#25 - JRL 8478 - JRL Home
December 1-7, 2004
Beslan: Three Months after the Tragedy
By Ludmila Butuzova
December 1 marks three months since the hostage drama in Beslan that killed 330 and injured more than 600. MN's Lyudmila Butuzova visited the city that has yet to recover from the shock
It would seem that in Beslan, people are just getting on with their lives: They walk the streets and they laugh, but the next moment they can break down and cry. Thus an old man, who had been walking along the railway tracks, clutching two bags with cereals and fresh pears to his chest, suddenly burst into tears. Humanitarian relief aid was being distributed not far from School #1. The old man looked back at the ruins, stood still for a while, and then collapsed, clutching his head. The pears scattered on the ground. The old man paid no attention to them. It didn't matter, for there was no one to give the fruit to anymore: After the hostage drama, there were no children left in his home. People walking from the opposite direction did not even try to help or comfort him. They simply passed by, keeping their heads down. They could just barely control themselves, ready to break down at any moment.
Medicine Is Powerless
The psychologists, who have been working in Beslan for more than two months, have all departed. The last psychology expert, Olga, a Muscovite, is about to leave any day now.
"There is no point in staying on," she says. "We have done all that we could - mainly for the children. As for the adults, you see, Beslan is a special case. These people are afraid to bring closure because then - at least so it seems to them - they will never get at the truth and see justice prevail. Many simply stopped visiting us."
Five children were killed in Marina Tsgoeva's family. The woman keeps sitting at home in the same position for hours on end. She tries to go to sleep, but can't. Olga is greatly worried about her: This is how people lose their sanity.
"No," Marina says, "this is how they are driving us mad. They are doing this deliberately. They are lying, shifting and dodging, and then lying again. I once had a family, but now I have no family. Who is to blame for this?"
Psychologists are unable to answer such questions.
The future of Beslan's School #1 is unknown. Flowers, toys, water bottles (brought to the site as a token tribute to children who had experienced unquenchable thirst during the hostage drama. - Ed.), foot-wear, and notebooks with rusty stains are being cleared from the ruins. One night all writing desks disappeared from the school building. To the hostage survivors' horror, it turned out that they had been given to a local vocational college as "humanitarian relief aid." They say the college director almost had a heart attack, but had to accept the "gift." The desks were left in one room, piled on each other face down, because no one wanted to sit behind them.
The father of Elona and Timur Kozyrev has for weeks been sleeping at the school. During the day time he is at the cemetery, visiting and looking after the graves of his children and his wife, who died together with them. In the evening he comes to the school to guard the gymnasium. Many former hostages or their relatives go on guard duty together with Kozyrev. They say they are ready to throw themselves under a bulldozer but will not give up the school.
The decision to build a memorial in place of the school was made within the first few days after the tragedy. The authorities announced an international competition, and now artists from all over the world are working on their entries. Although no deadline has been set, some people would apparently like to get this over and done with as soon as possible. One reason for this could be that the walls of School #1 are in fact the only "mass media outlet" - veritable Truth Walls - where the names of those purportedly guilty in the tragedy are being openly named. Thus, the name of North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov is being cited the most often. Maintenance workers are tired of scrubbing graffiti off the walls.
"All that remains to be done is to tear down the walls, and everyone will forget about our problem," said Madina, whose two daughters were wounded in the hostage-taking raid. "Even now we are being gagged. Imagine, one official said, "Stop complaining: You've gotten so much that this will atone for everything that you may have suffered."
It is impossible to verify this, but one thing is clear: The people are hypersensitive and can be hurt by any comment or remark. Disturbing rumors start circulating even before any comment has been made. Suspicion moves from house to house like wildfire. Sometimes a spark is enough to cause the city to go on the defense, especially if this concerns such a delicate issue as compensation or humanitarian relief aid for the hostage survivors. Many do not believe that it will reach them in full without behind siphoned off along the way.
"We'll appeal to the international community to stop humanitarian aid," Mairbek Tuaev, chairman of a local public council, said. "We may be the worse off for this, but corruption will not come to pass."
The international community, as represented by foreign correspondents, has been stunned by such forceful statements: This is something unheard-of in the field of corruption-fighting.
"Money is a big problem," Beslan Mayor Vladimir Khodov told this reporter. "It would be better if there was no money at all."
But there is money - and very big money, too. Hundreds of millions of rubles and hundreds of thousands of dollars and euros have been accumulated on the Beslan survivor relief account. Financial aid for the hostage survivors and victims of the terrorist attack has been raised throughout the world. These vital funds, however, are still out of reach for the people of Beslan.
Thus far humanitarian aid has only reached the hospitals. The donated medical equipment and donor blood have already saved several hundred lives. Doctors say the supplies they have received will last for years, and they are grateful for this since the majority of survivors will have to take an extensive course of treatment. Beslan's impoverished hospital, which during the tragic September days did not even have enough syringes, is now well stocked with everything. Medical supplies are probably the only area that the people of Beslan have no problem with.
"Not a cent has been provided for a new school," a city administration official said. "Only please, do not reveal my name or I'll be in trouble. Today it is the hostage survivors who are calling the shots here. Meanwhile, the whole city has suffered as a result of the tragedy, but there is no compensation for this."
The RF government promised to build two schools: A special federal decree is being eagerly awaited in North Ossetia. Moscow has promised to build houses for hostage survivors, kindergartens, and a medical center. A Beslan development foundation has been created in the republic, but there is no money on its accounts. No one dares to take anything from the Beslan survivor relief fund for city needs although many people say that there is nothing wrong in sharing the money with the city: After all, it will be spent on communal needs.
The fact, however, is that the hostage survivors themselves have not as yet seen any cold, hard cash from their purportedly fat account. All government and public commissions overseeing the distribution of relief funds say that the main reason for the delay is that there is not an exhaustive and clear-cut list of the hostage survivors. But there have been problems with the lists that have been made over the past two and a half months. For some reason, the names of some people who had nothing to do with the hostage survivors were included or, on the contrary, those who should have been included were not. Commissions were dissolved and new ones set up amid ongoing controversy. At last, a public council was elected that can be trusted: It is comprised of parents who lost their children in the hostage drama.
The council meticulously combed through the lists, straightening them out and rejecting any attempts to revise them further. The only exception that it made was to add to the list of 330 dead another four victims who are yet to be identified. Two families categorically refused to do this, ignoring all appeals from forensic medical experts. But people cannot wait any longer: They need money. So payments will start as of next week: 1 million rubles (approx. $35,000) for every person killed in the attack; 750,000 rubles will be paid to every person who was seriously injured, while a special decreasing coefficient will be applied to other categories of hostage victims. The council hammered out the coefficient as a result of long and tortuous debate. It was decided not to touch the hard currency accounts yet.
"We Don't Need This Garb"
It will be a long time yet before relief aid begins to be distributed. Boxes, containers, crates, and bags have been sitting at several warehouses under police protection. But there is no one to sort them out.
"Everything must have rotted anyway," Aleksandra Smirnova says.
After the hostage drama, relief aid started coming to Beslan in large quantities by road and rail. The city was unprepared for such an influx, as it was more concerned with more pressing problems: A whole month was spent on burying the dead and looking for survivors. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid shipments were literally rotting. People living on Pervomaiskaya Street still recall a KamAZ truck loaded with water melons from the city of Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea. The driver did not know what to do with it and could not understand why no one wanted to take anything.
"At the time, a wake was being held in each home," Rita Totieva says. "How could we possibly accept a water melon? This is not the done thing with the Ossetians. I can understand these people: They meant well. But you should also understand us: Who is going to eat all that? There are no children now."
Finally, the truck driver just dumped the water melons into a river. Later it was also used as a dump for a large shipment of bananas and pears from one Central Asian republic as well as for many other things that might or might not have come in useful.
The people of Beslan prefer not to talk about this: It's a sin. Yet the fact remains: Many are not happy with the relief aid.
"They gave me some flour - five kilograms," Smirnova, an elderly woman, says. "I opened the bag: The flour was all bluish. There were also boxes with pasta that stank. Most of the foodstuffs were past their sell-by dates. It was a nightmare! Why? Send a little something, but of good quality. If you've got nothing to give, you should not waste money on shipping worthless products."
The old woman is right. Indeed, there were plenty of foodstuffs long past their sell-by dates. This reporter saw with her own eyes piles of inedible sweets, cookies, and waffles as well as such unsaleable items as paper napkins, lamp shades, footwear and synthetic skirts that had apparently been sitting in warehouses since the 1970s. On Shkolny Lane, in a densely populated residential area, someone dumped a load of used clothes. People bypass the pile with downcast eyes.
"We did not have an earthquake or other natural disaster here," the husband of Darima Alikova, a school teacher who was killed in the hostage-taking raid, says, carefully choosing his words. "We had a terrorist attack. Yes, we expected words of sympathy, but I don't need a secondhand jacket. I would have given everything away myself if only I could have prevented this man-made disaster."
I was pointedly asked not to write about this, focusing instead on those who had really helped the hostage survivors - not necessarily with money or a new refrigerator delivered to an orphan's home, but maybe by just sending a letter. There were hundreds of such requests. Yet I acted on another request from the people of Beslan - to report everything as it is.
MN File Funds coming to the Beslan survivor relief account are accumulating on a special account at the Sberbank (Savings Bank) Vladikavkaz cash settlement and payment processing center. The balance now is at 905 million rubles, US $915,000, and 86,000 euros. To date, North Ossetia has received more than 250 million rubles worth of medial equipment and supplies; 16 motor vehicles; TV sets, refrigerators, and washing machines, and 12 million rubles worth of industrial goods. The hostage survivors have received 130 tonnes of foodstuffs and 150 million rubles worth of medical supplies and equipment. Survivors seriously injured in the hostage-taking raid and families who lost their relatives in the attack have received a total of 73 million rubles in cash; hard currency funds have yet to be distributed.
In France, SOS Attentats, an association for the victims of terrorism, was created in 1985. It was initiated by Francoise Rudetzki, one of the victims of a bomb attack at a Paris restaurant, who headed up the association. Originally, SOS Attentats was supported by private donations, but in the mid-1990s a government funding system was developed: Four euros from each insurance policy bought by French citizens go to the association for the victims of terrorism.
In Italy, Together for Peace Foundation, a charity association, is supported through private donations and tax exemptions for corporate members. Companies that have been transferring a share of their profits to humanitarian purposes enjoy benefits in the allocation of government contracts. For the last 60 years the association has been headed by Maria Pia Fanfani, 82, who recently delivered a humanitarian relief shipment to the city of Beslan.