Five years after Beslan tragedy, questions linger

Half of all Russians surveyed say they don't know the whole truth about how more than 300 people, mostly children, were killed when the military raided the school where they were held hostage.

By , Correspondent

MOSCOW – It was a parent's worst nightmare.

On the first day of school, Sept. 1, 2004, terrorists seized Beslan's School No. 1, herding more than 1,000 children and teachers into a gymnasium at gunpoint, where they held them without food or water for three tense days as townspeople and Russian special forces looked on from the nearby street.

On the third day, the nightmare turned to sheer horror. Russian troops assaulted the crowded school amid a wave of explosions and a storm of gunfire. Hundreds were pulled to safety but when the shooting stopped, many hours later, more than 330 people – mostly children – were dead.

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For many of the bereaved parents of Beslan and other Russians, the questions about what happened on that terrible day have never been satisfactorily answered. No official, at any level, was fired over the catalogue of blunders that led to the deadly firestorm that killed hundreds of children. The Kremlin, backed by an obedient State Duma, blocked a full investigation.

But unofficial studies have contradicted the official line by suggesting that the Army may have opened hostilities – and not the terrorists – and that the military subsequently used heavy weaponry, including tank shells, inside the hostage-filled gymnasium.

"From that day to the present, people here blame the authorities," says Khasan Dzutsev, director of the Center of Social Surveys in Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia, where Beslan is located. "The [security forces] did not even do the most elementary things to save people."

Many of the victim's relatives say that, five years on, they feel only despair.

"There has been no proper investigation of what happened," says Ella Kesayeva, cochair of Voice of Beslan, a group representing the victim's relatives. "We feel as if no lessons have been learned, and that tragedy could repeat itself at any moment. No one can protect us; there is no accountability at the top [of Russian government]," she says.

A survey conducted this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that half of Russians believe that only part of true story about Beslan is known. Twenty-five percent said they suspect the authorities are actively covering up unpleasant facts, and just 10 percent think the whole truth has been made public.

Then-President Vladimir Putin used the tragedy to ratchet up Kremlin control, strengthen the powers of the security services, and cancel elections for regional governors.

The Beslan tragedy was the last of a series of horrific terrorist strikes that killed more than 1,000 Russians during the first four years of President Putin's Kremlin tenure, and changed Russia fundamentally.

"Russians became much more nationalistic under the impact of these events, and much less tolerant," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an expert with the independent Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Moscow. "We were already living in an authoritarian state, and it became more so."

Many experts say Russia's security services have not learned the lessons of Beslan, and if a similar attack were to occur again they would likely make the same mistakes.

"Law enforcement is focused on fighting terrorists, and not on protecting citizens," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The number of victims at Beslan, and other terrorist tragedies, was due to the lack of concern for peoples' lives, and there are no signs of any changes in that."

The Kremlin has since claimed that rebellious Chechnya, the main source of a decade of terrorism, has been pacified. But extremist attacks continue to proliferate around the mainly-Muslim northern Caucasus region, albeit not on the scale of Beslan.

"The main reason we haven't seen another tragedy like Beslan is because the rebels have changed tactics," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online news service that focuses on Russia's security services. "They no longer operate in big units, but have broken up into small cells which target officials and law enforcement personnel."

One lesson the Kremlin does appear to have learned is to keep journalists well away from the scene, if another major terrorist strike should occur. "The laws have been changed to prohibit journalists from gathering any information, not just from terrorists, but even from the local population," says Mr. Soldatov.

"If – God forbid – another Beslan should happen, journalists will not be allowed to go anywhere near the action," he says.

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