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Hostages Were Helpless in Face of Chaos

In Aftermath of Disaster, Survivors of School Siege Recall the Nightmare

By Peter Finn and Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page A01

BESLAN, Russia. Sept. 4 -- The inferno at School No. 1 may have started by mistake.

On Friday afternoon, more than two days into a siege at the red-brick campus, Russian officials reached a modest agreement by phone with the hostage takers. A civilian truck carrying four unarmed men was permitted to enter a courtyard to retrieve several corpses decaying in the summer sun. The guerrillas sent an armed sentry to observe the work, but he did not appear menacing, according to elite Russian soldiers watching the scene.

Family members comfort a woman who identified one of the slain hostages as her relative, at a morgue in Vladikavkaz, where survivors are being treated. (Sergei Karpukhin -- Reuters)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Photos: Russia Mourns Victims
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Putin's Silence on Crisis Underscores Chilling Trend (The Washington Post, Sep 4, 2004)

"After the first body [was loaded], something happened," said one of the soldiers, who said he was positioned 44 yards from the school. "There was an explosion inside. We didn't start shooting."

The guerrilla seemed equally startled. "He was shocked himself," the soldier said. "Then the shooting started. There was so much shooting all over the place."

Inside the gymnasium, where about 1,200 hostages squatted on a basketball court, the explosion shocked Nadezhda Gurieva, a history teacher who huddled with her three children. She said the guerrillas gave no indication of an imminent confrontation. She and other survivors would conclude that the bomb went off by accident.

Gurieva's 11-year-old daughter fell dead in the first explosion and her son Boris, 14, was seriously wounded. "I thought he was dead but then I touched his cheek and he moved his fingers," she said. But she was unable to move him. She grabbed her third child, 9-year-old Ira, and her niece, and fled to the nearby cafeteria.

A fuller picture of the siege and its devastating ending emerged Saturday. This account is based on interviews with former hostages, including several being treated at a hospital in the nearby town of Vladikavkaz, and with five members of an Interior Ministry SWAT unit that was present at the school. The soldiers spoke on the condition that they not be identified because they did not have permission to speak to reporters.

"The storm was not planned," one soldier said, using the common Russian word for an assault. "We didn't get any orders."

"We were confused," another Interior Ministry soldier said. "We didn't know when to shoot."

From the first major explosion Friday afternoon to the moment the shooting subsided 13 hours later, at least 340 hostages, including 150 children, were killed by bullets, bombs and fire. Another 700 people were wounded, many seriously. A disaster swept over the hostages without remorse, taking toddlers, teenagers, parents and teachers, and savaging the heart of this town of 30,000 people.

A Doomed Celebration

Sept. 1, the first day of school, is known here as the Holiday of the First Bell. In the schoolyard, students were lined up by grade just before 9 a.m., as parents and townspeople waited for the school's youngest pupils to march into the assembly. Music was playing. The first graders carried flowers for their teachers, a Russian tradition.

Gurieva, the history teacher, was giving some last-minute instructions to her students in the 11th grade, who were to perform a dance after the grand entrance. The school director had her speech in hand.

The guerrillas, numbering between 30 and 40, arrived in a GAZ-66, a large military truck with a tarp covering the bed, according to soldiers from the Interior Ministry. They were well equipped, carrying night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, and silencers as well as an arsenal of explosives.

"They were well prepared," one of the Russian troops said. "They were preparing for a long time."

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