The Magazine Reader

In the Teeth of Terror: Horror and Heroes of Beslan

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

It was the first day of school, and the returning students -- the second- through 12th-graders -- lined up and waited for the annual opening ceremony to begin. Soon the new first-graders would march in, then one of them would be hoisted on the shoulders of a senior and ring a bell to start the new year.

Suddenly, a military truck pulled up and guerrillas wearing ski masks jumped out, firing AK-47s and yelling "Allahu akhbar!" There were more than 30 of them, including two veiled women wearing belts packed with explosives. They seized the school, shot a man who resisted and herded 1,100 students, teachers and parents into the gym. Then they rigged the gym with bombs, some on the floor, others hung from wires strung above the hostages.

"Everybody be silent!" one terrorist said after firing into the ceiling. "You have been taken hostage."

They were Chechen rebels, he explained, and they'd seized the school to demand that Russia withdraw from Chechnya. He appointed a hostage named Ruslan Betrozov to translate his remarks to the crowd.

"Are you finished?" the terrorist asked when Betrozov stopped speaking.

Betrozov nodded, and the terrorist shot him in the head.

It was Sept. 1, 2004, and the long ordeal of School No. 1 in Beslan, Russia, had begun. When it was over, 56 hours later, 362 people would be dead, including 186 children, 31 terrorists and 10 Russian commandos who were killed storming the school. It was the second-deadliest terrorist act in history.

Now Esquire has published "The School," an amazing account of the Beslan massacre and one of the best pieces of narrative journalism to appear in any American magazine in this millennium.

It was written by C.J. Chivers, who covered the siege for the New York Times and then returned to Beslan many times to interview survivors. He crafted their memories into a riveting, hour-by-hour account of horrific brutality and amazing courage. His story is as bloody as a slasher movie, as suspenseful as a thriller and, like the film "United 93," a tribute to the extraordinary heroism of ordinary people who find themselves confronting murderous terrorists.

Chivers's story is 18,000 words long -- the longest piece published in Esquire in 20 years, says Editor in Chief David Granger -- and it is definitely not for the squeamish. But if you stick with it, you'll be rewarded by meeting several authentic heroes.

One of them is Larisa Kudziyeva, a beautiful young widow who came to the school with her son and daughter. In the crowded gym, early on the first day, Larisa demanded bandages so she could tend the wounds of a man who'd been shot for refusing to kneel to the guerrillas. Her demands irked one of the gunmen.

"Are you the bravest person here?" he asked. "We will check."

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