September 5, 2004
52 Hours of Horror and Death for Captives at Russian School
By C. J. CHIVERS
BESLAN, Russia, Sept. 4 - Long before the first bombs exploded in Middle School No. 1, marking the beginning of a ferocious battle that left hundreds of schoolchildren and their parents and teachers dead, the hostages had descended to near despair.
"At first I thought it was a joke," said one survivor, Emma Gagiyeva, 13, who sat numbly on a couch on Saturday, as the death toll climbed relentlessly, to 330, with many children still missing. "Then they started to shoot the windows, and glass fell on the people. They were shooting above our heads and they killed a few people, and I knew it was real."
She and other survivors and their families began to give a coherent account of the 52 hours of killings and captivity at the hands of masked gunmen that erupted in a catastrophic chain of events on Friday, when two large explosions set off battles between the captors and Russian forces. At least 1,200 people had been crammed into the school gymnasium, with no food and little water, and with a frightening network of bombs laced overhead.
Temperatures had become stifling, survivors and their families said Saturday, and some students were so hungry they had taken to eating the wilted bouquets they had carried to school. One boy said he was hoping for a bomb to go off, so the crisis might end. The terrorists teased their child captives, and shot at least one man to demonstrate the penalty for breaking their rules.
Even as Beslan was consumed by agonizing worry and grief, interviews with the survivors told of a moment when the first day of school became the opening of an ordeal.
The day began with an assembly in the schoolyard, with children streaming in with parents and brothers and sisters to open the school year. It was like years past, until the moment when the newly arriving first graders were to be introduced. It had always been a tender moment in years past. This year, people heard shouts, and saw something alarming: a line of masked gunmen advancing through the yard.
"The terrorists ran in yelling, 'Allahu Akhbar,' " said Asamaz Bekoyev, 11, who escaped with his mother and brother and lay in his bed on Saturday at his grandmother's house, being treated for cuts and minor burns.
A brief gun battle ensued, as the terrorists overwhelmed the few police officers at the ceremony, who had been caught unaware.
With shouts and threats, the gunmen herded the entire school assembly into the gymnasium and told to sit on the floor. The terrorists knew how to force the group to submit. The captives would soon learn that being told to sit meant just that.
Asamaz's older brother, Azamat, 14, said one of the hostages, an Ossetian man, tried to stand but as he rose to his feet a terrorist shot him in the forehead. The man fell straight to the floor, dead. "I saw this with my eyes," the boy said.
Another man tried to run out the back door to freedom, but a terrorist followed him, calmly sighted him through the rifle and shot him in the back. The man's body was then dragged through the gymnasium by the feet, leaving a long trail of blood.
The cruel rules of the siege were now established: obey or die.
Details followed: the hostages were allowed to speak only in Russian, so the captors could understand every word. They were told they must remain in their places. They were told to hand in their cellphones.
"They said, 'If we hear somebody's telephone ringing, 20 people around you will be killed,' " said Serafima Bekoyeva, 44, the mother of the two boys.
An order of business was soon under way. As hundreds of students huddled together, the terrorists gathered about 10 of the adult male hostages and enlisted them to help place bombs throughout the gym.
First they produced their makeshift bombs. Some were large plastic beer bottles packed with explosives, others rectangular, bricklike packets, wrapped tightly in brown tape, the survivors said.
The captors strung rope between the two basketball rims, and hung a line of these explosives overhead. The basketball nets themselves were tied shut, forming mesh baskets, into which more bombs were placed. Other bombs were arrayed along the floor and walls; the hostages estimated 20 in all, strung together with remarkable speed and skill.
The entire assembly was connected by blue and red wires, and at all times one of the terrorists held a black box with which the bombs could be made to explode. "They told us that one press of a button was enough to detonate everything," Ms. Bekoyeva said. Another group of hostages, about 10 or 15 boys, were ordered into the adjacent school building, where they stacked desks against doors and windows as a barricade for their captors' protection from Russian gunfire or advance.
Through the gymnasium drifted two female suicide bombers, wearing running shoes and black clothes. Black scarves obscured their faces, leaving only a slit for their eyes. Each had an explosive belt. Each was armed the same way: in one hand, a button for self-detonation, and in the other, a pistol.
The terrifying waiting began. Sometimes, the hostages said, they were taunted by both word and deed.
On the first day, they were given buckets of water and cups, but not enough, and people grew parched with thirst. The captors took clothes, soaked them in water and threw them to the crowd, who clutched them and wrung them above their open mouths, drinking the drops.
Emma said she was caring for Regina Sonakoyeva, a 3-year-old girl who kept crying out in thirst. "I held her and kept telling her, 'They will bring some, they will bring some,' " Emma said.
But their cage grew hotter.
One woman asked for water, the hostages said, and a terrorist held a pistol to her head, which she pushed away in indignation. "I cannot even ask for water?" she said. The terrorists then posted one of the women with a suicide bomb belt beside her.
"They said, 'If she says anything more, kill her,' " Azamat said. The woman sat quietly after that.
The rules became crueler still. Ms. Bekoyeva and her sons, and three other survivors, said after the terrorists grew irritated by the children's continued crying, they pulled two men from the crowd, ordered them to hold their hands behind their heads, and addressed the room.
"They said, 'If you don't stop this noise, we will kill them,' " Emma said. (One of the men was Batras Tuganov, Emma's uncle, who in the end was not shot because of the noise level, but who has not been found after the battle, and is feared dead.)
People did what they could to take care of themselves, shedding clothes to cool down, and tearing apart textbooks to use as fans. "For two days I was continually waving my arm to fan my children," Ms. Bekoyeva said. The terrorists also gradually restricted access to the bathroom, first allowing five hostages at a time to use the toilets, then three. With little chance for their turn, the younger children could not hold back and relieved themselves in the crowd's midst. "We had them urinate into bundles of cloth," Emma said.
The air grew steaming hot and foul-smelling with worry, urine and sweat. Eventually the terrorists shot out the top windows, the survivors said, so that a bit of air could move through the enclosed space.
The survivors also noted that their captors seemed to be students of past failures: they carried gas masks, apparently having learned from the fate of the terrorists who seized a theater in Moscow in 2002, and succumbed to a gas attack.
Sometimes the captors simply fired into the gym's ceiling.
Azamat recalled one terrorist, a man with a short beard whom the others called Ali, saying, "Have you ever seen such kind terrorists?"
Azamat and Emma said that a woman offered the hostage takers all of the town's money, but one of their captors said: "We don't need money. We have come here to die."
As the interactions with their captors deepened, the hostages began to develop a sense of who held their fates. They estimated the terrorists' number at 30. With the temperature rising, many of the gunmen removed their masks, displaying thick beards. They spoke Russian and a language the Ossetians said they did not understand, but was probably Chechen.
The hostages said they were unable to tell whether Arabs were among their captors, as the Russian government has asserted, without providing evidence as yet.
One hostage taker spoke of normal life, even as his own fate seemed sealed. "He said he himself had a wife and five children at home," Emma said.
The hostages heard through rumors shared quietly from captive to captive that at least one of the women with the bomb belts detonated herself in the school library on Wednesday. "After the first day, we did not see the women again," Ms. Bekoyeva said.
The terrorists also spoke of politics, saying they wanted the release of six Ingush who had been detained after an insurgent raid in June left nearly 100 dead, and that they wanted to extend the war between Russia and its breakaway republic of Chechnya. They also showed strange signs of fastidiousness, considering their evident determination to die. Several terrorists, three hostages said, carried toothbrushes, razors and toothpaste, tucked beside their ammunition on their camouflage-clad chests.
By late Friday morning, as the temperature soared anew in the crowded gymnasium, the hostages were becoming weaker. "People were almost losing consciousness," Azamat said. "We had not eaten or had water in almost three days."
Another boy who survived, Atsomaz Ktsoyev, 14, said the hostages were so hungry they ate the floral bouquets they had brought to school for the first day of class. "I never thought in my life I'd be eating flowers," he said.
He added, "It didn't help."
Then came the end, at shortly after 1 p.m. Five or so terrorists had checked on the explosives, the survivors said, and a few minutes later, the hall shook from an unexpected blast. The first bomb blew out the windows. Some hostages near the broken frames began to pour through them.
Others who survived dived for shelter, pressing flat. Emma said Azamat fell atop her and his younger brother, trying to cover their bodies and hold them to the gymnasium's floor. "He said to me, 'Don't be afraid,' " she said.
Then came the second blast. Their small group rose through the acrid smell of the detonated explosives, and scrambled out the window, too.
Life and death seemed to have been left to the whims of the seating arrangement. In the densely packed crowd, those nearest the bombs absorbed much of the shrapnel and force, and were killed. Those away from them, and near the now vanished windows, had a chance.
Emma said she ran wildly, as the terrorists opened fire. A boy who was running with his sister was struck, and the girl stopped to help him. Emma continued on. "I didn't see what happened to them," she said.
Ms. Bekoyeva said she handed six or seven children out the window, as older children scrambled past. Then she went out. She and her two sons ran to a shed, took shelter in it as the bullets flew by, and then Azamat punched out the back window, and they scrambled through it. After another sprint they came to the Russian police officers and soldiers. Most of them realized they were safe, but all did not. Seeing the police, Emma was confused. "I got scared and thought they were other terrorists,' she said. "But one embraced me and said, 'Do not be afraid.' "
Asamaz stopped when he reached a covered place near the police, and as the battle raged a few yards behind them, he snatched grapes from the trellises and handed them to the children with him - the first food they had had in more than two days.
Now lying in bed, he winced as his aunt Zalina Basiyeva put a traditional medicine on his burns. Outside their window, people clustered in the courtyard, waiting for news. Everything the people of Beslan thought they knew about living, his aunt said, had changed. She rubbed bits of the filament of eggshell onto the boy's blisters and burns, and said the lesson was indelible: "We never knew how happy we were."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company