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."
He ordered her to kneel.
"No," she said.
"Get on your knees," he said.
The terrorist raised his AK-47 and pressed the muzzle against her forehead.
She brushed it aside. "What kind of spectacle are you playing here?" she said.
The other hostages watched, stunned, certain that Larisa would be shot, just like the man whose wounds she'd tended. But another terrorist stepped forward and told her to sit down and shut up.
Two days later, when the terrorists' bombs exploded in the gym, killing scores of hostages, Larisa survived with only minor wounds. A few hours later, she lived to see her captors make their last stand against Russian commandos in the cafeteria. Lying on the floor with her children, as both sides fired over them, she watched as a dying terrorist threw a grenade at a commando. It flew over her, then fell to the floor and bounced. She squeezed her children beneath her, absorbing the blast with her body. She saved her kids, but the grenade blew off much of her face.
As of April, Chivers writes, she had endured 14 surgeries and was awaiting more.
Perhaps the most amazing story is the saga of a man named Karen Mdinaradze. A cameraman for a local soccer team, Karen was hired to videotape the school's opening ceremony. It turned out to be the unluckiest -- and the luckiest -- experience of his life.
Karen happened to be standing near one of the female terrorists when the bomb she was wearing exploded. It ripped off her head and sent shrapnel flying. But Karen was shielded from the blast by a man who was standing between him and the explosion. That man died; Karen was wounded.
Terrorists took him and other wounded men to a classroom where dead hostages were piled on the floor. One terrorist ordered the wounded men to lie down. Another fired, emptying his rifle into the wounded men. All were killed except Karen, who was miraculously unhurt.
The terrorists left, then returned with two hostages and ordered them to throw the corpses out the window of the second-floor room. When they got to Karen, he stood up. He expected to be shot.
He wasn't. "You walk under Allah," the stunned terrorist said, and he sent Karen back to the gym.
Karen was unconscious when the bombs in the gym exploded. "He woke, heard moaning and found himself surrounded by gore," Chivers writes. "Human remains had rained down; two girls near him were covered by a rope of intestines."
Karen saw hostages escaping through a hole the bombs had blown in the gym wall. He ran, too, scurrying to safety through a rain of gunfire, clutching a little boy in his arms.
"The School" is a strange, shocking, surreal story. It'll make a great movie. But don't wait for that. Read the article.