Astan Belikoyev knows what people are saying. They don't say it to his face. If anyone did, he noted bitterly, he would probably punch them in the face.
In this town of inconsolable sorrow and dark suspicions, many people appear to believe his family somehow aided last month's attack on a school that left hundreds of children, parents and teachers dead. Never mind that his own mother was killed in the blasts that ended the siege. The whispers persist.
"Is it painful?" Belikoyev asked as his family held a memorial service in their home for their slain mother this week. "Of course it's painful. I feel so bitter. . . . How is it possible? I don't know. I have no words for it."
Looking around at the other young men in his family, he added, "We decided between us brothers, if anybody says one word to us -- " He paused, curled his hand into a fist and jabbed it angrily in the air in front of him.
Beslan is a place swirling with conspiracy theories, and as the 40-day Orthodox Christian mourning period ended last week, the search was on for someone to blame. All but one of the Chechen and Ingush guerrillas who seized the school and held it from Sept. 1 to Sept. 3 are dead, and the remaining one is in custody, according to official accounts. But many in Beslan are focusing on other supposed accomplices.
Some residents boast of having lists of people targeted for retribution. Some of those who might be on the lists have fled the region and gone into hiding. Militias are out in force on the streets to prevent a feared wave of reprisals. So far, the situation remains tense, but not violent.
Among the targets of the finger-pointing are Belikoyev and his family. From virtually the moment School No. 1 was taken hostage on the first day of the fall term, rumors raced through town that the guerrillas were using an arsenal of bombs and guns that must have been stashed under floorboards in the building by a crew of Chechen or Ingush workers who renovated the school last summer.
The facts have been twisted, but the people being singled out for suspicion are Belikoyev and his cousins. Contrary to the rumors, according to officials, the school's own staff repaired and repainted the building last summer, and no outside crew of workers was hired. But the head custodian, Svetlana Belikoyeva, 49, did bring in her 30-year-old son and a couple of nephews to lend a hand.
"We helped carry the heavy stuff, what she could not do herself, when physical work was needed," her son said. "She called, and we helped."
The suspicion has been fueled by ethnic animosities in the North Caucasus region. Svetlana Belikoyeva was Dagestani, another ethnic group in a region divided by age-old rivalries, and the Ossetians who live in Beslan evidently confused her relatives with Chechens and Ingush. Belikoyeva's nephew, Soslan Aldakov, 20, was named in a local newspaper article in August as the head of a work crew that had renovated the school, without mentioning that he was simply a relative of a staff member helping out. Readers mistook his last name for Chechen or Ingush.
The theory was seemingly confirmed by the fact that the guerrillas tore up floors in the school library and elsewhere during the siege. Investigators have not publicly ruled out the possibility that they did have weapons planted there, and some witnesses said they saw no bombs unloaded from the vehicles that the guerrillas drove to the school on Sept. 1, suggesting that they must have already been inside.
According to some former hostages, the armed fighters had sacks of explosives from the start and later explained they were breaking through the floors to make sure that Russia's elite Alpha commandos could not sneak into the building through basements.
Instead of blaming his family, Astan Belikoyev said, Beslan residents should point to authorities who failed to prevent 32 heavily armed men from passing through all checkpoints without hindrance. "Let them look at the government," he said. "They don't need to look here. I don't know who's guilty. Maybe I'm too small to judge. But they always look for scapegoats, and they always find one."
Along with the home economics teacher, Svetlana Belikoyeva took the job of repainting the school, replacing some old floorboards and installing new iron supports for the roof to help pay off $7,000 in debts, her son said. If she knew anything about plans for a terrorist attack, he added, she would not have been there at the time it happened.
Instead, he added, she died after saving children by passing them out a window while the guerrillas and Russian forces battled on Sept. 3. He did not find her body until Sept. 8 and only with the help of a dentist who flew from Murmansk to identify crowns he had put in years ago. "We went to the morgue together, and only by her teeth did we identify her," Belikoyev said. "She had no arms, no legs. Half her head was missing. She was burned."
Belikoyev's family is not the only one facing community rancor. In Elkhotovo, about 25 miles from Beslan, the mother of one of the guerrillas has fled out of fear of retribution, according to neighbors. The woman's son, Vladimir Khodov, was identified by authorities and former hostages as one of the four leaders of the attack, a particularly cruel gunman who angrily dressed down the other guerrillas when they allowed hostages to drink some water late in the siege. A government official said Khodov was already being sought in connection with a car bombing in the regional capital of Vladikavkaz earlier this year.
Given the inflamed passions in the area, neighbors said, Khodov's mother had no choice but to leave for her safety. A local police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the fragile community mood told her, "The elders got together and said to avoid any problems that might occur it's better for you to go."