There are some wounds that never heal. What’s worse, for residents of this town scarred by one of the worst terrorist episodes in modern history, is that there are also some lessons that don’t get learned.
For a decade, Susana Dudieva has been battling to have the Russian government acknowledge that it made a series of mistakes that contributed to the deaths of 334 hostages – students, parents and teachers – after Chechen militants stormed Beslan’s Middle School No. 1 on the first day of classes in September of 2004.
Ms. Dudieva and the other Mothers of Beslan – a lobby group formed in the wake of the deadly three-day siege – have been frustrated at every turn in their efforts to investigate how dozens of Islamist fighters were allowed to reach the school, and why the Kremlin ordered a heavy-weapons attack on the red-brick building while there were hundreds of children captive inside. More than half of those who died in the ensuing firefight were students, some as young as five years old.
A culture of protecting top officials from blame, rather than trying to expose errors, means that many in Beslan believe the truth of what happened here remains hidden. Ms. Dudieva says that culture is a big reason why Russia has been repeatedly hit by terrorist attacks, before and since Beslan, and why she’s afraid for the security of the Sochi Olympics.
“I want to believe that Sochi is going to be safe. But no one who made decisions in Beslan got charged with any misconduct – not one person – which means we have the same authorities in charge today. And if they made mistakes once, they can make them again,” Ms. Dudieva says, standing in the gymnasium where her 13-year-old son Zaur was killed by a bomb blast almost 10 years before.
Beslan is only the most famous incident in the two-decade-old asymmetrical war between Russia’s military and bands of Islamist insurgents based on its southern flank, in Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan.
The fight escalated after President Vladimir Putin came to power 15 years ago. He ordered Russian troops to crush the semi-independent Chechnya that existed in the mid-1990s, claiming it had become a base for “terrorists” associated with al-Qaeda. In response, Islamist militants have bombed airliners, trains and buses around Russia, and staged mass hostage-takings at a Moscow theatre and the Beslan school.
Security forces are on high alert in the North Caucasus ahead of the Olympics that begin Friday in Sochi, 375 kilometres west of Beslan. You can sense the pre-Olympic tension in the region: The main door of Vladikavkaz airport, near Beslan, is covered in black-and-white photographs of a dozen wanted men and women. “They’re terrorists. Suicide bombers,” a police officer stationed in the airport explained.
But enormous security gaps remain. The Globe and Mail drove through five checkpoints between Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and Vladikavkaz this week. Though we had Chechen licence plates on our car, we were stopped only once, briefly, before being waved on without any examination of our passports or luggage.
A decade on from the tragedy, Beslan remains a monument to what happens when Russian security fails. Bereaved residents blame the army and Interior Ministry troops for allowing more than 30 Chechen fighters, armed with bombs, grenades and automatic weapons, to pass through the same checkpoints on their way to Beslan and Middle School No. 1.
“Where were our generals looking? Where was Putin looking? Why do these terrorist acts keep happening again and again? Why are the terrorists getting stronger?” Ms. Dudieva rages. When I relate our experience driving from Grozny, she gets even more agitated. “Tell everybody about that. Tell Canadians and Americans they should avoid the Olympics.”
The Beslan Mothers are also angry about the decision to use force, rather than negotiations, to end the school siege.
An official committee found that the hostage-takers had provoked the bloody final firefight by setting off homemade explosives inside the gymnasium on the morning of Sept. 4, 2004. However, an independent report by an explosives expert – who said his evidence was ignored by the official committee – suggested that it was Russian special forces who attacked first, firing a rocket-propelled grenade into a gymnasium full of hostages.
That’s the version most in this closely knit town of 35,000 people believe to be closer to the truth. “Putin just wanted to show the terrorists that he could crush them,” says Rita Sidakova, who last week was visiting the grave of her daughter Alla, who was nine years old when she was killed in the school siege. “He refused to negotiate, he refused to recognize our children were inside.”
Beslan lives in a constant state of mourning. The gymnasium of Middle School No. 1 – where the students and teachers spent most of their 52 hours as hostages – has been enveloped in a metal dome, but it otherwise remains largely as it was in September of 2004.
The floor of the basketball court is still punctured by the bomb blasts of a decade ago, the walls are pock-marked by automatic weapons fire. There are additions: Smiling portraits of the teachers and students who died hang from the walls like a final class picture. The photographs are surrounded by graffiti, flowers and stuffed toys left by visiting mourners.
Students who survived the bloody siege say it’s rare that they gather with friends without discussing the classmates and teachers they lost. “It’s difficult to discuss, but we need to remember,” says Diana Murtazova, a ninth-grader at the time who was partially paralyzed in the attack when shrapnel struck her neck.
Now 23, she has split the last decade between rehab – she can finally move about with the help of a walker, and has learned how to use a computer keyboard despite fingers that remain unresponsive (her family is trying to raise money for treatment outside Russia) – and studying for an economics diploma.
She’s a brave woman, who has battled through a lot. One thing Ms. Murtazova is not ready to do yet is return to the preserved gymnasium of Middle School No. 1. “Some day I will,” she says. “But I’m not ready yet.”
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