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Under a 'Crying' Sky, Beslan's Dead Are Laid to Rest

Death Toll at 334; 200 Still Missing

By Peter Finn and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 7, 2004; Page A14

BESLAN, Russia. Sept. 6 -- The field adjoining the old graveyard here was a panorama of gaping holes Monday, some so wide they were really pits large enough to hold three or more bodies from one family.

From early morning, hundreds of local volunteers and soldiers had dug this wet, stony ground. The rows of graves extended nearly 200 yards, and still more will need to be dug for Tuesday and the day after and the day after, as the last of the dead from School No. 1 are finally identified.

In pouring rain, Ossetian men carry the coffin of a hostage killed in the siege of School No. 1 during one of many funerals in Beslan, Russia. (Photos Sergei Ponomarev -- AP)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Russia Begins Burying Victims: Funeral processions in Beslan on Monday moved one after another for the hundreds who died in the Russian school hostage crisis.
_____More From The Post_____
Hostage Takers in Russia Argued Before Explosion (The Washington Post, Sep 7, 2004)
Russia Admits It Lied On Crisis (The Washington Post, Sep 6, 2004)
A Gruesome Tour Inside School No. 1 (The Washington Post, Sep 6, 2004)

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By late morning, the funeral processions were arriving one after another, winding their way through the chaotic traffic and milling pedestrians under a dark sky that poured rain without pause. The coffins, some open, some closed, were hoisted onto the shoulders of grim-faced men who fought to find their footing in a sea of muck.

The women followed next, wailing laments. The sounds of grief from different parts of the cemetery blended into one as sometimes four or five people were put to rest at the same time.

Russian officials revised the death toll Monday down to 334, including 156 children. But close to 200 people remained missing, out of the total number of hostages that officials now say was 1,180. Concerning the hostage takers, Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said there were a total of 32, 31 of whom were killed and one -- shown Sunday on state television -- who was arrested.

More than 100 people were buried in the Beslan field Monday, Christians and Muslims alike, and there weren't enough priests or imams. And so, the final words of remembrance and farewell were often uttered by relatives, family elders perhaps, who stood over the coffins and addressed the mourners crowding around.

"You had dreams, Natashenka, you had dreams," said Vladimir Povomaryov, before the body of Natalia Rudenok, an art teacher at School No. 1, was lowered into a grave lined with red brick, in the local tradition.

"You are all martyrs. Our hearts ache for you."

And then the grieving touched the corpse one last time -- a final, faint touch, or a grasp that didn't want to let go.

The bodies came from their homes in Beslan where, on Monday morning, priests went from door to door to say hasty prayers over the corpses before moving on to the next afflicted family. The coffins were then loaded onto the backs of trucks and vans for the short but congested trip to the edge of town.

In one five-minute period, at about 2:30 p.m., 14 coffins arrived in succession, and then each funeral party broke away to its piece of earth denoted by wooden makers and pieces of paper bearing the names of the dead. Some of the victims were visible until these last moments: a woman, her red-colored hair brushed back and parted over her blackening face; a young man in a Sunday suit; a shrouded child.

Sveta Aylyarova, a 6-year-old first-grader, arrived in an open coffin, its top carried separately by six men. Her body was veiled in lace, and atop her legs was her pink teddy bear.

"She was a beautiful, smart little girl," said Khazbi Aylyarov, the oldest relative standing in front of the coffin, restraining his grief so he could get the words out.

And then the coffins were shuttered with final, haunting bangs before they were placed in the red-bricked holes. Pieces of concrete were lowered on top before dirt was shoveled into the hole by young men, rain streaming down their faces.

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