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     Volume 4 Issue 17 | October 15, 2004 |

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Tracing a tragedy

To 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.

In Beslan 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.

Two weeks 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.

Lubov 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.

They 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 and bullets.

No such 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 trainer.

The school'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?"

Anger 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."

Beslan's 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.

There 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.

At the 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 local president."

Above 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 to this?

In search 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.

In the 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.

In the 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.

Vladimir 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.

When I 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 was Russian."

She says 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.

Vladimir 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.

"The police took Alexandria away at 5pm on the night of the siege,"Lydia says. "We have not seen her since."

I peer 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?"

The border 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.

This article was first published in the Guardian Weekly. The final and concluding part will come out in the next issue.



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