Looking Back at Beslan

It’s been 10 years since the world first heard  about Beslan, a town in Russia’s northern Caucasus. On 1 September 2004, militants stormed School No. 1 and took 1120 people hostage in a siege that would last 3 days.

I’m not here to provide lengthy, detailed insight into the failures leading to the deaths of more than 300 people. Over the years many reports have been written, such as this and this. I want to highlight the failures, and call attention to those involved and those who survived. There are so many unanswered questions, even after ten years. I am offering a simple observation on this anniversary.

The Russians

The Russian response to the siege was set up for disaster from the beginning. Despite the ongoing tensions in the North Caucasus due the the recent wars, security in the area was lax. Militants were able to get past checkpoints either by bribe or by having an inside man (this post briefly mentions GRU infiltration of the insurgency), and they trained in the woods outside Beslan undetected. Once the siege began, Russia treated it as a military counterterrorism operation rather than a civilian hostage crisis. This could have been in part because of previous failures such as the Dubrovka Theater siege. They refused a negotiator, which can drag out a situation. Local assistance was ignored, and no information was shared with the FSB, who likely never inquired. Instead, Russia became impatient and chose a military incursion not unlike the FBI at Waco. Their goal was to thoroughly eliminate all terrorists and completely disregarded any civilian casualties; they didn’t even clear civilians away from the school. There are even reports of Russian soldiers firing on civilians running from the school believing them to be terrorists.

Given the results, the Russian response was a total disaster. Their response basically insured mass casualties. Ten years later, Beslan’s families are still demanding answers from Russia. They’re in for a long wait. In the meantime, all we have is the testimony from survivors.

The Mother

Nadezhda Guriyeva was a teacher at School No. 1, and was there with her three children on when the militants stormed the school. She was one of the last to be herded into the gymnasium only to realize her children were already there. She recalls the militants breaking sinks and pipes so the hostages couldn’t have water. They weren’t allowed to leave the gymnasium for any reason. When the hostages began to get unruly, Guriyeva said the militants took one of the men and shot him in front of everyone.

Guriyeva remembers the explosion that set off the incursion. Around 1:00 pm a huge explosion shook the gymnasium. Hostages began running, some being shot as they ran. A second explosion happened a short time later, collapsing the roof and setting a fire. Sadly, two of Guriyeva’s children died as a result. When the Russian special forces moved in, Guriyeva escaped out a window, reuniting with her youngest daughter.

Nadezhda Guriyeva still teaches at School No. 1, now in a new building. She says the only way she survives is because her youngest daughter did. She is still haunted by what happened and wants answers. Those answers will likely never come.

The Terrorist

Nurpashi Kulayev was captured trying to escape from the school. The lone surviving terrorist, he was put on trial in 2005 in what was basically a show trial. He barely spoke Russian but was denied a translator. The judge openly mocked him in court. Angry families shouted at him throughout the trial, the judge barely containing them. One group – the Beslan Mothers – wanted Kulayev to tell his story thinking it was the only way to know what truly happened inside the school. But what does Kulayev’s story tell us?

Kulayev came to be in School No. 1 not as a willing participant but as leverage of sorts. The militants were looking for his brother, a veteran under the leadership of Shamil Basayev. It was suspected by the rebels that Kulayev’s brother had been under the employ of pro-Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov. This was echoed by Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, failed Moscow suicide bomber and Chechen, who was brought in to be a witness against Kulayev.

Once inside the school, Kulayev was placed in the cafeteria not in the gymnasium where the hostages were being held. He was only given a rifle after the siege began. He claims to have never fired the rifle, and that one of the first explosions was set of when a sniper shot a militants foot which was resting on an explosive device detonator. During the chaos of the Russians storming the school, Kulayev climbed out a window hoping to escape. It was then that he was caught.

The Beslan siege was a tragedy for all involved. The question remains, has anyone learned from it? Will the Russians approach the next situation the same? Probably. Have other countries reviewed their response procedures? Will the Beslan families ever find out what really happened? Too many questions remain unanswered. We can only hope that the lessons were learned. In the meantime, remember the victims of that day. Beslan should never be forgotten.

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