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Beslan Residents Mourn Their City Along With Their Dead

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page A23

BESLAN, Russia, Sept. 8 -- The Sept. 2 issue of the thrice-weekly local newspaper here was printed in advance and arrived in its editorial offices Sept. 1. It was never distributed and is now a relic sitting in the editor's office.

The pages are a last window on life in this small riverside community before the storm of last Friday: local sports coaches honored; problems in the town's heating system; an angry letter about new water meters.

_____Live Discussion_____
Live, 2 p.m. ET
Sarah Mendelson, senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS, will discuss the school massacre in Beslan and Putin's angered response to terrorism.

_____Inside the Gym_____
Video Report: Video recorded by terrorists in the school in Beslan was released by the Russian government Tuesday. It shows how the gym was rigged with explosives.
_____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.
Photos: Standoff Ends
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Putin Angered By Critics On Siege (The Washington Post, Sep 8, 2004)
Old Animosities Boil Anew In Wake of School Tragedy (The Washington Post, Sep 8, 2004)
Hostage Takers in Russia Argued Before Explosion (The Washington Post, Sep 7, 2004)
Under a 'Crying' Sky, Beslan's Dead Are Laid to Rest (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)

At the top of the front page of Zhizn Pravoberezhya, or Life of the Right Bank, is an article by an 11th-grader at School No. 1, where 328 people lost their lives, according to the latest official figures.

"Here it is, Sept. 1, the day of knowledge," wrote Alan Dzheliev, 17, describing the meaning of opening day for first-graders. "The first bell rings. From this moment they are not the kids they were yesterday."

The hostages were taken on opening day.

"I wish it had been like I wanted it to be," Dzheliev said in an interview Wednesday several blocks from the school where some of his friends died. "But the meaning is the complete opposite." He was lucky enough to be late for school that day.

As Beslan continued to bury its dead Wednesday, a process that could continue for days because 95 victims remained unidentified, much of the town seemed like a memorial, eerily silent, with most offices and businesses closed.

In interviews, residents reflected on the quiet, relatively prosperous place that also died last Friday.

"A week ago, this was a peaceful, hardworking town," said one resident, Savely Kanukov, recalling life at homes he visited to play chess or dominoes and where he now has to go to offer condolences. "We had a merry life."

The town of about 30,000 stands on the steppe below the Caucasus Mountains, on the banks of the main river of the region, the Terek. Established in the spring of 1847 by highlanders who had been burned out of their homes by czarist forces, the settlement was immediately multiethnic. The first residents built a church, a mosque and schools, according to a history published by the town, and today a new church and mosque are under construction.

Originally called Tulatovo, after the surname of its founder, Beslan Tulatov, the town grew into an industrial and predominantly Christian place in the Soviet republic of North Ossetia. In the early 1950s, it formally adopted its founder's first name.

The economic mainstay in Soviet times was a giant corn processing plant that, according to Alexander Berezov, head of the cultural department in the city administration, rivaled anything in the United States. Residents noted proudly that Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier from 1958 to 1964, once visited the town to inspect the enterprise.

"It was a giant of the Soviet Union," Berezov said with visible nostalgia. He spoke at the town offices, where a bust of the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, still adorns the entrance. "Only when the Soviet Union fell did [the plant] stop being so powerful." Today, staying in business is a struggle.

Much of the town's other industry collapsed after the fall of communism. But the town has regenerated, largely because of a new factory that makes vodka, cognac and champagne and employs nearly 2,000 people.

"This region recovered faster than others," said Elza Baskayeva, editor of the local paper. "There is work here, unlike a lot of places."

At the center of the town is the House of Culture, a renovated Soviet relic where the Hollywood thriller "I, Robot" was showing until Friday. Other performances included Ossetian music and dance for older residents.

"We had movies and sports and disco-dancing," Dzheliev said. "Beslan was an ordinary place, like any other city."

The town tasted combat violence in World War II when it was bombed by German warplanes, but German ground troops never reached this far. During the 1992 war between Ingushetia and North Ossetia, there was fighting near Beslan, but it never breached the city limits.

"The war," Kanukov said, "came on Friday." At the school Wednesday, the flowers remained piled high as people from across the region made pilgrimages to the site of the carnage. Interspersed among the bouquets were dozens of bottles of water, in remembrance of the thirst of those who were held hostage here.

"This town still hasn't realized what happened to it," Baskayeva said, "but we have to remember. If we forget, we are nothing."

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