ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2004, the children of School Number One in Beslan, a town of 30,000 in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, gathered to go in for the first day of school. Suddenly, the air was filled with machine gun fire. A military truck pulled up and two dozen men with Kalashnikov assault rifles jumped out. Other terrorists appeared out of nowhere. The terrorists herded 1,200 students and parents into the school gymnasium, where they were held for 52 hours before a pitched battle broke out between the terrorists and Russian forces. The fighting led to the deaths of 332 people, including 186 children. It was the worst terrorist act since September 11, 2001.
While it was going on, the Beslan standoff riveted the attention of the world. Once it was over, however, the incident was largely forgotten. The day after the storming of the school, on September 4, bulldozers gathered the debris of the building, including children's notebooks and the body parts of the victims, and removed it to a garbage dump on the outskirts of town.
The survivors, however, wanted justice, and they were plunged into emotional turmoil as they listened to the version of events propagated by the Russian authorities, who put the blame entirely on the terrorists, exonerated officials of any wrongdoing (many of them were later promoted), and refused to listen to the survivors' accounts of what they had seen and experienced.
Some of the parents turned to a cult leader to help resurrect their dead children. Others, however, began their own investigation. They were joined by journalists, a commission of the North Ossetian parliament, and, finally, Yuri Saveliev, a member of the federal parliamentary investigative commission. Aided by testimony at the trial of Nurpashi Kulayev, a surviving terrorist, they carefully reconstructed what had happened. The picture they present raises doubts as to whether even today Russia can be considered a civilized country.
In the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, three questions are uppermost: Could the attack have been prevented? Were the terrorists--Islamic insurgents and supporters of independence for neighboring Chechnya--willing to negotiate? And, Who started the final, fatal battle? The answers to these questions present a chilling portrait of the Russian leadership and its total disregard for human life.
It is now all but certain that the terrorists' attack on the school could have been prevented. According to internal police documents obtained by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow knew four hours in advance that an attack on a school in Beslan was planned for September 1, 2004. The information came from a man named Arsamikov who had been arrested in the city of Shali in Chechnya. The information, however, was not acted upon.
Equally puzzling, the terrorists trained for weeks without interference in the woods in the republic of Ingushetia, which neighbors North Ossetia, although a bloody terrorist attack less than three months before, on June 21-22, had supposedly put Ingushetia on high alert. The terrorists traveled unimpeded to the school in several vehicles over roads that were supposedly heavily guarded.
Perhaps most unnerving, of the 18 terrorists who were later positively identified, the majority were supposed to have been in prison. The second in command, Vladimir Kho dov, a Ukrain ian convert to Islam, had been arrested in 2003 for a rape committed in 1998, but was immediately let go. He then was involved in two terrorist acts in North Ossetia, a car bombing in Vladi kav kaz in February 2004 and the derailment of a train near his hometown of Elkhotovo in May. Despite this, for a month and a half before the Beslan events, he lived openly in his hometown, spending long hours in the mosque. Other terrorist leaders were wanted criminals of many years' standing who also moved about freely in their home villages.
Besides these indications that the disaster could have been prevented, there is evidence that the terrorists' real aim was not to kill the hostages but to negotiate a political settlement of the Chechen conflict. The terrorists demanded that the president of North Ossetia, Alexander Dzasokhov, begin negotiations with them. But the Federal Security Service (FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB) set up a crisis headquarters from which Dzasokhov was excluded, and threatened to arrest him if he tried to go to the school.
Dzasokhov appealed for help to the former president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, a critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and made contact with a representative of the Chechen resistance in London, Akhmed Zakayev. On September 2, Aushev entered the school and left with 26 hostages, 15 children and 11 women. He also brought out a note with demands from Shamil Basayev, the terrorist leader who had organized the attack but was not himself present in Beslan. The existence of the note was concealed from the public. The authorities falsely stated that the terrorists had presented no demands.
In fact, the conditions suggested by Basayev were not unreasonable. While he proposed formal independence for Chechnya in exchange for security for Russia, he also said an independent Chechnya would conclude no military or political agreements directed against Russia, would remain in the ruble zone, and would join the Commonwealth of Independent States. Finally, Basayev said that although the Chechen rebels had played no part in the 1999 apartment building bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk that had served as the pretext for the start of the Second Chechen War, the rebels would publicly take responsibility for them, an indication that Basayev really believed the bombings had been carried out by the FSB.
At noon on September 3, Zakayev informed President Dzasokhov that Aslan Maskhadov, the former Chech en president, was prepared to come to Beslan to mediate the crisis. Dzasokhov reported Maskhadov's willingness to come to Beslan to General Vladimir Pronichev, the head of the FSB operation on the ground there. The Russian authorities' agreement to allow Maskhadov safe passage would have almost certainly ended the crisis because it would have signified implicit Russian recognition of Chechen aspirations. The Russian authorities, however, did not respond to Maskhadov's proposal. Within an hour, the storming of the school had begun.
Of all the issues connected to Beslan, the most emotional for the survivors was the question of who shot first, provoking the massacre. Survivors testifying at the trial of the surviving terrorist said that the Russians struck first, attacking the school with flamethrowers and grenade launchers. When officials denied that flamethrowers had been used, the survivors presented the court with used tubes from flamethrowers that had been found in the area near the school. The implications of this discovery were harrowing. The flame thrower to which the tubes belonged shoots a capsule that on detonation creates a fireball and a shock wave capable of destroying everything in its path. It is impossible to use the weapon "surgically."
The version of the Beslan parents was supported by the findings of a commission of the North Ossetian parliament. In a report released on November 29, 2005, the commission concluded that the first explosion was produced by either a flamethrower or grenade launcher fired from outside the building.
The most powerful confirmation, however, came in a report released by Yuri Saveliev, a member of the federal parliamentary investigative commission and a highly regarded expert on the physics of combustion. Saveliev, a Duma deputy, was the only such expert on the commission. Saveliev concluded that the first explosion was the result of a shot from a flame thrower fired from the fifth story of a building near the school at 1:03 P.M. The second explosion came 22 seconds later and was caused by a high explosive fragmentation grenade with a dynamite equivalent of 6.1 kilograms shot from another five story building on the same street. The explosions, according to Saveliev, caused a catastrophic fire and the collapse of the roof of the school gymnasium, which led to the deaths of the majority of the hostages. The order to put out the fire did not come for two hours. As a result, hostages who could have been saved were burned alive.
According to Saveliev, another 106 to 110 hostages died after terrorists moved them from the burning gym to the school's cafeteria, which came under heavy fire from security forces using flamethrowers, rocket launchers, and tanks. His analysis thus supports the view of human rights activists that at least 80 percent of the hostages were killed by indiscriminate Russian fire.
When Saveliev presented his conclusions to the other members of the parliamentary investigating commission, he was accused by the chairman, Alexander Torshin, of "deliberate falsification." Saveliev then released his findings independently on August 29 and October 12. The release of the findings of the Torshin commission has been postponed indefinitely.
The evidence that is now available makes it clear that, despite Putin's promise to protect the host ages, Russian forces attacked the school in Beslan according to classic military doctrine for destroying reinforced objects without the slightest regard for innocent life. This was done although agreement had been reached between the former Chechen president and local Russian political authorities on negotiations that would have ended the crisis. It is also possible that the ease with which the terrorists took over the school was not solely the result of official incompetence. The Russian authorities may have deliberately allowed the terrorists to take over the school in order to have an excuse to destroy them.
The sad reality is that 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the role of the individual in Russia has not changed. He is seen as a means to an end, not an end in himself. This is why the lives of the children of Beslan were written off the moment the school was seized, a fact to keep in mind lest we agree to give Russia carte blanche in its own "neighborhood" or look again into Putin's eyes and see something we think resembles a soul.
David Satter is affiliated with the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale).