Erika Fatland – Stories from Beslan
An excerpt from the non-fiction book Englebyen (The Village of Angels)
Writen by Erika Fatland
Translated by Karoline Warr
At the Beslan exit of the motorway, a little welcome committee was waiting. Three men and a lady stood, as if to attention, beside a battered yellow Toyota and a white Lada Zjiguli. Two of the men were identically dressed, in dark suits, both with inserted shoulder pads, as though to strengthen their square frames. They looked like two black fridges. They were both past their best ages, even though I had been promised “well-trained men in good health of a maximum of 45 years old” in the contract. The lady, was slim and with short hair. She was wearing sunglasses and black leather trousers. Under her short jacket, she sported a tight t-shirt, also black.
“Well,” mumbled Eric from the International Red Cross committee when he caught sight of the congregated group. One of the French men wolf-whistled from the backseat: “Quelle femme.” What a woman.
I gathered my things together and said goodbye to the NGO workers that I had met the evening before. Eric and the French man wished me good luck. Then the white minibus rolled out onto the road again, closely tailed by another bus of the same type, in which armed guards in khaki uniforms sat. All well trained and in their prime. Just a couple of hours and they would be arriving in Groznyj. My journey ended here.
It was over 40 degrees; the air was dry and oppressive. I could see the snow-topped peaks of the Caucasus which, as Knut Hamsun wrote in his travel journal In Wonderland, almost became one with the white clouds in the sky. Down here, the landscape was green and flat.
The two black-clad men squeezed themselves together in the front seats of the little Zjiguli, whilst I sat in the back with the woman who was to be my guide over the next few days. The big men seemed remarkably out of place in the small seats. Vova and Rusik were their names. They had pistols in their belts and didn’t speak. Their job was to be to look after me, day and night, for the next three months.
Mairbek, the manager of the security company, followed us in the yellow Toyota. And so I was escorted to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, that sun-drenched day in late summer 2007. I couldn’t stay in Beslan itself because of the security situation. Beslan is about half an hour’s drive from Vladikavkaz. It was the first day of my social anthropology fieldwork and the situation felt simply absurd.
Thirty five hours is how long the journey here is from Moscow by train, and even if you are not really in a fantasy world, there is no doubt that you have entered a different reality. Here, the designer shops and the black, shiny Mercedes of Moscow’s streetscape seem like an exhibition from a fairytale. There are no traffic jams; not even traffic lights.
Donkeys and boney cattle graze by the ditches at the side of the road. Few of the roads are tarmac’d, and the most common car is still the Zjiguli, the rolling flagship of socialism.
We drove past a number of military checkpoints and some indolent flocks of sheep. As we crossed the River Terek, the landscape became more urban. Grey tower blocks and colourful signs with Cyrillic letters marking the tired streets. Vladikavkaz is a small town by Russian standards, and it didn’t take long for us to reach the centre.
But the journey here had been long.
When I first told my university supervisor in Copenhagen of my plan to travel to Beslan, he tried to discourage me.
“Surely it can’t be that dangerous?” I thought.
His response was to send me to one of Denmark’s foremost Caucasus experts, Helen Liesl Krag. She started the conversation by unrolling a massive map over the desk.
“Beslan is here,” she said, and pointed with her biro. “And here, a few kilometres away, is the Republic of Ingushetia, which suffers extreme unrest and instability. It is the most dangerous republic in Russia at the moment. And here, next to Ingushetia, just a few miles from Beslan, is Chechnya. I’m sure that needs no introduction.”
Helen looked at me seriously.
“For one thing, it is a dangerous area for a young woman. There have been kidnappings. For another, it’s really difficult to get a visa. I can’t get a visa to Russia myself anymore, just because I wrote that one book on the North Caucasus. They don’t like people writing anything about that region. I might manage a tourist visa for a weekend, but that’s it,” she explained. “I regularly get visits from the Russian embassy to see what I’m up to,” she added. “It’s ridiculous, but that’s how it is.”
Helen was right. It was tough to get a visa. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, I was lucky enough to get a position as a volunteer with the Russian Red Cross, which at that point still ran a rehabilitation centre in Beslan. Vova and Rusik, the two rectangular body guards, were an absolute requirement in the job description – according to Red Cross statutes, all foreign workers that are based in conflict zones in the North Caucasus must have armed guards.
As I write this, it is almost seven years since those three September days that put the tiny, North Ossetia town of Beslan firmly on the world’s map. On the morning of 1 September 2004, a group of terrorists took over 1100 people, the majority of which were women and children, as hostages at School 1. The hostage drama had a bloody ending on the third day. 333 people, of which 186 were children, were killed by the terrorists.
The TV images from Beslan made a deep impression. The terrorists were condemned by governments around the whole world, sms-aid was arranged out of sympathy for the victims and people lit candles in their windows to remember the children that had been killed. Thousands of letters and gifts from the around the globe were sent to Beslan. But after a while, as the weeks past, interest waned and the journalists went home. The camera lenses zoomed in on other fates and fresh new stories took over the screens. In Beslan they had just buried their dead.
What happens when all the journalists have gone? What impact does such a dramatic and violent event have on a relatively small community? And what exactly happened on 3 September 2004? There is still so much that is unclear about the Beslan hostage drama. Was it one of the terrorists’ home-made bombs that went off or was it, as many of the hostages believe, the special forces that opened fire first? And who were the terrorists?
This book is based on two long periods spent in Beslan, autumn 2007 and spring 2010, as well as interviews in Moscow and St Petersburg. The first visit was in conjunction with the Russian Red Cross and the International Red Cross Association, along with their security rules. Through taking on the teaching of English to children in the afternoons, I was able to take part in all of the gatherings in the town centre, and I was also able to go along with the employees on home visits to the families that had been affected by the terrorist action. This formed the starting point of my social anthropology Masters dissertation, “School Number 1, Beslan, three years after the terror”.
As I knew the area and had contacts there, I made my last visit to Beslan under my own steam and on a tourist visa. In addition to these two long field trips, I have scrutinized legal protocols, newspaper articles, books and criminal investigation reports; all to try to get to the bottom of what exactly happened on those three September days in Beslan.
This is an account of how events seem to have unfolded. It is also the story of how an entire community has been changed irrevocably.
Those people whose surnames are not given have asked not to be identified by their full names. In some instances, I have changed their first names, too.
Chapter One: The Festival of Knowledge
“We went to the market to buy a satchel,” Rita Sedakova tells me. “The bag had a pocket that was really meant for a mobile phone. Ala didn’t have a mobile phone, but she still wanted that satchel. When we got home, she proudly showed it off to the neighbours: This pocket is really for mobile phones, but as I don’t have one, I’m going to keep my keys there instead! she told them happily. She was so excited about going back to school.”
Rita sounds like a young girl when she repeats what her daughter had said. Her gaze is dreamy, firmly fixed on the memory of those busy preparations.
“We also bought new gym kit, a blouse and a skirt. We even bought new shoes! I couldn’t really afford to, but Ala asked so nicely: They are so comfortable, mummy, pleeease! She really wanted them. OK, we’ll have them, I said. There wasn’t enough money left for me to buy myself some shoes, even though mine were completely worn out. Do you know what she said to that? Next month, mummy, we will get you some new shoes! That was so typical of her to say something like that. She was always so thoughtful and kind.
Rita sighs, and suddenly looks much older than her fifty years. She drags her hands through the short, grey hair. Her narrow face is unmade up. Her eyes are brown and clear, she has high cheekbones and full lips. I realise that she has got thinner since I first met her two years ago. She doesn’t look well; her slight frame is swamped by the baggy tracksuit bottoms. She keeps the black woolly cardigan on, even though the radiators are on full blast. She often holds her head, kneading her hands against her temples. The pills she took earlier don’t seem to have relieved her pain.
Like so many other parents, Rita had used the whole of the meagre monthly salary to buy new school things for her daughter so that she would be ready for the new school year. The first day at school – the festival of knowledge – is one of the public holidays from Soviet times that is still celebrated in earnest in Russia. Girls throughout the country get dressed up in white blouses and black, knee-length skirts whilst boys put on freshly pressed trousers and shoes that have been polished ‘til they shine. The students take flowers and chocolates for the teachers and the celebration, which consists of parades, speeches, singing and dancing, follows the same pattern across the whole country, and gets wide coverage in newspapers and on TV.
We drink tea in silence, broken only by Rita’s sigh.
“The tea doesn’t taste of anything anymore,” she complains. “Nothing tastes of anything anymore.”
She goes quiet again. I interpret this to mean the conversation is over and as my cue to leave, but then I see a gleam in her eyes.
“Norway is next to Finland and Sweden, right? Denmark is also one of the neighbouring countries, but there is sea in between. The Baring Sea, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. Gamsun, Ibsen and Grieg were Norwegians, weren’t they?” Rita gesticulates, her face alive, and I catch a glimmer of what Rita must been like before her hair turned grey and the colourful dresses were swapped for a simple, black tunic.
I nod in agreement.
“Have you ever read any Hamsun?” I ask.
“Have I read Gamsun? Of course I have read Gamsun!” replies Rita, outraged.
Of course she has read Hamsun, how could I even ask?
“We read classics from around the world when we were at school,” she adds. “We read everything. That’s how the Soviet school system was. We learnt something. And remembered it.”
She sips her tea, looks out into space and is quiet for a long moment. The sound from the TV, which is on in the corner, takes over the room. The TV is always on these days; Rita can no longer bear silence in the flat. The door to Ala’s room is open. It is exactly as it was when she last left it, five years ago. On the bedcovers, lots of teddy bears and dolls are lined up. The desk is tidy, ready for writing assignments and maths homework. As the flat only has one bedroom, Rita and Ala used to sleep in the same room. Ala’s father died when she was three years old, so it was just the two of them.
These days, Rita sleeps on the sofa in the living room. Only rarely, when she’s lying awake at night and can’t sleep, does she go to lie down on Ala’s bed, next to all the dolls and teddy bears, where she always falls asleep straight away.
“I was at work that day,” Rita says quietly.” I worked as a book keeper. I couldn’t take leave and take Ala to school, even though I wanted to. Half past nine, we found out that the school was under attack.”
School Number 1 was the pride of Beslan. It was founded in 1899, and everyone agreed that it was the best of Beslan’s seven primary schools. Some of the best, most competent teachers in the district taught there. With its population of 35000, Beslan is a small town by Russian standards; Beslan is probably best described as a large village. Yet still some of the students travelled in from Vladikavkaz, the capital city in North Ossetia Alania. Their parents wanted to send them to the best school in the district, and the head teacher, Lidia Tsalieva, wanted to take them all. But even though School Number 1 was relatively big, with the capacity for almost 900 pupils, Lidia often had to turn down parents that wanted to enrol their children there. There simply wasn’t space for them all.
School Number 1 was in the centre of Beslan, right by Komintern Road, one of the main roads, and by the central station. A number of five storey blocks surrounded the school, and the children who lived there had the shortest school journey. The school buildings themselves were two storeys high and were built in a horseshoe. The new, modern sports hall jutted out from the middle of one side and cut the school yard in two.
The head teacher, Lidia Tsalieva, had arrived early on the morning of 1 September, to check that everything was ready for the celebrations. The seventy two year old woman had been head for twenty four years, and before she became head teacher, had also worked there as a teacher and administrator. Altogether, she had worked at the school for fifty two years, over half a century. The school was her life, and she looked forward to the summer holidays finally ending and the classrooms being filled with life again. She was proud, too. Everything they had achieved over the summer, against all odds. Even though the school didn’t have the money for renovations, they had managed to cobble together a few thousand rubles, thanks to some good workers. Some had even volunteered to work for free.
“Pay us when you can,” they said; “don’t worry about it, Lidia.”
Lidia had worked with them all summer. She had painted, tidied and cleaned. She didn’t like the school holidays anyway. With their joint effort, they managed to give the school a sorely needed lift, and they did so with almost no money.
When Lidia got into school that morning, the building shone like a new pin. The cleaner had already been there and washed the windows. Everything was spotless, ready to welcome the teachers and pupils to the new school year.
The school yard was full of excited students and proud mothers and grandmothers long before nine o’clock, when the festivities were due to begin. A number of the women who lived nearby had also come along, because School Number 1 was known to have the most fantastic party. Laughter rang out, and chattering was loud and excited. For the youngest school children, this was a particularly special day, just as it is for children around the world on their very first day of school. It marked the end of their carefree childhood. From now on, playtime would be replaced with pencils and paper. A combination of expectation and nervousness filled the school yard.
Natalia, an English teacher, had also arrived early in order to manage to have a chat with the other teachers before the ceremony began. It was, as always, lovely to meet up with colleagues again. They stood, chatting about what they had done during the holidays, about how great it was to be back at work. She had already gone outside to arrange the children into groups so that the ceremony could begin when she heard the first shots. It was nine fifteen. Natalia was surprised, but rationalised that the shooting must be part of the celebrations. In the Caucasus, people fire shots into the air when there is something to celebrate – so why not also on the first day of school?
But straight away, some of the children came running over to her and asked what was going on. When Natalia turned round, she saw a man with a machine gun right in front of her. More appeared from all sides, sporting masks and camouflage uniforms. They were all armed with machine guns and they started to hurry people into the school building. As it was impossible to get such a large crowd of people through one door, the terrorists smashed windows and made people climb through those. Over a thousand people were forced into the sports hall in just a few minutes.
“The terrorists were well organised,” remembers Natalia. “They knew exactly how to get us all into the sports hall. They were incredibly focused, they all knew exactly what they were doing.”
Fatima Alikova, a young photographer, was at the school to take photos for the local paper. If her mother hadn’t been the editor in chief, she probably would have called in sick. She was far from being in celebratory spirits and had had to force herself to go to work that day. Each step she had taken towards the school yard had felt like a punishment.
August had been a remarkable month for Fatima. It was as though she was looking for answers to a question that she didn’t know. Something was bugging her, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. It was only when she read a book by the Roman philosopher Seneca and got to the chapter “about death” that she understood; she had found what she was looking for. The chapter is written as a letter to youth, and the moral of the story is that people should always be prepared to die. The twenty eight year old thought a lot about death that month. She thought about how meaningless it all was, that we live and then we die. She had had almost no appetite all month. She ate just bread and tomatoes and drank tea.
Fatima met lots of friends and people she knew in the school yard. Beslan is a small place; everyone knows everyone. Fatima answered all their questions politely, but all she could think about was how she could get the job done as quickly as possible and go home. She had already found the boy and girl that were going to carry out the traditional “first bell” ceremony. These two, one from the reception class and the other a final year student, would together carry a school bell out to the yard and ring in the new school year. Fatima had decided to take a quick photo of it and then leave.
She never got to take that photo.
The responsible teacher had already gone to fetch the bell when Fatima spotted a masked man with a machine gun. Even though she didn’t yet know what was brewing, she instinctively felt she had to escape. Instead of running away from the school, which is what she should have done, she sought shelter inside the school building, where she thought she would be safe. She hid herself in a little room on the second floor, together with a couple of others who had also managed to get away. Gunshots, screams and cries rang out from the school yard and, after a while, from inside the building itself.
As she sat there, huddled and afraid, her mobile rang. It was her mother. The newspaper offices were close to the school and the staff had all heard the shots.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” replied Fatima. “They’re shooting.”
“You need to get out of there. Hurry!”
“Then hide,” advised her mother. “And keep away from the windows.”
The connection was lost. Fatima tried to call back but the line was dead. Not long after, they were found by one of the armed men. He told them they had to follow him. Fatima left her camera behind; she didn’t want him to know she was a journalist.
The first floor corridors were crammed with people. The terrorists had set themselves up along the walls to herd people towards the sports hall. They kept shooting into the air. The sports hall was full of people. That was when it dawned on Fatima what was going on. They were hostages.
The school librarian, Izeta Tsinojeva, was in the library when the terrorists took over the school. She was usually late for things, but that particular day she had arrived twenty minutes early. Some of the parents had approached her in the school yard as not all of the students had got all of their books yet. Izeta took one of the families with her up to the library to find books for them. She went over to the window after she had given them the books that they needed, to see how the preparations were going outside. A man in the school yard in camouflage caught her eye. He had a machine gun in his hands and a mask over his face. Izeta didn’t understand what was going on. Why was there a soldier in the school yard? The little old lady rationalised that it must be something to do with the celebrations. Then she spotted another masked man.
“What’s going on?” she asked Lena, who she worked with in the library. Before Lena could answer, one of the pupils came running into the library, with blood running down his hands.
“Are you hurt Alan?” asked Izeta, who had recognised him as the son of the school secretary. The three women, Izeta, Lena and the secretary, took Alan up to the second floor to bandage his hand. They tried to get out of him what had happened, but he rambled incoherently. From the first floor came the sounds of shouting, crying and gunshots.
The three women understood that the situation was dangerous, though they still didn’t know what was going on. They decided to stay completely silent, in the hope that they would not be discovered. Alan cried and cried.
“I will never forget the scene that greeted me in the corridor,” Izete says, with a quivering voice. When I met here, it has been three years since the terrorist attack and the petite sixty five year old has told this story many, many times. To colleagues; her son; to anyone that will listen. The memories are still just as vivid.
“So many weapons! The whole corridor was full of weapons and men in uniforms. We were herded into the sports hall like cattle, quicker, quicker! the terrorists shouted.”
The sports hall, which had been decorated five years earlier, and which even had a basketball court, was the biggest for miles around. When all of the hostages were in place, the sports hall was filled to the brim. The hostages, most of whom were women and children, were ordered to sit along the walls. Some of the women had been separated from their children in all the chaos; they tried desperately to find them again. The hostages had to sit almost on top of each other, so that there would be room for everyone. No-one was allowed to stand. Many cried and some of the smallest children couldn’t stop screaming. The whole situation was so unexpected that the majority of them still hadn’t absorbed what had happened.
Izeta dries a tear and stares blankly into space.
“I have no idea what to say about the sports hall,” she says, and goes silent.
Natalia, the English teacher, also struggles to find words to describe the sports hall:
“And that’s what happened,” she says shortly, having described in detail the events earlier in the day. “We were there for three days, and prayed every day for a miracle. But it never came.”
Many of the hostages struggle to give a coherent history of the days in the sports hall. A number of the smells and feelings have been burnt into their minds; they can recall the most minute details. Other memories are fuzzy, reconstructed after the event. The hours merged into one another and it became difficult to separate the events from one another. In which order did it actually happen? Who said what; when? When did hope turn to apathy? When was it we started to wish for it to just be over, no matter what happened in the end?
The terrorists were aggressive and impatient from the get go. They fired into the air and threated to kill everyone if the room didn’t go silent. As it simply wasn’t possible to get that many frightened children to be silent, 46 year old Ruslan Betrosov got up from the floor and tried to reason with the terrorists. Much like his wife Emma, he was a quiet man who drew little attention to himself, but on this occasion he stood and spoke up:
“Stop shooting, then the children will be quiet,” he said. “Your shooting is scaring them. It is not surprising they are screaming.”
The leader, a tall, thin man with a full beard who the other terrorists only called “Colonel” pointed a pistol at Ruslan’s head and threatened to shoot him unless there wasn’t immediate silence in the sports hall. Ruslan was forced back to the floor. He lay like that, with the gun to his head, and tried to get the children to be quiet. But they weren’t, not quiet enough anyway, so the colonel shot him.
His two sons, 14 year old Alan and 16 year old Aslan, witnessed the execution. Afterwards, the terrorists ordered a couple of the male hostages to dispose of the body. They were not allowed to take it straight out, first they had to drag the corpse to one side of the sports hall, then to the other, as though to underline the gravity of the situation. Two pools of blood stained the wooden floor and finally the packed crowd of people were quiet. Some of the children tried to cover the stains with their clothes, so that Alan and Aslan wouldn’t have to look at their father’s blood.
The terrorists used the quiet to lay explosive cables everywhere.
“They were very effective,” remembers the school administrator, Olga, a small round lady in her fifties. “We had to sit totally still whilst they worked. None of us were allowed to stand; we all had to sit with our hands on our heads. It was exhausting and after a while was also painful. Try sitting for several hours with your hands on your head.”
Whilst most of the teachers long ago tired of retelling the story of the terrorist attack to journalists and others, Olga doesn’t look likely to stop anytime soon. It is autumn when we meet, and term is in full swing. It is three years since the tragedy and the everyday has wound back to some kind of normality. Throughout the interview, people come in and out of the office to collect papers or check timetables. As soon as they have gone, Olga continues unperturbed from where she left off. As she speaks, she draws a map of the sports hall on a piece of paper.
“There was a bomb here, and here, in the basketball hoop – another one. This, right here, next to the door to the weights room, is where I was sat to start with. They didn’t want to kill us, that wasn’t their aim. Or they would have done it straight away, right?”
Only the children were allowed to drink or go to the toilet that first day. It was only late into the evening that the grown-ups were permitted to go to the toilet. But at that point they were still not allowed to drink. The terrorists told us that if they spotted any of us drinking water, they would shoot one of the children. Any child. Obviously, none of us dared to drink. They told us we were going to experience a dry hunger strike until the Russian government pulled out of Chechnya. That’s what they said. A dry hunger strike. I had never heard of such a thing before,” says Olga, and crossed her arms across her floral blouse.
“After they had laid the explosive cables, they took our men outside. We had no idea where they took them or what they did to them. They didn’t take them all at once. First ten, then another ten, then six and then six more. That’s how they did it. Just a handful of old men remained in the sports hall. The men were made to sit barricaded against the windows on the second floor. When they were finished with their work, they were made to sit with their backs to the windows with raised hands, like human shields. The terrorists that were in the sports hall collected together all mobile phones and hand bags. They said that for every phone they had to find afterwards, they would shoot twenty hostages.”
New Voices from EuropeErika Fatland has been selected as one of the New Voices from Europe, ten of the most interesting writers working in Europe today. The New Voices from Europe selection is part of the Literary Europe Live project which is co-ordinated by Literature Across Frontiers and co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union, with support from Arts Council Wales.
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