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The school siege in Beslan ended in tragedy ten years ago, on September 3, 2004.
Beslan is one of those events that leave a black residue in the soul of anyone who had something to do with it and makes them ask, “Can humans really do something do awful?”
I visited the town only four months later but will never forget the forlorn sight of a cemetery in the snow lined with children’s graves, each with toys and little New Year trees placed on them. Of the official number of 334 victims in School No. 1, 156 were children.
Has anyone learned lessons from the tragedy a decade on?
Unfortunately, despite a trial and an official parliamentary investigation, a fog of misinformation pervaded the town during the siege and it never fully cleared.
It soon became clear that Beslan was the demented work of Chechen warrior, Shamil Basayev. He himself claimed responsibility for the act of terrorism. It justly helped destroy him and his cause.
But in a region where conspiracy theories are rampant, and where relatives of those inside the school were denied even basic information at the time—such as the number of hostages inside—outlandish versions of what happened were allowed to develop.
Although the main contours of what happened are in fact clear, there are still difficult unanswered questions for the Russian authorities. Why was the decision taken to end the siege on September 3 with a military-style operation that cost many lives? Were the mediation efforts of Ruslan Aushev and the offer of intervention by Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov taken sufficiently seriously?
The tragedy swept away the leadership of North Ossetia. But there is little evidence that it changed the institutional culture of the republic. The terrorists would never have been able to reach the school in the first place, through multiple check-points, but for systemic corruption.
The North Ossetian leaders’ collective cowardice in failing to respond to the crisis—although some individuals were brave—revealed an official culture that cared more about its own political survival than the survival of its citizens.
As Valery Dzutsev, Ossetian journalist and editor who covered every hour of the siege wrote later in his remarkable essay “Life After Beslan,” “In Beslan I noticed how when the state stops meeting people’s basic needs, including the right to life, they start organizing themselves. If the authorities lie all the time, society begins to treat them as an alien organism.”
North Ossetians, who always had the reputation of being the people of the North Caucasus most loyal to Moscow, did indeed organize themselves and get angry.
Some of their anger was directed at President Vladimir Putin who came down to Beslan very briefly and did not appear in public.
Putin’s speech the day after must rank as one of the strangest and most inappropriate of his presidency. He talked about the end of the Soviet Union and about how Russia was under siege, more than about the fate of the children. The message, even to grieving parents, was only about geopolitics: that Beslan proved the need to strengthen the state, whatever the costs.
One Ossetian said to me in 2005, “I don't see any reason why it shouldn't happen again.” Of course times are different and the Islamist militants who attacked Beslan are weaker than before. But the fact that the North Caucasus has fallen out of the headlines does not mean its problems are solved. Instead it looks as though have been driven underground and are bound to re-surface sometime in the future.
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