Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Russia’s Beslan School Massacre Ten Years On

The Beslan School Hostage Crisis shocked the world in 2004 when fourteen Chechen terrorists held 1,100 children and civilians hostage in a small town in southern Russia. A decade on, Chris Raven pays this small community in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains a visit during a quest with his brother to drive full circle around the Black Sea.

Memorial to the innocent victims who lost their lives in the 2004 School Hostage Crisis in Beslan,
North Ossetia (Russia) © Chris Raven
Extract from the book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Chris Raven, Simon Raven

Waiting patiently in a long queue of cars, we purchase corn on the cob from a chubby kid standing in front of a military bunker. We creep forward and pull up alongside a control booth. Si hands our passports and car documents to an official. He asks where we are going.
  ‘Vladikavkaz,’ Si replies with a nervous grin.
  He seems satisfied with his one word answer, and casually slides the documents over the counter. For many years, the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania has experienced terror and atrocities within its boundaries. The state had a predominantly Ossetian-Christian population, after Stalin deported thousands of ethnic Ingush Muslims from their homelands to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The return of a second wave of Ingush Muslims in 1991, to the eastern part of North Ossetia’s Prigorodny District, sparked violent clashes following the resettling of some 70,000 refugees from the Georgian province of South Ossetia. Prigorodny District was part of Ingushetia, which belonged to the Chechen-Ingush ASSR at the time. Dispute over lands and rising nationalism in North Ossetia-Alania led to the Ossetian-Ingush conflict, which according to Helsinki Human Rights Watch, was an Ossetian militia campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out during October and November 1992. It resulted in the deaths of more than 600 Ingush civilians and the expulsion of approximately 60,000 Ingush inhabitants from the Prigorodny district.

Si removes the magnetic “GB” sticker from the rear of the Volvo and we drive south to the small town of Beslan. We begin to see dramatic views of the white snow covered Caucasus Mountain Range. Looking towards the frozen peaks of Mt Elbrus, I imagine Pavel, the trusty mountain guide we had met yesterday, leading his group of climbers to the summit of this towering fortress of rock. Multi-coloured bunting stretches across the road in a small village, and a babushka wearing a floral print dress sweeps her porch with a broom made of twigs. Si cautiously overtakes an old man driving a wooden cart that is powered by a donkey. His arms look strong as he confidently pulls on the reins.

We reach the suburbs of Beslan, home to a population of mainly Ossetian-Christians. With a community going about their daily lives, it is impossible to imagine the severity of the event that took place here in 2004. On ‘The Day of Knowledge’ (September 1st), when children all over Russia return to school, one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Russia’s recent history took place in Beslan. The hostile takeover of School Number One by Chechen terrorists, was to become the rebels answer to unleashing violence across the North Caucasus in order to strike at Russia's south.

After visiting the memorial cemetery, which is one of the rare graveyards in North Ossetia where both Christians and Muslims are laid to rest, we drive around in circles trying to find School Number One. At a road junction, Si pulls over beside a fruit and vegetable stall. I leap out and approach a woman wearing a black crochet shawl. I ask her for directions to the school and she looks at me rather puzzled. Then she suddenly replies “Skooll, infants?” and draws a finger across her throat. I nod my head gravely. The woman points up ahead and then left. She seems curious to know why we want to go there, so I put a hand to my heart in an effort to communicate that we would like to pay our respects.

Following a railway track along a bumpy unpaved road we turn down a suburban street lined with two storey red brick houses. Near to a rusty abandoned sign warning of children crossing, a young woman lifts her baby out of a pram. It occurs to me that she could be one of the survivors of the siege, who now has a child of her own. We hang a sharp left into a side street with a row of garages, and I see a copper structure slide into view that covers a brick building in ruins. A new Christian church is under construction to the right of the memorial. We step inside the derelict sports hall, where twelve Chechen men and two Chechen women held 1,100 children and civilians hostage. It is difficult for us to imagine the three days of suffering that occurred right here within these brick walls. Flowers and soft toys have been placed around the edges of the room, and colour photographs are on display of the children and teachers who tragically died here. A large wreath and a wooden crucifix have been positioned in the centre of the sports hall. Si points out the black and charred roof and the bullet and shrapnel holes scattered across the walls. The entire structure appears to have remained untouched since the day the school was brutally taken hostage. Homemade plastic explosives were attached to the basketball nets either side of the hall, and there are two holes in the wooden floor below caused by the blasts. TV news footage leaps into my mind, parents running with their dead and injured children in their arms, soldiers crouching behind walls and a scared little girl climbing back inside the school building to meet her fate. The news channel rt.com reported it was, “the bloodiest terrorist attack in Russia's history” and claimed the lives of “186 children, 118 relatives or school guests, 17 teachers, 10 special forces officers, 2 Emergencies Ministry employees and one policeman.” A further 810 people were injured. The Beslan terrorists requested a group of gunmen who were arrested to be set free and demanded Russian armed forces leave Chechnya. In addition, they insisted specific individuals must be present at the negotiations including Putin’s advisor, Aslambek Aslakhanov, and the presidents of North Ossetia and Ingushetia. An explosion occurred in the school ending the three-day siege. The government blamed the explosion on the terrorists, although, there had been some speculation that a terrorist bomb went off during a botched rescue operation by Russian security services. There can be no limit to the grief that the families of these innocent victims must feel.

by Chris Raven and Simon Raven

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

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