She survived three days as a hostage and the destruction of the school where she has passed nearly all of her 72-year life. Now Lydia Tsaliyeva is heading home, and her life may be in danger all over again. Only this time the threat comes from her neighbors.
Since the end of the siege in the southern town of Beslan, Tsaliyeva has been recovering at a hospital here in the Russian capital, nursing her wounds and her spirits. But back in Beslan, she has been transformed during her absence from school principal into villain, a scapegoat for the massacre of hundreds of children, parents and teachers.
Tsaliyeva was the principal at School No. 1 when masked guerrillas demanding independence for Chechnya took the student body hostage on the first day of class last month. In the anger that has consumed Beslan ever since, many have pointed to Tsaliyeva, blaming her based on rumors that she hired Chechens to renovate the school over the summer, allowing them, knowingly or not, to hide weapons there for the siege.
But Tsaliyeva hired no outsiders to work at the school, according to local officials and numerous people involved. The teachers and custodians themselves, aided by sons and nephews, painted the building, repaired floorboards and replaced some of the support beams in the ceiling. But the names of the head custodian's Dagestani nephews were mistaken for Chechen names, fueling the conspiracy theories. Dagestan and Chechnya are neighboring Russian republics.
"It's stupidity, it's ridiculous," Tsaliyeva said from her hospital bed here on Thursday. She said the school has never had the money to hire outsiders to do maintenance and repairs. The idea that she would let strangers plant weapons, she said, pains her. "Don't ever mention this to me. This is so disgusting. My ears ache when I hear it. It's impossible."
She was born in the Chechen capital of Grozny, but at age 9 moved with her family to Beslan in neighboring North Ossetia. She graduated from School No. 1 and later went to work there. For the past 52 years, she has served as a teacher and administrator at the school.
Members of her family were at the school the day the siege began -- two grandchildren, her sister and her sister's grandson. Tsaliyeva was injured so badly in the initial blast that touched off the final confrontation between guerrillas and troops that she was flown to Moscow for treatment and has undergone two operations.
As she prepared to check out of the hospital and board a plane to return to Beslan on Friday, Tsaliyeva shrugged off the death threats that await her. While many friends have urged her to stay away or at least seek protection, she insisted she has nothing to fear from her home town and would try to visit the families of everyone who died, to share in their heartache.
The anger toward her, she said with the calm assurance of a veteran teacher, is simply misplaced misery. "It's grief," she said. "But when people are in grief they must be together. Then it would be easier to bear it. I don't understand why I need anyone's support, why I need to be protected from anyone, why I need to be justified in front of anyone. This is beyond me. What happened? Have people changed completely? I understand grief, it's our grief. I want to share their grief with them."
But Tsaliyeva has not seen the messages of hate sprayed on the remaining walls of her burned-out, blown-out school. In the seven weeks since the explosions and firefight that ended the 52-hour siege, the walls have been covered by virulent graffiti heavily laced with expletives. "Death to the director. She's a betrayer," read one of the less vulgar messages. "Everybody will take revenge on you, everybody, including children," said another.
Her role during the siege remains the topic of vigorous conversation in Beslan. "If she wasn't guilty," one young woman was overheard asking another as they wandered through the shattered school building earlier this month, "why did they let her eat and go to the bathroom?"
Tsaliyeva got no special treatment, according to former hostages, but the guerrillas interacted with her more than other adults because she was the school's principal. Three times they took her out of the gym where they were holding the hostages, not for refreshment but to place calls to authorities outside the school. Tsaliyeva denied that she ate with or drank tea with the guerrillas. And people who thought she seemed too calm, as if she were somehow complicit, she said, misread her attempt to avoid spreading panic.
"There were children all around me in the gym," she said. "To calm them down I pretended I wasn't afraid. When the guards came for me, I walked bravely. Just imagine walking at gunpoint along a dark corridor, then walking up the stairs with these two armed men behind you."
If people want to air their suspicions with her, she said, she will answer them. "I believe it's just talk," she said. "I want them to see me, to look me in the eye. My conscience is clear."