faster, faster!”

We walked through the smashed-up corridor and there was this dark silence in the school playground. We didn’t know what was going on. I still don’t, now.

Twenty-six of us were released – 11 mothers and 15 babies. Several of us had to leave older children behind.

But Fatima, my neighbour, had refused to move. I don’t know how she did it, but she stayed behind with her two older children and gave her youngest daughter to Aushev, who took her to the medical station.

When I saw that Fatima was not there but her baby was, I thought: “How did she do that? I could have stayed behind as well.” That was another horrible moment. I felt so terribly guilty.

They took us to hospital, asked us questions, and in the evening they took us home.

I was in such a panic that I kept trying to go back to the school, but my mother wouldn’t let me. She kept saying nobody else could take care of Milena, because I was still breastfeeding her. But I was frantic. In the end she fell on to her knees and said, “Please don’t go.”

On the third day I heard a rumour that children were going to be released. I immediately started running towards the school, but before I could get there the explosions started.

I wasn’t allowed through so I ran to the hospital and waited there. The first car with casualties arrived, then a second and a third, but none of them had Alana inside.

There were also cars that were going to the mortuary, but I didn’t even want to look at those. I couldn’t believe that they could just kill children like this. So I just kept on waiting outside the hospital.

Then my husband, Seyfil, came back from the school and told me that there was no-one left in the gym, that everyone had been burned. I collapsed.

We kept on looking. For two days we visited all the local hospitals. Then on 5 September my nephew went to the mortuary in Vladikavkaz, the regional capital. He called me to ask what Alana had been wearing. Then he began describing her earrings. That was when I realised she was dead. I fell down and started screaming.

Two of the other mothers who were released also lost their older children and have to live in the same condition as me. Fatima was killed, with her older daughter, but her four-year old survived, miraculously. You never know how God protects you.

After the explosion I couldn’t think about anything but Alana. Looking after Milena was impossible. I didn’t have the emotional capacity for anything or anyone else.

I just wanted somebody – somebody kind and affectionate – to take her away so I could grieve. Our friends came to take Milena out for walks, but my family realised that they couldn’t take her away from me altogether because she was my only reason to survive. I needed to take care of her and I needed to give her attention. And eventually I did.

In the apartments where we lived, 38 people had died in the terrorist attacks. We were always together, and could think about nothing else. We were always in this battle, reliving the past – that’s what we did all day long. Maybe it was our way of surviving, maybe this adrenaline, this feeling of fury was the thing that prevented us from killing ourselves. Because I just didn’t want to exist. I didn’t want to live any more. My desire at the time was just to disappear in thin air so that nobody would remember anything about me.

Then my mother said that I needed to get away, and in May 2005 we moved to Vladikavkaz, about 25km away.

I didn’t want to leave Beslan, it was very difficult for me. But when we left it became a tiny bit easier to cope.

One person who did me a lot of good was a Russian doctor who lives in the UK. After she saw my story on television she wrote and invited me to spend time with her. In the beginning I couldn’t even think about it, but she kept on insisting and eventually convinced me to visit her in Grimsby. She was so affectionate, warm and tender – I don’t think anybody has ever been so kind to me.

I couldn’t work for three years. I went back part-time, but soon realised that I was no longer fit for teaching because every once in a while I couldn’t help myself and I would tell my students horrifying stories. So I decided to leave. Now I work as a researcher at the Academy of Sciences.

My whole reality, my entire life, was shaped by that day. Milena of course makes me go on and I feel like I should live for her. But then I also feel selfish, because for all these years she’s had to live with a grieving mum.

Alana was an important part of Milena’s life, not least because she was constantly compared to her sister. But when she was a little bit older she started telling me: “Mum, I’m not Alana, I’m a different person altogether.”

She’s been through a lot and she misses her sister, but she’s remarkably adaptable. Over the years she has developed a mechanism to protect herself – she just puts negative things aside. I ask her how she does it, and she says: “Mum, if I pay attention to everything I’ll go crazy.”

Alana was very wise too – I remember when she was nine, she said: “Mum, why are you thinking about yesterday? That has already passed.”

Milena is very creative, very innovative. She’s passionate about dancing and also really interested in journalism. She has an opinion about everything.

She’s very independent, even though I am very protective.

When she first started school, it was very hard for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Even the sight of a school rucksack was terrible. But life has its own demands and I couldn’t stop her from going to school, even though I was constantly worried.

But I never allow her to attend school on 1 September because that’s when I go to the commemoration events in Beslan.

Last year Milena came with me for the first time. She carried Alana’s portrait in the procession from the school ruins to the cemetery. She said it was very important for her.

There are two stories about her sister that Milena loves to hear.

Once, Alana was sick with a high fever and had to go to hospital. I was pregnant at the time but I hadn’t told her yet – she kept asking me for a brother or sister and I wanted it to be a surprise. But when she was so weak and feverish I decided to tell her: “You’re going to have a brother or sister.” She was so happy that she started crying. Her temperature dropped, and for the rest of my pregnancy Alana didn’t fall sick once.

The other story is about how, when Milena was born, Alana came to the hospital and just grabbed hold of her baby sister and carried her out of the hospital.

These stories make her happy.

Alana at the piano.

Alana at the piano.

Photo: Diana Markosian. Aneta Gadiyeva, 51 with her her daughter Milena Dogan, 11, both former hostages. Gadiyeva was released on the second day with her newborn. She left behind her eldest daughter, Alana, in the gym. She was killed the next day. Beslan Checnya Russia.

Photo: Diana Markosian. Aneta Gadiyeva, 51 with her her daughter Milena Dogan, 11, both former hostages. Gadiyeva was released on the second day with her newborn. She left behind her eldest daughter, Alana, in the gym. She was killed the next day. Beslan Checnya Russia.

Aneta Gadieva first told her story to TV journalist Alina Gracheva. Like many journalists who reported from Beslan, Gracheva was deeply traumatised by the experience, but her report was nominated for an Emmy.

The world’s five worst terror attacks involving children – Telegraph

3 days in hell: Russia mourns Beslan school siege victims 10 years on …

Focus: When hell came calling at Beslan’s School No 1 | World news …

The Beslan School Massacre | The Velvet Rocket

Three Days That Shocked The World – Rense

Chechen separatists storm Russian school – Sep 01, 2004 – HISTORY …

 


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  • George Carter

    Can’t even begin to imagine the horror those people went through.

  • Jimbob

    Tears reading this.

  • DemocKot

    we were in Russia at the time, very sad. The 1st of September is a neat day with all the children in uniform and take flowers to the teacher, a day to remember and thats why it was chosen…..
    There is a BBC program about the above (not sure if it is in your links at the end)
    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36378981
    and a podcast as well:http://www.bbc.com/programmes/p03bbkcb
    From memory the familes eventually got some compensation , about US 3000 each????, there was some minor scandal in russia at the time about how some churches and aid organisations suddenly “appeared” and wanted to help when the money was paid, also a scandal (hidden) how the terrorists had “evaded” checkpoints and security forces in the region at the time(clue$$$$)

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