Andrew Osborn








Mothers of Beslan's dead children to confront Putin

The Independent, 31st August 2005 12:49

By Andrew Osborn in Beslan

Beslan's grieving mothers have vowed to confront the Russian President, Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin midway through the first anniversary of their dead children's ordeal and ask him why he had not done more to protect their offspring.

Their threat, which dashed the Kremlin"s hopes that a personal meeting with the President might dull their anger, came as this small town, which lost at least 330 people, more than half of them children, prepared to begin the painful three-day process of marking the anniversary of the bloody school siege.

A year ago most anger was directed at the terrorists who seized School Number One and demanded that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya in exchange for releasing more than 1,000 hostages.

It seemed like a simple case of good vs evil. However, 12 months later the Kremlin seems to be struggling to remind people who the bad guys were.

"We"re unhappy with the investigation [into what happened]," Susanna Dudieva, the leader of Beslan"s Mothers Committee, told The Independent. "We do not consider it to be objective." Mrs Dudieva, who lost her 13- year old son, Zaur, in the siege, is one of those travelling to Moscow on Friday for a long-awaited audience with Mr Putin.

"I want to tell him what happened and who we think is guilty, him in particular. The government did not save our children and must now take full responsibility for those who survived. It must take measures to ensure that something like this never happens again."

For many mothers it was not an easy decision to accept Mr Putin"s invitation since he named a date " 2 September " which falls right in the middle of the three-day mourning period. "We had been asking to meet him for a year and yet he chose 2 September," says Mrs Dudieva. "He insulted us." When asked what Mr Putin could say to ease their pain, Mrs Dudieva said: "No words will ever calm us. Only action."

Zina Tsarakova, who lost her 12 year-old son, Elbrus, was more blunt. "Putin is to blame most of all. He was supposed to guarantee our security, but didn"t keep his word."

Moscow has, however, been doing its utmost to calm a rising tide of sorrow and anger. "Beslan " It"s Russia"s pain," reads a poster on the town"s outskirts, designed to make people here feel that Moscow cares. Nor has any expense been spared on the town"s eerie cemetery. Eleven months ago it was a river of dirty mud scattered with primitive wooden headstones, a field hastily turned into a graveyard. Now impressive-looking red granite tombs cover those graves, flowerbeds abound and the rivers of mud have become Tarmac.

Ordinary photographs pinned to the graves have metamorphosed into intricate, expensive inlaid portraits. Groups of women clad in black wearing the region"s traditional headscarves gathered round some of those graves to tend them yesterday. Many cried, as they had when the small coffins containing their children were lowered into the ground.

Wrapped in blue tarpaulin overlooking the cemetery is a disturbing monument to the dead called the Tree of Grief. It depicts three women with angels above their heads representing their children on their way to heaven. It is to be unveiled on 3 September, the day the siege was broken and most victims died. On the town"s edge is another symbol of Moscow money, a gleaming new children"s playground paid for by Sber Bank, Russia"s state savings bank.

Two state-of-the-art schools, said to be the best that Russia can offer, have been built to replace the ruined School Number One. The gym where many of the victims died has finally been cleaned up, a plastic roof fitted to replace the damaged rafters that remained, and a colour photograph of all the victims pasted to its singed brick walls. "Don"t shoot me. I want to study," reads a prominently displayed poem which praises the bravery of the Russian special forces who died trying to save more children.

But a year has done little to dilute people"s sorrow and trauma. "Many children can"t sleep, and fear confined spaces," a psychologist told The Independent. "Parents come to us and say that their children need help, but really they all do."