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Sorrowful lessons from The City of Angels
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, 31 2013

Knowledge Day in Russia has always been one of the most joyous of celebrations, but nine years ago the Beslan tragedy made the first of September a regular time of remembrance and mourning. ‘Kultura’ today visits Beslan and tries to find out whether or not the wound has finally healed, and what conclusions can been drawn from those terrible events.

ImageSeptember 1st, 2004, started out pretty much the same in every city in Russia: boys carrying flowers, little girls in bows, and the song “They are taught in school” coming from the loudspeakers. Inthe North Ossetia city of Beslan, that particular Knowledge Day and its aftermath became a kind of hell onearth.

The road from the Vladikavkaz airport to the capital city of North Ossetia passes right by “The City of Angels”. Manypeople stop: some for a quiet prayer, some to place a porcelain angel figurine specially purchased for this cemetery of victims of the terrorist attack on Beslan School #1. There are 266individual graves, the absolute majority of which are children’s, and one mass grave for the many unidentified body parts found after the appalling slaughter. Theyall bear the same date of death: September 3rd, 2004.

On that terrible September day Iwas a history and social studies teacher at a Moscow school, selected to speak to high school students at a hasty after school assembly. Atthe time we still did not know the exact number of victims from this terrorist attack, but everyone knew that it was in the hundreds of children. ‘Nord-Ost’ in 2002was still fresh in our memories, as well as the 1999bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk. Colleagues who had spoken before me said, in general, all the correct things about the need to be more vigilant, more cautious, and more united. Igave a “politically incorrect” speech on the fact that ethnic crime and Islamic extremism needed to nipped in the bud using the most severe and even cruelest of methods. Ialso spoke about corruption having no nationality; about “nasty cops” who allowed more thirty well-trained and professionally-equipped warriors to “suddenly” enter a Russian middle school with ammunition, explosives, and even heavy weapons.

How could such a thing even be possible? Whois to blame? Andwhat can be done to prevent such a thing from happening again? Fornearly nine years, these questions have been posed by the ‘Mothers of Beslan’ committee, which has been mercilessly criticizing the Russian government for its inaction inaction that manifested itself during the first days of September 2004, and later during the investigation into the Beslan tragedy. No, these women who lost their children do not dream of revenge they are simply hoping for an objective finish to the case whose endpoint has yet to beset.

‘Mothers of Beslan’ have been repeatedly criticized, and are still criticized, for being too politicized, that the opposition and all sorts of charlatans have been actively courting them and taking advantage of them for many years. Someof these women were at some point crazed with grief and sought the “services” of the notorious charlatan and con artist Gregory Grabovoy who promised “resurrect” the Beslan children for a price. Allof this, alas, is the bitter truth, but can you really fault people who have lost the most precious thing they ever had inlife?

On that terrible day in September, Aneta Gadieva lost her eldest daughter, nine-year-old Alana. Aneta still wishes that they had killed her instead. Backthen, she took her one-year-old daughter to the Knowledge Day celebration, and was immediately taken hostage along with her two children. Thenext day, September 2nd, Ruslan Aushev, the former Ingush president who was taking part in negotiations with the terrorists, managed to gain the release of eleven women, who left the captured school carrying young children in their arms. Thisincluded Aneta, who begged the terrorists to release both her daughters and keep her as a hostage. Thebastards, however, remained belligerent and unrelenting.

“Judge for yourself,” says Aneta. “Higher ups in the Ingush police force were guilty of allowing this gang (there was a terrorist training base in their territory). Theywere tried by jury in their native Ingushetia, and, of course, found innocent.” Aneta no longer holds any hope for the punishment of those responsible for the incident, once again demonstrating the explosive tension here in the North Caucasus between these two peoples living side byside.

The conflict between Ossetians and Ingush has a long history, though it only grew acute after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Herethey remember well the armed conflict that erupted in October of 1992in the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia. Atthe time local Ossetians with the help of South Ossetia volunteers and Terek Cossacks expelled according to various estimates up to 30,000 Ingush from the territory of North Ossetia in a series of bloody battles. Today it is difficult to say who was originally responsible for the bloody events of those days (I personally believe that the Kremlin back then was trying to squander the country). Inthe end, however, tens of thousands of representatives of the two peoples of the Caucasus entered into a “blood feud”. TheBeslan tragedy has exacerbated the conflict so much that now no one can say if it can ever be unraveled.

“In that house there lives an Ingush family. Forget that it’s small and modest-looking there are several floors downstairs and even a secret underground passage!” says one of my interlocutors in Beslan, an educated, respectable Ossetian who fully believes his own words full. Evenif there were never anything like this in the homes of Beslan Ingush, it would be very difficult to convince the Ossetian population otherwise.

School Number 1: a dilapidated brick building, covered with bullets holes. Nearby the construction of the ‘Church of New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russians’ is in full swing. Ithad been suggested building a cathedral “on the Blood” directly on the spot where the largest number of the tragedy's victims died the school gymnasium where for more than two days over a thousand hostages were held. Relatives of the victims and survivors insisted that the gym be kept as a memorial, and among many a skeptical attitude toward the Church for “cashing in” on the tragedy has emerged. Itseems to me that someone is specifically fanning these flames it is no accident that a cross, installed in the gym by one of the parents, has twice been smashed and rebuilt again. Theperimeter of the school and the church now have alms points that request people donate to the construction of the cathedral. Frankly even I, a, church-going man, find this somewhat warped.

All the same, the gymnasium of Beslan School Number 1is probably one of the most terrifying places on Earth. There is the wooden floor, forever stained with blood, the charred walls, and the rusty basketball hope with tracks of the shrapnel that the terrorists added to the bomb hung there. There are lots and lots of flowers and plush toys. Several men and women read a list of the dead, unable to hold back the tears. Aquiet old lady who lost her granddaughter, long ago crying out her last tears, quietly removes some faded bouquets from thegym.

Unexpectedly, the old woman speaks: “Can you see it? Onthe wall over there the face of Christ has appeared.” Unfortunately, Icannot see it, but Iam absolutely convinced of His invisible presence in the “here and now”. I, however, do not dare to wonder why He hath allowed all this. Itseems more important to ask the authorities: what conclusions have they reached concerning these tragic events?

Leaving from Beslan, on the way to the airport, once again Istop at “The City of Angels”, and i walk over to a small monument dedicated to fallen special forces soldiers a spherical helmet and a teddy bear in body armor. Iread these piercing lines:

“You are forever in the heart of Beslan -
The guys who covered the children's hearts”

Eternal memory to them! Andhave a good Knowledge Day. Lifegoeson.

In the newspaper ‘Kultura’

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