BESLAN, Russia, Sept. 5 -- Amid all the charred rubble, it was the shoes that somehow stood out. A burned black sneaker near the wall. A soiled white slipper with faux jewelry. A girl's toeless sandal. A woman's pump. And somehow, each without its mate.
Maybe they took the shoes off during the long siege. Maybe they were blown out of them by the explosion that tore apart their bodies and their school. No one knew for sure, and perhaps it didn't matter.
The shoes were practically all that was left in the gymnasium of School No. 1. Shoes and a lone belt, a deflated purple balloon, a bottle of wine, a puffy elastic band for a little girl's ponytail.
The bodies of the children had been extracted from the wreckage, but the shattered gym has become a tomb of sorts for an entire generation from this small town in southern Russia.
The town turned out to take a look for itself Sunday, two days after the hostage standoff ended in a firestorm of bombs and bullets that killed hundreds of children, parents and teachers. It was just a few neighbors at first, roaming sullenly through ruins no longer guarded by police. Then a few dozen more arrived, then hundreds, a macabre pilgrimage in anguish. By day's end, thousands of people had come through.
"We need to see this," said Alla Khablieva, 46, a teacher at another school. "We don't need sweet medicine. We need bitter, so we know, so this will never happen again."
School No. 1 had nothing left to offer but bitter. Demolished by bombs, rockets and tank fire, the focus of a battle that dragged on for 13 hours, it resembled wartime Grozny, Kabul or Sarajevo.
Part of the second floor in one wing had been virtually lifted off the building, as if by a hurricane, leaving classrooms and corridors exposed to the open air. A remaining wall was mottled by tens of thousands of bullet holes and in many places streaked with blood. Bricks and broken glass and overturned furniture were scattered throughout. Burst pipes still spurted water. A blackboard in a class for first-graders lay on the floor pierced by several bullets, a single spent shell resting on top.
The classroom where Tatyana Dulayeva had taught history of civilization was still smoking a bit. "It's just a horror," she said as she surveyed the scene of so many lessons over the last 13 years. Dulayeva, 49, escaped capture only because she was 10 minutes late for school when the guerrillas took over the building. Now she had nothing but memories of so many of the children she taught. "The kids grew up together with us," she said.
The wall of the first-floor math classroom, decorated with figures from Russian fairy tales, was splattered with dark stains that appeared to be dried blood, and an overpowering stench had not been removed with the corpses. On top of a record player was a rotting, blistered piece of flesh guarded jealously by a few flies. Next to the record player was a multiplication table and assorted arithmetic workbooks. More flesh lay on the floor.
It appeared that someone had tried to escape from this room. Chairs and desks had been stacked in an awkward pile up to a high, small window, whose sill was covered with a curtain, perhaps so that people could climb through without being slashed by broken shards.
Upstairs was another room, Classroom 15, where for years students learned the Russian language. On the wall were portraits of the writers Vladimir Mayakovski and Ivan Turgenev, along with a wooden plaque featuring a Mayakovski quote: "I would study Russian if only because Lenin spoke it." A handwritten poster awaited students for the first day of school: "Grammar Mistakes."
The room had been transformed into an execution chamber, where authorities believe men were taken to be shot. Splotches of blood covered a wooden cabinet, and the floor was stained in several places. The wall just under a window sill was smeared with blood, apparently from the bodies of slain men as they were thrown to the yard outside.
"These shelves were my teacher's shelves," Kazbek Begayev, 18, who graduated last year, said as he studied the bloodied cabinet. "Her name was Irina Aleksandrovna. I don't know what happened to her."