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Independent, The (London),  Jan 31, 2005  by Andrew Osborn

Emma Betrozova was entitled to almost 1.5m roubles (pounds 30,000) to compensate her for the murder of her family. Half a million for Ruslan, her dead husband, half a million for Alan, her murdered son, and a further half a million for Aslan, her other slain son. The sum is astronomical by local standards.

However, It is not money that Mrs Betrozova wants - she wants justice. "I'm not interested in money. When my children were alive they didn't want for anything," she says. "How can you value people's lives in money? Nothing can bring them back."

Almost five months after her family was wiped out during Beslan's school siege, Mrs Betrozova is one of many mothers who have unexpectedly been radicalised and politicised by the experience. Before 3 September 2004 she was an ordinary Ossetian housewife, an apolitical woman who was deferential to her husband and spent her days toiling in the kitchen and doting on her children.

But after she lost her family she became a vocal member of Beslan's Committee of Victims' Mothers, an organisation that sprung up about a week after the massacre. Initially conceived as a cathartic exercise to allow people who had shared a common tragedy to console one another, the group has unexpectedly metamorphosed into a potent political vehicle that has the authorities in this impoverished region of southern Russia running scared.

Women who had previously not given politics a second thought and who were seen as victims to be pitied and paid off have suddenly become the authorities' enemies-in-chief.

Their numbers are small - estimates vary between 20 and 34 - but members of the committee seem to be able to attract hundreds of other disgruntled townspeople to their cause when necessary. Recently, they succeeded in bringing Beslan to a halt for three days by blocking its main highway to neighbouring Azerbaijan. Mothers, teachers and sympathetic Beslan residents took part in the blockade - at its peak, the protesters numbered about 500.

The mothers had one central demand: the resignation of Alexander Dzasokhov, the Kremlin-backed President of North Ossetia where Beslan is located, and the man on whose watch the school massacre took place.

Early one morning, Mr Dzasokhov visited the blockade and pleaded with the mothers to go home. Mrs Betrozova approached him hoping that he might at least say he was sorry.

Sorry for the fact that his government allowed a group of heavily armed Chechen militants to bribe their way into the republic and take more than 1,100 people hostage in a local school. Sorry for the fact that Mr Dzasokhov's officials consistently lied to the world about what was going on and that he himself appeared to take no interest in the negotiations. Sorry for the fact that he and his officials did not do more to prevent what turned out to be a bloodbath that claimed the lives of 330 people, 186 of whom were children. Sorry for the fact that Beslan's bereaved residents are still waiting to find out what really happened...

Mrs Betrozova thought she had every reason to expect some kind of apology. She had lost her entire family and had camped out in sub- zero temperatures to get Mr Dzasokhov's attention. "I went up to him and said: `We placed our trust in you and you let us down. I lost all my family. How can I go on living?'" Mrs Betrozova remembers, her eyes welling with tears. "He looked at me and said: `Apart from my condolences I can do nothing for you.'"

At the time, Mr Dzasokhov dismissed the protesters as "a handful of mothers" but he swiftly threatened to break up the demonstrations using force. "He came and told us not to block the road because it was illegal. We told him the murder of our children was also illegal," Mrs Betrozova said.

The crowds eventually did break up after a phone call from Dmitri Kozak, President Vladimir Putin's troubleshooter in the region. Mr Kozak promised to meet the protesters but such a meeting has so far not taken place and the women are once again considering direct action.

What they can't accept is that, five months after Beslan's shell- shocked residents scratched their demands for Mr Dzasokhov's resignation into the school's bullet-riddled, blood-stained walls, the septuagenarian leader is still clinging on to power.

Mr Dzasokhov's term has a further year to run and he is apparently hoping that Mr Putin will renew his mandate. The last thing he wants to do, it is said, is to bow out under a cloud. Yet his idea of damage limitation was strange. Instead of stepping down, he sacked his entire government but the reshuffle was largely superficial and bizarre in the extreme.

Lev Dzugaev, the press spokesman who lied to the world's media that there were only 354 hostages being held (in fact there were more than 1,100) and they were being treated well (in fact they were not allowed to eat and were forced to drink their own urine) was, for some reason, made Minister for Culture and Mass Communications.

For Mrs Betrozova, 42, the price of what she views as Mr Dzasokhov's dereliction of duty was high. Her husband, Ruslan, 44, was the first victim of the three-day siege. He was shot dead in the first hour in front of his two sons and hundreds of other children in the sports hall in a show of force designed to cow the hostages. His body was dragged across the floor leaving a trail of blood and lay doubled up in the corner for several hours.