Beslan: One Year Later

Though the recent cloudy and rainy days signal the end of summer, its official end comes with the sudden appearance of children on the streets of Moscow. These bright young faces, dressed to the hilt for their first day of school are also a grim reminder. September 1-3 marks one year since the Beslan Massacre.

On the morning of September 1, 2004 Chechen terrorists took hostage Beslan School No. 1 in the small town of Beslan in North Ossetia. The hostage takers demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. For three days 1,200 adults and children were held hostage as Russia and the world watched. On September 3 all hell broke loose. When a FSB sniper shot one of the terrorists who had a bomb, thus setting it off, Russian forces stormed the school. It was then that the details get murky. Overwhelming force was unleashed on the school, including helicopter gunship fire and even a tank. Some claim that terrorists began shooting hostages held in the school gym. Others claim that FSB agents indiscriminately fired rounds into the school, killing many hostages. As chaos broke out, parents, themselves armed, ran toward the school to save their children. Teachers and children fled out of it. When the smoked cleared 330 hostages were killed, including 186 children. 918 hostages were rescued. Quickly dubbed, 9/1 following America’s 9/11, the Beslan massacre sent shock waves across the Russian body politic. Blame for the deaths was and continues to fall on both Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who organized the act, to Russian President Vladimir Putin, for failing to prevent it.

Beslan has become symbolic of many things over the last year. It is a reminder of Russia’s brutal and seemingly never ending war in Chechnya. It is a symbol of Russia’s weakness, even while Putin has created an image of decisive and authoritarian strength. It has drawn Russia further, whether rhetorically or in actuality, into the “global” war against terrorism and Islamic extremism. Beslan, along with the terrorist raid on the Nord-Ost Theater in October 2002, killing 129; the February 2004 Moscow subway bombings, which killed 39; another metro bombing at Rizhskaya in October 2004, which killed 10; and blowing up of two passenger planes in August 2004, killing 89, has become a symbol of Russia’s inability to provide security against terrorism. In a recent poll, 65% of Russians polled believe that the authorities cannot protect them against terrorist attacks. Many Russians are still looking for answers of how this tragedy happened, who is to blame, and what can be done to prevent another. This search for the “whys” of Beslan, answers to which might provide not only psychological comfort to the victims’ families, but also to the nation, has been dubbed by some the “Belsan Syndrome.”

The so-called “Beslan Syndrome” goes beyond Beslan itself. How can one forget how Putin used the massacre to scrap the election of governors for their appointment by the Kremlin? Officials claim plans for the ditching regional elections were in the works for months. Beslan, however, provided the perfect political opportunity to unfurl them. Beslan also caused no reevaluation of the Chechen War. Moscow’s doctrine of overwhelming force continues unabated. It trudges further down the rabbit hole. Any hope of a political solution died with the killing of moderate Chechen separatist Aslan Maskhadov. Now the nationalist-Islamist Shamil Baseyev is now the de facto leader of Chechen independence. The conflict has moved to the border of Dagestan and bombings are becoming more common in Ingushetia. A year after Beslan, the Chechen War threatens to engulf that region.

The town of Beslan remains sorely divided between those who lost love ones and those who didn’t. Suspicion informs how each side deals with the other. The scores of official delegations, visitors, and journalists heading to the southern town have only increased the stress. Most of all, residents cannot understand how their own neighbors aided the terrorists. One man is on trial for allowing the terrorists into the town for a bribe of 500 rubles ($20). Many are blaming the school’s director for hiring maintenance workers who turned out to be the terrorists.

Thousands have showed up at the school to morn. Thirty women from the Beslan Mother’s Committee began a three day hunger strike and spent the night in the school to commemorate the incident. Forty others slept in the local cemetery where the victims are buried. According the one report in the Moscow Times, the tensions between citizens are high:

“[Zoya] Gadiyeva said her 38-year-old son died of heart attack just five months after the attack because he could not handle the stress.

“Why didn’t you do anything to protect them?” she berated the police.

“I will cry everyday until I reach you over there,” she said, turning to the pictures of her daughter and granddaughter.

Nearby, an old woman in black sang a song in Ossetian. “You all died and still the authorities are hiding the truth from us,” the woman sang, according to a translator. “Tell me, my dears, where should we go for the truth?”

A policeman told her to be quiet, and she retorted in Russian: “You haven’t lost anyone. You should have protected my children, but you failed, and now you are trying to shut me up?”

A group of screaming women tried to stop the principal of School No. 1, Lidia Tsaliyeva, from entering the gym. One woman ran up and tried to hit her on the head, connecting only lightly before police carried her away.

Some men then approached her. “How dare she come here today,” one man yelled.

“She is responsible for the death of our children. She betrayed us,” screamed Batras Tsalago as she tried to get near Tsaliyeva.

Police officers quickly surrounded Tsaliyeva and escorted her away.”

The politics of Beslan also continues in Moscow. Putin met with three members of the Beslan Mothers’ Committee. Many of the mothers blame Putin himself for the tragedy and they vow to make their views clear. “I will say that we think President Putin is to blame for what happened. As for what else I will say, well I am unpredictable and I can’t tell the exact words I will use but it will be serious,” says Susanna Dudiyeva, whose 12-year-old son Zaurbek was killed in the incident. The meeting however is being hailed in the media as a “precedent” for all of Russia. Putin is known to steer clear of any meetings with angry voters.

It is hard to not see this move by Putin as pure political calculation, rather than a genuine concern for the views of the Mothers’ Committee. During the meeting, Putin promised to punish those who “blundered” and a full and open investigation. What else could he say? His statements were so predictable they sound trite. His words, however, did their job. The Mothers seemed satisfied, though cautious.

There is a struggle between the State and society over the memory of Beslan. There is attempt by the Russian State to incorporate 9/1, like 9/11 in the United States, into its own narrative. Nothing shows this more than the black posters with “??? ????” (No Words) that appeared inside metro cars a week ago. At first I thought these were done by the Mothers’ Committee because the posters announce a meeting in solidarity with the victims of Beslan. It was only yesterday did I find out that Nashi, the pro-Putin youth group, were the source of the posters and sponsors for the meeting. Nashi has erected a large stage down the street from Red Square and plan to hold their “meeting” on Saturday. Yesterday, Nashi activists, dressed in black windbreakers with “??? ????” written across them could be seen in the city’s center.

There is a poem on the Nashi website that is telling of how the memory of Belsan is being turned. How the general grief of the public is being consolidated into that of the State. The poem reads:

We are one country. One people.
The murdered us.
The subhumans want us to be afraid of them.
When we sleep in our homes,
When we go in the metro,
When we rest,
When we take our children to school.
This will not happen. One year ago—3 September—Beslan.
There are no words that can describe this tragedy.
There are no words able to voice all the pain and sorrow
For those who will never walk the earth.
That who did this will be eternally damned.
They will only be remembered
In life.
For them,
Everything will be done so that this won’t be repeated.
A meeting of silence at the monument for the victims of Beslan.
No words.

It says that there are “no words.” However, between the lines of remembrance is a deafening silence that calls for revenge; a statement of absolute victimhood that produces a silence that covers up the context of their murder. Nashi is wrong. There are words. One word really. A word denied in this poem, and thus silenced from memory. That word is Chechnya.