Is Israel right to use force to get its soldiers released?

One little boy was shouting: 'Mama.' She couldn't hear him. She was dead
Olga Craig
(Filed: 05/09/2004)

School Number 1 was the one place the parents of Beslan thought their children would be safe. At the end of the 53-hour terrorist siege it was a vision of hell with screaming victims and bloody corpses everywhere. Tom Parfitt, in Beslan, and Olga Craig report

Crouched on the gymnasium floor, with his chin crushed down into his chest, 11-year-old Alan Tsgoeva could see from the corner of his eye the masked man's foot hovering above a pedal on the ground a few inches away.

"It was stifling. I couldn't breathe. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth, I was so thirsty," Alan said. "The woman next to me kept saying, 'That pedal - it will detonate a bomb if he stamps on it.' She whispered prayers. I couldn't take my eyes off his foot. I kept thinking, 'Don't do it, don't do it. Don't blow me to bits.' I thought of my mama; my sister.

"There was no room to move. Everyone was sweating and stinking. Women and babies were crying and wailing. Every time they cried, the men would fire their guns and shout. I clamped my hands over my ears."

Despite his prayers, at 9.05 British time on Friday morning, an explosion did rip through the sports hall of School Number 1. Alan, stumbling and blood-stained, scrambled towards one of the shattered windows. "I could barely see. There was screaming and smoke. Some people were crushed under bricks. There were heads sticking out from under blocks - just heads."

Wearing only underpants and a pair of torn sandals, he tried to jump up, clutching at the shards of glass that splintered beneath his grasp and slashed his hands.

"A heavy chair fell on my leg and I was pushed down," he said. "There were people scrabbling all around me. Then a policeman stretched out his arms to me and pulled me up. He carried me across the room and jumped out of the window. He ran and ran. My legs were dangling. I could see bodies and blood - blood everywhere; twisted bodies, lying on the ground. He saved me."

Yesterday, Alan, at home now with his parents, could only gaze listlessly at the family's battered television set, watching again and again the footage of the 53 hours in which his innocence died - and in the one place where he should have been most safe: at school.

He was one of the lucky ones who survived when one of the scores of bombs that the Chechen terrorists had taped to the gymnasium exploded. Seconds later, another militant, a woman, detonated the bomb belt strapped to her waist. In the chaos that followed, the surviving terrorists fired wildly at the hostages who tried to flee.

Irina Keraoyev, 12, had been at the front of the gymnasium, nearest the door, when the blast came. "I was kneeling, in just my knickers and vest. Out in the corridor I could hear one of the men shouting. It was in Chechen. A young child, just a toddler, was crying. His mother was inside and crying out her son's name. But they wouldn't let her come out to him. The man was hysterical. He shouted to stop crying or he would shoot. I could hear him slapping the child. Just the sound - I couldn't see."

Irina, one of the farthest from the blast, staggered outside after the explosion. "My legs were numb. I wanted to run, but they wouldn't work. I was trying to run, to walk, but I just couldn't do it.

"There was a woman, maybe in her forties, beside me. She tried to drag me with her. Then she fell. I could hear the gunfire roaring. I didn't know what was happening, but now I know the men were firing at us, to stop us escaping. The back of the woman's head was all blood. I pulled at her hand, but it just flopped down again. My left leg was burnt and blistered, but I couldn't feel a thing."

Irina began to crawl towards safety, then a soldier lifted her up and carried her. She was among those who had got out of the school first, and she was placed on a stretcher and put into an ambulance.

"More and more stretchers were loaded. Then they took them out so that they could get more people in. Some were screaming, calling for their mamas. Some just lay there. I think the man beside me was dead. Everyone stank. Half were naked, but nobody cared."

The horrific ordeal had begun on Wednesday morning as they took part in the traditional "back to school" celebrations outside the sprawling, red-brick building on the outskirts of Beslan, in North Ossetia, close to the Chechen border.

Rosa Dudiyea, a teacher, saw an army lorry drive in through the gates full of what she thought were Russian soldiers - about 40 in all. "They wore army outfits and had beards," she said. "Then we saw the masks. They tried to pretend they were Russian and to lure the children inside with chocolate bars.

"No one knew what was happening. Suddenly they started to fire. Everyone was running. We thought we were running to safety in the school."

Olga, another teacher, who was freed with her three-year-old on the second day of the siege but was forced to leave her two older children behind, said there were at least 1,500 people there. Most were children.

"We had begun to form a line in the school yard to listen to the headmistress's speech when the shooting started," she recalled.

"There were streamers and balloons. It is the highlight of the school calendar - each year the oldest boy in the school carries the youngest girl, on his back, around the yard. A little blonde girl was just clambering up onto the bigger boy's back when the shots sounded. Some of the little children squealed and shouted, 'The balloons have burst!'

"Then we saw the gunmen," Olga continued.

"We were herded into the sports hall. The doors were locked. Then people in masks broke the windows and doors and leapt in. They ordered us to sit down and then they began to mine the room.

"Two large explosive devices were put in the basketball nets. Then they laid smaller devices on the floor and attached more to the walls. They booby-trapped the whole room in less than 10 minutes. Some hung from the ceiling. The biggest was in the centre of the floor. The next biggest seemed to have a pedal. A man stood with his foot above it. Beside him were two women with explosives tied to their middles."

The hostages were squashed together - so many that some were forced to lie on top of each other.

Within an hour, the hall became stiflingly hot. "We all had to strip off. No one had modesty," said Atsamas Ketsoyev, 14. "When the babies cried, the men got angry and would fire their guns. The little ones were terrified. They kept wanting to go to the toilet.

"On the first day, the terrorists brought some buckets of water, but then nothing. Nothing to eat or drink. They moved the mothers and small babies upstairs because they said the crying irritated them.

"There were three or four gunmen in the hall and three at each door. But when I was allowed to go to the toilet I saw that there were lots more in the corridors. Some were in groups; some lay on the ground. They were all armed and masked.

"One child would not stop crying, and a man said he would shoot it. He said, 'If this noise doesn't stop, I'll shoot you.' " The terrorists rarely spoke, saying only that they wanted Russia out of their country.

Tanya, 14, was slapped across the face when she tried to drink from a tap in the lavatories.

"The man went crazy, he hit me and tugged the top off the tap so I couldn't drink any more. All around me, people were taking off clothes, peeing on them and trying to suck off the urine. Little children were tearing off the leaves of plants and eating them - they were so hungry.

"One little boy, about seven, stood naked with urine running down his leg. He was stuffing rose petals into his bleeding mouth from one of the bouquets the children had brought for the teachers. He was shouting, 'Mama!' She couldn't hear him. She was dead."

One 15-year-old boy spoke of how the older boys and men were separated and given "chores". "We had to gather the bodies of those who had died when they took the school and throw them out of the windows. Then they wanted us to board them up.

"I carried the body of a little girl and threw it out of the window," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. As he threw her, he decided to try to escape, and jumped out of the window, too. "I knew it might be my one chance.

"When I fell, I saw her dead body lying there, so I took off my T-shirt and covered her face. I smashed my leg as I fell and I knew it was broken so I crawled, dragging it behind. I squeezed myself behind a wall, with the bodies. And I just lay there and waited. I know I dozed although my leg was sore."

Inside the gymnasium, the hostage-takers, their patience wearing thin by late afternoon, began punching their hostages and butting them with rifles.

Volodia, 16, who had taken her younger brother to school that morning, said that one remained aloof. "He sat reading the Koran. He never lifted his head. I whispered to him, 'Would we be killed?' But he just said he had nothing to do with it.

"Some people said that the older girls who were dragged into another room were being raped. We could hear cries, but then, so many were screaming and crying, that it was impossible to know."

Their ordeal dragged into a third day and then reached its climax.

As the first bomb exploded and the gymnasium ceiling caved in, the terrorists lost control of the situation.

Diana Gadzhinova, 14, and her sister, Alina, 12, had been lying on the floor at the time.

"There was a massive explosion in the yard," said Diana. "Then there was shooting. [My sister and I] stayed where we were, lying on the floor. But, suddenly, there was another explosion above us and part of the ceiling fell in. People were screaming. There was panic. They were running everywhere. No one knew what was happening.

"I looked up and saw some children lying on the floor, covered in blood and not moving. There was a dead woman lying beside me. Torn-off arms and legs were lying everywhere. There were bombs

Death toll above 350

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Death toll above 350