Russian school siege: A survivor's tale

One rescued hostage details what happened during the 53-hour ordeal.

Editor's note: This story was originally posted September 3, 2004

The last time Alla Gadiyeva saw her first-grade son and mother - at the violent climax Friday of Russia's 53-hour hostage saga - she was helping them to escape. She pushed them out of a school window with other hostages, and fell back exhausted.

"Then, I was praying," says the young mother, recounting the ordeal from a stretcher outside the city hospital, after her own rescue several hours later. "We were all praying."

Authorities, survivors, and reporters on the scene are still piecing together the chaotic events. North Ossetia officials said that at least 200 people died and up to 700 were injured among more than 1,000 children and adults held captive by Chechen separatists.

The most common version of events is that the hostage-takers opened fire on a vehicle sent in to retrieve bodies of those killed at the start of the seizure of Beslan's Middle School No. 1, in southern Russia. Russian authorities said they were forced to storm the building at that point. Almost immediately, says Mrs. Gadiyeva and others, at least one group of children managed to escape while being shot at by their captors.

Russian forces battled the hostage-takers for hours as explosions and grenades rocked the city. Russian troops - with special forces spearheading the storming - killed 27 hostage-takers and captured three alive, officials told the Interfax news agency.

The end of the siege Friday brought tears of joyful reunion for those with children who were brought out alive. For some others, who did not find their family members' names on the survivor lists, it elicited high-pitched wails of sorrow.

"My niece is missing - she's not on any of the [survivor] lists," said one woman, sitting alone on a small stump under a cluster of trees, shoes off and head buried in her hands. When the Russian raid began Friday, said the woman, "we were frightened. Of course we didn't want [a raid]. Everyone knew how that would end."

In the hours after the ordeal, the hostages seemed more drained than emotional - depleted by three days without any food or water. The heat in the gymnasium, where most of them were held, caused many to strip to their underwear. Several of the hostages said that they were driven by their thirst to drink their ownb urine. Explosives were laid and hung everywhere.

By Friday afternoon, Gadiyeva said they were growing desperate. Children fell unconscious, and there was not a quiver of response or sympathy from their captors, she said.

She heard the militants speaking with Chechen, Ingush, and Ossetian accents.

Russian officials said later that they had killed as many as 10 Arabs in the raid. But Gadiyeva says, at least where she was, she heard no Arab accents and saw no Arab-looking men or women. Two of the women hostage-takers wore belts of explosives.

Gadiyeva says that she had grown weak, and her own will to live was fading.

"If we weren't taken out, we would have committed suicide. Without water, without air, people were losing their senses," she says, resting on a stretcher under trees outside the hospital. She was dressed in blue jeans. Her shirt was dabbed with small blood smears. "The only thing I wished was that I would die quickly."

Their captors left no doubt about the outcome, if their demands were not met for Russian forces to withdraw from Chechnya, and release captured comrades in neighboring Ingushetia.

"[The Russians] killed our children, so we have nothing left to lose," Gadiyeva recalls the hostage-takers saying. "We will either win, or you will die here," they told her.

When the hostage-takers seized the school, she says that they told everyone to hand over their mobile phones, and threatened to kill 20 people if someone tried to hide a phone.

Two men were killed on the first day. "They were shot. Everyone saw them," recalls Gadiyeva. "Then [the gunmen] said: 'If any of your children make a sound, we will kill another.'

Gadiyeva says that given the ruthlessness of the hostage-takers, and the growing exhaustion of the captives, there was little choice but for Russian forces to act.

"If [Russian soldiers] didn't [storm] the building, in a few hours time, people were already at the stage of unconsciousness and would have died anyway," she says.

With so many children's lives on the line, on Thursday, Russian officials expressed their intention of reaching a negotiated settlement. On Thursday, they negotiated the release of 26 hostages. Officials say they were forced to act, once the firefight began. Two explosions marked the start of Friday's violent saga.

"There were explosions, and [the militants] started killing everyone," says Valery Gafurova, a girl with long black hair on a nearby hospital stretcher. She had been evacuated in a red van, crammed with other children and screaming adults.

Lending credence to the unexpected nature of the Russian assault, was the apparent improvised response. Russian medics quickly lined up ambulances to take away the wounded. Groups of heavily armed special forces - sweating beneath bulletproof vests - advanced and retreated. Between barrages of grenade explosions and intense gunfire, one blue-uniformed soldier ran down the street with a collection bag in his hand, yelling: "Has anyone got any bullets? We are short of ammo!"

At one point, Russian police officers cleared the road, and shouted out that one group of rebels had escaped. "If you see a woman in white, don't go near her!" they warned. Some female Muslim suicide bombers have been known to wear white to signify their preparation for death.

To avoid that end for her family, when the shooting started, Gadiyeva had forced her son, Zaur, and her mother through a school window. Not long after, Russian troops blew a hole in the side of the building, and hostages came streaming out.

At one point, some 60 exhausted and frightened children escaped to the garden gate of Vera Aguzarova, a pensioner in her 70s.

"I heard them crying. They didn't know what to do," recalls Mrs. Aguzarova, pointing to a lush patch of pear trees and grapevines, a couple blocks from the brick school. "I opened the gate and told them to come in and hide. There was a sniper and he was shooting at them."

She points to the bloody bare footprints tracing a path from her kitchen floor to the bathroom, where they poured water down their parched throats from one of the four faucets there. She says they fought for water, leaving their handprints on the white tiles and sinks.

"I'm sure those [hostage-takers] are [Osama] bin Laden's children, [but] who will pay for the lost blood of these children?" asks Aguzarova, clutching an armful of stained clothes left behind. She holds up a small chocolate bar, left behind by a girl who had wounds on both legs.

"She had been saving this for three days," says Aguzarova, impressed by her determination and perseverance. "She said, 'Aunty, help me. I'm dying,'before she was later taken to the hospital. With some conviction, Aguzarova, says that she will do what she can to help this girl recover: "I'm going to find her. I'll find her."

Back in the gymnasium, Gadiyeva huddled with her hands around her head as gunfire and explosions went off around her. Then she heard a voice; it was a Russian soldier, saying, "You're home. It's over."

She says now, "It was like a dream. I still haven't come to my senses yet," says the young woman, rising slowly with obvious pain. She wants to check the survivor lists taped on the hospital walls.

"I've got to find my boy and my mother. I was told they are alive," she says, with a new determination. "When we get out of here, we won't go directly home. We'll buy ten liters of Coca-Cola and ice cream."

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