‘I recall a smell of plastic and bodies melting together’: What Beslan siege survivors can’t forget
“This is bone cement. Here’s a shunt. This is plastic. Titanium, titanium, titanium. Bone cement. Bone… Shunt, shunt. And another shunt. And more bone cement. Cement,” Fatima Dzgoeva says, as she points to dents and bumps on her skull.
“I’ve had five surgeries on my scalp,” she says, almost with pride, though her tone is hard to pinpoint, as Fatima’s voice is slurred and missing consonants, a legacy of the brain damage she sustained when one of the terrorists' explosives detonated. She was just ten. After the siege, her head was covered in so many bandages her aunt Lana identified her only by a mole on her body.
Medics wouldn’t let Lana identify Fatima’s eight-year-old sister because her body was “too charred.”
Fatima shows the film crew her rehab exercises – she boasts being almost able to touch her nose with her index finger. Lana then puts on an old video, in which an eerily carefree girl prances around on the first day of school.
Time for fun
Another such amateur video was due to be made at Beslan’s No. 1 school on September 1, 2004. Someone had even typed “Time for fun” into the camera menu, and the title is visible in every shot filmed by the terrorists, who picked it up and used it to document hostages, female suicide bombers in niqabs and the pile of discarded bodies outside.
It is 9am and about 1,200 attendees – schoolchildren in pristine uniforms, parents with flowers, teachers and local officials – gather outside for the bell-ringing ceremony that marks the start of each academic year.
Already, Islamist Chechen militants are on their way to the mostly-Christian North Ossetian town of 35,000, in a police van and a military truck laden with explosives.
There are around thirty attackers, though not all arrive at once. It takes just a few shots in the air and a short exchange of fire with local police to take control.
Other than the several dozen who escape in the initial bedlam, and the few more hiding in the boiler room, everyone is herded into the hardwood, white-walled gym. One man is shot for refusing to kneel, another after translating a message from the hostage takers into the Ossetian language; but reasons matter little. Every adult male hostage will be killed by the end of the next day, apart from one, who will leap five meters down from a window when throwing out a body, and hobble to safety.
But for now, the men held at gunpoint are forced to break the windows, to prevent a special forces gas attack, which ended the theater siege in Moscow two years earlier. The rest watch the terrorists lay out a network of interconnected Improvised Explosive Devices, hanging one set of charges in the basketball hoop. They are told that there is a dead man’s switch and that, if one of the terrorists were shot, the entire building would explode.
Even seconds-long events can traumatize and recovery can be hard, but cutting a continuous, three days of terror from your psyche is harder by a magnitude.
The attackers, taking commands from a bearded man they call The Colonel, crush all the pipes and nearby sinks, so that no one can drink water. At first they allow some to go to the toilet, but soon tire of having to monitor moving hostages, so they take that privilege away.
Captives now relieve themselves on the floor. With nothing to drink, most grow weak and, as temperatures swelter from the human heat, many strip down to their underwear. Fatima remembers one woman asking her to take off her trainers – because they were new – and urinate in them, so that she could drink.
In what must seem like a grotesque joke, the terrorists say that all those inside have declared a hunger strike until their demands are met. They know that, after two wars, their main demand –the independence of Chechnya– will never be fulfilled, and they are unlikely to escape alive. Many are injecting heroin and taking stimulants.
Inside the hall, there is crying and wailing. Dzerassa Kudzaeva, the daughter of Aslan, the man who jumped out of the window, doesn’t know that her father is alive, and keeps asking, “Where’s Dad? Why's he not here? Why isn't he here? Where is he? Did he die?” Others plead for mercy, or beg for the youngest children to be set free.
On the next day, September 2, Ruslan Aushev, the president of neighboring Ingushetia and Afghan War hero, is allowed in. He negotiates the release of 26 mothers who are breastfeeding, and their infants. One woman refuses to depart without her other two children, so Aushev carries out her infant in his own arms. This mother will die the next day.
A showdown is inevitable.
Vitali Demidkin, then a colonel in national security agency FSB’s Alpha Group, tells RT that he'd been instructed to prepare to storm the sports hall on the first day of the siege.
But, by September 3, thousands of people had gathered outside the police cordon, many of them relatives armed with weapons of their own. Local police mingle with armed forces and security service units, all with their own chains of command and two separate crisis headquarters, the civilian and the anti-terrorist. This was never going to be a clean infiltration.
The terrorists sense their doom too. Rather than going out in a quick flash of glory as they'd expected, they are now trapped, together with dehydrated hostages who will soon begin to wilt en masse, and can no longer pretend to themselves that their demands will be heard. They are coming down from the drugs and they have barely slept.
In the end, the time for the decisive battle is not set by either side.
At 1.05 pm two explosions in quick succession rock the gym, causing carnage among the hostages. An accident? An argument between the militants? A sniper shot that pushed a hostage-taker off his dead man’s switch? Contradictory narratives abound to this day.
As the hostages dare open their eyes among the severed limbs, clearing smoke and anguished screams, they see that a hole big enough to escape through has opened up in the wall. Dozens begin to rush out. One militant unleashes a burst of machine gun into the backs of fleeing children. The Russian media reported that an FSB commando sawed off his head later that day.
As some escape, others decide that this is the time to enter. The assault is chaotic, heavy and loud – armored vehicles, flamethrowers, snipers, special teams, vigilantes shouting improvised orders.
Worst of all, the majority of the hostages are still inside, afraid to make a run for it as the militants regroup for a final stand. They are not aware that above them, the roof of the gym has begun to crackle with fire.
Back in Beslan for the first time since 2004, and with perfect recall, Demidkin joylessly reconstructs his path down the school corridor. The place where a comrade lifted his arm and was gunned down, how his team shut down the machine gun nest, all the while remaining aware that, for any head-on heroism here, tragedy was unfolding elsewhere.
At 1.30 pm the gym roof collapses between the still-intact walls, creating a fiery oven for hundreds, many of them too wounded, feeble or panicked to move.
“I couldn’t reach the window. And I got out by myself… through this hole,” Dzerassa Kudzaeva recalls, walking through the burnt-out shell now. “I remember how I walked out. And we were walking on hot plastic. So, here it was all covered with corpses, hot plastic, everything was melting.”
The emergency services are unprepared to handle so many victims all at once. This is the moment in the news footage where paramedics, soldiers and ordinary citizens carry out limp, greasy, half-naked bodies. Several journalists also stop filming and rush in themselves.
By 3.30 pm, special forces soldiers and doctors can walk to the gym, even as fighting continues in the basement and in the neighboring house, to which the terrorists have escaped. The floor is covered in small, twisted black corpses.
Slowly the scope of the loss dawns. 334 dead –186 of them children– not counting the terrorists (all but one of whom are killed). Enough for the authorities to open a brand new memorial cemetery, the City of Angels, which gives its name to the RT documentary. Nearly 800 sustain physical injuries.
'They are gone, you are here'
And psychological ones? Through a specially-built memorial sarcophagus that protects it, Irina Gurieva now enters the hollowed-out carcass of the gym. She surveys the photos of her siblings on the wall, hanging above hundreds of lit candles. Her brother Boris would have been 29 this year, her sister Vera, 27.
"Sometimes you wonder: so, there were these brother and sister, right? We were sitting next to each other. I mean, huddled together. And they’re gone, and you’re still here," Irina ponders.
For the first time, Demidkin, now retired, enters the same room and talks with the visitors. The tone is a little awkward but philosophical and life-affirming.
Not once has he said that he did anything wrong, or that he could have done something differently.
But later, alone between the mass of identikit marble gravestones, he can’t hold back the tears.
“I ask every child for forgiveness. For not being able to save everyone.”
By Igor Ogorodnev
Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.