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Almost a year after Russian school massacre: Unhealed grief
San Francisco Chronicle


August 09, 2005

BESLAN, Russia - Raya Totieva visits her children almost every day. She sits down on a pile of granite slabs in front of the graves where they lie side by side, and counts them off as though they were still alive.

"That's my oldest, the one on the far left, Larisa," says Totieva, 44, pointing at a wooden grave marker where the bright sun had bleached the photograph of a dark-haired, unsmiling teenage girl. "Then Lyuba, here in the middle. Then Albina. Then Boris."

"My house has never been so quiet," she whispers.

Almost a year after 330 people, most of them children, died in a storm of bullets and explosions when Islamic insurgents seized a Beslan school, this southern Russian town is still drenched in tragedy. One mother who had been comatose since the siege died last week, adding one to the terrible toll.

Women in black mourning clothes walk like shadows through the cemetery where Totieva's children and 276 other victims lie in rows of identical graves. They bend down to rearrange flowers and toys on their children's tombstones, the way they would have tucked in the blankets on their beds.

As they mourn, the victims' relatives are growing bitter.

Despite an ongoing trial of the sole surviving hostage-taker, Nurpashi Kulayev, and a parliamentary inquiry into the three-day siege that began last Sept. 1, the people of Beslan still do not know how 32 terrorists carrying loads of guns and explosives got through police checkpoints that dot the roads of their republic, North Ossetia.

They do not know who gave Russian special forces the order to fire a tank gun and flame-throwers at the school with 1,200 hostages inside, or who - the hostage-takers or the Russian commandos - triggered the explosions that killed or wounded most of the hostages. They ask whether anyone in the government knew about the attack beforehand, but they have received no answer.

Instead, Russian authorities have repeatedly postponed publishing the results of the parliamentary investigation. Although the authorities working on the inquiry have said that the tragedy resulted, at least partly, from incompetence and poor cooperation on the part of the Russian police, security forces and army, no federal official has stepped down because of the attack.

The grieving parents and relatives of Beslan say there will never be a Sept. 11 commission-style investigation that would explain how the siege and ensuing massacre were allowed to happen. They point to the abandoned Kremlin investigation into the deaths of 130 hostages during the siege of a Moscow theater in 2002 and the rescue operation that followed.

"The authorities are not interested in telling us the truth, because it would show that the system is guilty," says Susanna Dudiyeva, 44, whose 13-year-old son, Zaur, was killed in the school.

Dudiyeva is one of the leaders of the Beslan Mothers' Committee, part advocacy group for survivors, part political organizing force, which is trying to investigate on its own the assault and its tragic aftermath, even as it demands answers from the government. Dudiyeva says the committee has learned, among other things, that the truck carrying the militants to the school had a police escort.

Prosecutors refuse to comment on these allegations.

Kulayev, a 24-year-old Chechen, went on trial in May. The trial - which is closed to the general public and which only a few selected journalists are allowed to attend - is expected to continue for months.

At the burnt-out shell of the gym of School No. 1, scores of wreaths line the walls, and flowers and toys lie in bomb craters on the charred floorboards. Countless bottles of water stand around the gym, a tribute to the hostages who were kept for three days without water in the scorching heat. On the walls of the gym, parents have written notes begging their slain children to forgive them.

Bullet marks scar the inside and outside walls of the red-brick building, and holes gape where heavy machine guns and the tank cannon struck. Brown dry blood is smeared on the walls in the hallways.

Pieces of decayed human flesh hang from the pale blue walls and the ceiling where a female suicide bomber blew herself up. On the floor, a soiled doll lies on a pile of rubble and pages from a Russian grammar textbook.

In the conference hall, where the terrorists had allegedly hidden weapons and bombs under the wooden stage, deflated yellow, red, green and blue balloons hang from the ceiling on thin strings - decorations for a back-to-school party that never happened.

Dudiyeva, whose apartment faces the school, says she never opens the windows. "If I opened them, the wind would carry particles of burnt children into my apartment."



Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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