October 13, 2004
Mourning and Anger at School Caught Up in Terrorism
By C. J. CHIVERS
BESLAN, Russia, Oct. 12 - Nadya Zaseyeva knelt between the mounds of dirt that cover her daughter and her grandson. She wailed. She pressed her palms to the cold ground. She shouted again, this time to God.
"Take me!" she howled. "Take me so I can be with them!"
For a minute she rocked rhythmically in silence. Then she wailed again. "Take me!"
Tuesday was the 40th day since the hundreds of deaths in the siege of Middle School No. 1, a day observed by religious tradition with vigil, prayer and feast. It marked a fresh outpouring of pain in a town that lost at least 331 of its residents to a terrorist attack, and it laid bare some of the darker emotions that have been summoned in the weeks since the battle ended in blood and fire.
Beslan passed the day awash in grief, love and tenderness, as it was during the hour this afternoon when Ms. Zaseyeva and her family cried over the new graves and brought freshly cooked food for the dead. But such tenderness came amid signs of growing ferocity and hate. Some men spoke of vengeance, and the school's walls bore graffiti that made frightening threats.
The day opened what will likely be several days of public grief.
By Russian Orthodox tradition, the formal period of mourning ends after 40 days. Ossetians observe this tradition but with little orthodoxy. Some families gathered Tuesday, the 40th day from death. Others plan to observe the 40th day after their loved ones' remains were identified, or the 40th day after they were interred.
This means the 40th day here could be repeated several times. Tuesday provided a preview of what will likely continue for a week.
The cemetery was quiet in the hours after sunrise, attended by work crews and pacing armed guards. Each fresh mound of earth was marked by a vertical wooden slat. Most bore names: Yelena Pavlovna Ostarny, Kazbek Romanovish Bichenov, Vladimir Grigoryevich Mokrov.
There were hints of lives cut short. Timur Vitalyevich Kozyrev would have turned 9 last week. A plastic toy Jeep was taped to his slat, which stood beside a wooden marker for his mother, Alla, who was 34, and another for his sister, Yelena, 15.
Dew clung to gifts that had been placed on many graves. The offerings made clear which mounds covered a child: a small stuffed bear, a bright green duck, hard candy, lollipops.
Beslan was waking up. By early morning, the bereaved began gathering at the scarred shell of the school. Horrors were retold. Larisa Sokayeva, 44, spoke of being in the gymnasium when the first bomb exploded, incapacitating her and killing her daughter.
She awoke sometime later, bleeding and full of shrapnel, she said, to see the ceiling in flames overhead and the battle under way. A girl was urging her to escape. Ms. Sokayeva recounted a hellish sight: another mother on a bench cradling a dead girl on her knees, unwilling to flee.
Forty days later, and the ruins around her show signs of change. Blood and the remains of two exploded terrorists still stain corridors, and the gymnasium carries the smell of ash. Fresh graffiti is scrawled along the bullet-riddled walls.
"Who will return our friends to us?" one phrase reads. Another reads, "Peace to Beslan."
But much of the writing is foreboding and dark.
Some writers pledged violence. "Through tears of grief, we say we will avenge this," appears on the auditorium wall. Other writers directed scorn at the regional government, labeling political figures "bandits."
There is a pervasive sense among residents of Beslan that when they needed their government most, it failed them, even betrayed them. The fiercest of these criticisms, and vile threats, were reserved for the school's director, Lidiya Tsaliyeva.
Ms. Tsaliyeva was also a hostage. She survived the siege and is now said to be in Moscow. Most of the writing against her is too vulgar to be reprinted here. Even the tamer passages carry tones of menace and hate.
"Lidiya, you will burn in hell for the perished children," one line reads.
"Lidiya, we will get you."
"Lida, you sold other people's children."
"Lida, you will not live."
"Lida, School No. 6 hates you. Die!"
Ms. Tsaliyeva has been the subject of a growing list of accusations, all unproven but many steadfastly believed by her neighbors. Some accuse her of complicity, saying she knew that bearded men were in the building on Sept. 1, but told students they were merely vagabonds, or that she pointed out the children of government officials to the terrorists.
A few accuse her of dereliction, saying she hired an inexpensive labor crew that was infiltrated by terrorists who used their access to scout the school and cache weapons and ammunition inside.
Sergei Ignatchenko, the senior spokesman for the Federal Security Service, a successor to the K.G.B, said investigators had ruled out the labor crew's role in preparing the siege. And many residents also said the accusations were utterly unfounded, and defended Ms. Tsaliyeva as an effective civil servant who has become a scapegoat.
"It is typical," said Rita Kudzoyeva, chief of staff of the district government. "In grief, you are angry at the entire world."
The defense seemed of little use. One woman blamed Ms. Tsaliyeva for remaining alive.
"A ship should sink with its captain," said Felisa Batagova, whose granddaughter, niece and sister died on Sept. 3. Ms. Batagova said a group of parents had hoped to suffocate Ms. Tsaliyeva in the hospital, but the director was taken out of Beslan. She was unrepentant.
"I felt like killing her myself," Ms. Sokayeva said.
Not all of the day was so laden with anger.
As many families picked their way to the school or stood outside it in tears, men busied themselves in courtyards, erecting tents, tending fires and butchering freshly slaughtered cows and rams. The meat was boiled in huge vats, to be eaten and carried to graves to offer to the dead.
By mid-afternoon, the work was done. The courtyards fell to a hush, families departed with the meat and the streets briefly clogged with traffic as the mourners proceeded to the new acreage where 239 of the victims are interred. A chilly rain began to fall.
Grave after grave became the scene of a brief banquet and a cluster of sobbing families with some people throwing themselves over the mounds. A Russian Orthdox choir moved from group to grieving group, singing blessings in the wind. Their songs were punctuated by shrieks.
Back in town, as night drew near, men remained at long tables in the tents, rain drumming on the canvas over their heads. Drinks flowed.
The men talked of what comes.
Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who has claimed responsibility for planning the seizure of the school, said in a statement posted on the Internet that 9 of the 32 people who attacked the school were ethnic Ingush who have cooperated with Chechen separatists in the war against Russia.
Ingushetia borders North Ossetia, and Russian officials and aid groups have warned that as the period of formal mourning ends, Ossetians might seek retribution in Ingush villages. There are historic enmities between the two peoples, who fought a war in 1992. Those enmities have been freshly stoked.
Men stood in the mourning tents in the evening and spoke of their urge for vengeance, but also said they were unsure where they would direct it. They said nothing is yet clear.
"If we knew who did this, we would tear them to pieces," said Teimuraz Pukhov. "But we need a concrete person. We don't want to start a civil war."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company