-- 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."
Like others wandering the building, Begayev struggled to find an outlet for his anger. "We saw the bodies of the bastards in the street," he said of the guerrillas. "When one of them was lifted up, his head fell apart. One man took a glove, put on the glove, picked up the head and smashed it against a truck. You can see hatred in people's faces."
Other young men prodded the rubble, seeking signs of continuing danger. The guerrillas had booby-trapped the school with bombs that Russian sappers had sought to destroy. In a second-floor math room, where an abacus lay on the floor among other debris, three young men studied a bag of soil and wondered whether it contained leftover explosives.
They concluded that it did not, and made their way through the broken glass and smashed furniture toward the door. Along the way, one of them found a stuffed Grandfather Frost, the Russian version of Santa Claus, picked it out of the dirt and propped it up on desk.
Schools since the Soviet era have offered military education, but until the siege, ordnance was mainly an academic subject. On the floor in a corridor lay a poster showing how to assemble an ignition device for a hand grenade. Nearby, a door was blown off its hinges. A sign read, "Weapons Storage Room."
Figuring out where the guerrillas' quite ample weapon supply had been stored was a goal for many people combing the school. Authorities had suggested that the guerrillas had stashed guns, bombs and rocket launchers in hiding places in the school long before the raid last Wednesday. Many residents assumed it was done by Chechen or Ingush workers during a renovation of the school over the summer.
In the school theater, young men studied a hole underneath the stage revealing a crawl space where weapons may have been stored. "Is this where they had the guns?" one young man asked as he peered into the space.
"Why did they decide to do that damn renovation?" a woman shouted elsewhere in the building. "We could have lived without it for ages."
But the renovation may be a red herring. Khablieva, who lived near the school, said it amounted to not much more than a fresh coat of paint applied by the teachers themselves.
Khablieva was pitching in Sunday, scouring the shell of the building for school papers and teacher files that might be saved. She and a friend, Zalina Dzhibilova, 54, wrapped what they found in a curtain outside the school director's office. The school, they expect, will be torn down and replaced with a memorial.
"All of Beslan is crying now," Dzhibilova said. "We don't want a school here anymore. How can we ever look at this again?"
The most painful part to look at was the gym, where most of the 1,200 hostages were forced to sit next to each other for 52 hours, sweltering in the late-summer heat, deprived of food, water and medicine and wondering if they would die. The gym was large enough for a basketball court, but on first impression it hardly seemed able to hold so many people.
Left after the conflagration were ashes, shredded walls, blown-out windows and ventilation pipes falling down. Five charred rafters were all that remained of the roof. A hole had been blown in the brick wall just below one of the eight giant windows, apparently an escape route for children who survived an initial explosion that killed many of their schoolmates.
As the hours passed on Sunday, the gym was turned into a makeshift memorial. Flowers were placed on the blackened rubble of the window sills, always in even numbers in keeping with Russian death traditions. Two chairs were set up in the middle of the gym for more flowers, as well as cookies and water bottles, another custom intended to lure animals and birds to eat in memory of the dead.
Also displayed on the chairs were two sets of burned keys, a 5-ruble coin, three icons and a new school notebook. In neat Cyrillic, a ninth-grader, Vadim Dzobat, had scribbled his name. At the foot of the chairs was a tiny white shoe that may have been worn by a 3-year-old.
No one left unmoved. "I just wanted to see where the kids were and how it was," Slavik Torchinov, 40, a bus driver, said as he walked by. "I just pray to God no one ever has to see something like this again."