understand the horror of what he witnessed in Beslan last
month, NICK PATON WALSH visits a Chechen village that spawned
two of the men who attacked Middle School Number 1. There
he finds a tangled web of misery, pain and revenge.
they are filling in the holes. The cemetery on the road from
the airport is a sprawling mass of upturned earth, each fresh
grave marked out from the surrounding mud by a perimeter of
red bricks. The flowers and bare wooden crosses jut out from
the rough grazing pasture.
after the Beslan siege, the funerals are still going on, and
70 graves remain unfilled. The empty soil trenches are a reminder
of how many families still face the gruesome process of identifying
the scorched remains of their dead.
Salamova, 58, weeps at the grave of her grandson, Sergei Alkaev.
"He would have been 15 this month. His mother died in
a gas explosion at home years earlier, and now he has left
me. He was found dead in the gym, his head and hands partly
missing. He was such a good boy." Across the 188 fresh
graves, the sound of wailing hangs in the country air.
are also filling in the holes outside -Middle School Number
1. Aslan and another workman drill the surface of the road
near the garages on the school's left. Here, on September
1, -Russian special forces and hysterical locals had broken
a hole in the garage walls, giving access to the school's
courtyard, where the siege was into its second hour. Through
the hole poured grimy, bloody children and parents on to waiting
stretchers and into local cars, requisitioned for want of
ambulances. Aslan explains that his orders are to make the
road smooth again, to remove the traces of the grenade blasts
cosmetic considerations are in evidence at the school itself.
For two weeks locals have trudged over its ruins, heedless
of the human remains and unspent ordnance beneath them. The
remains of "Boevik 3" - the Russian pros-ec-utor's
ID for "militant 3" of the 32 who seized the school
- still lie outside. His mortar shell, webbing, gloves, the
dusty knot of his -gristle, are turned over by a curious youth's
calm is punctuated by the smell of fire and the sounds of
mourning. Revenge is part of the vocabulary of grieving here.
Zaur Rubayev, 16, stands hunched with four other teenagers,
mulling over the loss of his brother, Hassan, 14, in the shade
of the school walls. He tells me: "Of course I want revenge,
but against who?"
has grown against the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia,
from where some of the terrorists came, and against whom North
Ossetia fought a bloody war in 1992. Many fear Beslan's grief
could spark conflict in a region as ethnically diverse and
tense as the former Yugoslavia. But Rubayev says: "What's
the point of attacking them? We can't go and kill their children."
scars are rarely far from the surface. Near the gym I meet
Diana Gagiyeva and Borik Rubayev, both aged seven. They play
together despite the gulf that the siege has created between
them. Diana escaped from the gym with her mother, and grins
"I don't know" when asked about her return to school.
Borik was dragged from the wreckage by a rescuer whose face
he cannot remember. He is clearer on another fact. "I
don't have a father or mother," he says. "Well,
I did, and he was called Arthur, and she was called Lena,
but they both died there." He points towards his school.
also remain many gaps in the town's grasp of events. Why did
the first bomb detonate, sparking the chaotic storming of
the building? Few believe that the government is telling the
truth about the number of dead. The local administration says
1,347 people were taken -hostage, while the prosecutor insists
that only 329 of the 1,156 hostages died.
Palace of Youth, a rickety, unmaintained theatre hall, a meeting
is taking place. Outside, bearded, husky men gather in circles.
"Of course the real number of dead is higher than 329
- just look at the number of graves there are," says
one. The unemployed, the grieving and angry, even the prosecutor
and local mayor, pile into the theatre. After a respectful
10-second silence, some take it in turns to speak. Most talk
in soothing truisms. Then a veteran from the 1992 war with
Ingushetia stands, a crutch in place of his missing leg, to
interrupt one speech. "We need revenge. We need to mobilise
the youth," he says. "We need to get rid of our
all, what the people of Beslan crave is answers. Who were
these people who were prepared to turn a school into a charnel
house? Why Beslan? Why our school? How on earth did it come
of clues, I head east from Beslan, along the sparse highways
across Ingushetia, and into the hills of Chechnya where the
seeds of Russia's September 11 were planted. To understand
the road to Beslan, I follow the road out of it.
days following the massacre, Beslan's anger focused on neighbouring
Ingushetia, but the first piece of this bloody puzzle lay
uncomfortably close to home. Twenty minutes' drive south through
barren green plains and dejected roadside houses is the town
of Elkhotovo. It's a sleepy place, an armed policeman guarding
a nursery school the only sign of its proximity to the horrors
of a few weeks ago.
leafy courtyard of one Soviet-era housing block is the ground-floor
flat where Vladimir Khodov lived. My driver, Timur, knows
of Khodov, and takes me straight there. Some time ago Khodov's
brother Borik had abducted one of Timur's relatives, Sveta
Gabisova. Later he was killed by -Sveta's brother Iriston.
Vladimir went on to eclipse his brother's parochial notoriety.
Khodov is the only North Ossetian who has so far been identified
out of the 32 militants who seized the Beslan school. Now
his starving cat Dima is the only sign of life at the flat.
Here his mother, Alexandria, and father, Anatoly, lived, their
two sons occasionally coming home from prison or elsewhere.
arrive, neighbour Lyda Darakhokova, 50, is in her garage,
busy forcing home-grown cucumbers into pickling jars ahead
of winter. She tells me that Anatoly was a good man, but recalls
little about the mother. "Vladimir was a character,"
she says. "Both the brothers were underhand and cunning.
Vladimir was not an Ossetian," she insists. "He
he converted to Islam in jail and left the family home in
2003, coming back only to bury his brother in June. My driver
Timur recalls how his mother watched at Borik's funeral while
Vladimir burst in. Outraged at the Orthodox Christian funeral,
he carried away the corpse to give it a proper Muslim burial,
then vanished again.
became a wanted man when he set off a bomb in the market of
the main city of Vladikavkaz in February, according to locals.
He next appeared in -Middle School Number 1.
police took Alexandria away at 5pm on the night of the siege,"Lydia
says. "We have not seen her since."
through a gap in the empty flat's curtains to see ageing flowers
in a vase on the floor. "It's hard to understand,"
she says. "Children?"
with Ingushetia is 30 minutes' drive east through rows of
fallow cornfields and verdant hills. The frontier is closed
to cars - a weak bid to keep out putative hordes of vengeful
Ossetians. Yet I manage to cross on foot, walk past a Russian
armoured personnel carrier (APC), and then the capital of
Nazran is just a 10-minute taxi ride away.
was first published in the Guardian Weekly. The final and
concluding part will come out in the next issue.