Andrew Osborn








One year after the Beslan school tragedy, Putin has no answers for the bereaved

Independent On Sunday, 28th August 2005 12:50

By Andrew Osborn Moscow Correspondent

One year after Russia's worst terrorist atrocity, President Vladimir Putin is to try to make peace with Beslan"s bereaved parents in an attempt to quell what is rapidly becoming a politically embarrassing tide of anger and sorrow.

This Thursday marks the first anniversary of the seizure of Beslan's School Number One by heavily armed gunmen determined to win Chechnya"s independence from Moscow. At least 330 people died, 186 of them children, after a three-day stand-off.

In the eyes of the parents who lost their children, a year has done nothing to calm feelings of hatred, bitterness, anger and sorrow. There is a widely held view that the authorities got it catastrophically wrong, from the way they initially handled the siege to the slow and often insensitive way they have dealt with its aftermath. And as the emotionally difficult first anniversary looms and the world"s attention swings back to the small North Ossetian town, the Kremlin knows it is likely to face a barrage of criticism.

In an attempt to mollify the parents, some of whom have organised themselves into a powerful lobby group called the Mothers of Beslan, Mr Putin has invited them to meet him in the Kremlin on Friday. The mothers, who are dissatisfied with just about everything the authorities are doing, are still debating whether to accept.

The charge sheet against Moscow is long. None of the three separate inquiries into the school siege has yet wrapped up its work or published its findings. Alexander Torshin, the MP chairing the national parliamentary investigation, has admitted his draft report is littered with "blank spaces" and that piecing together a truly accurate version of pivotal events is almost impossible. In particular there are still varying accounts of the number of hostage-takers.

Other important questions that have never been definitively and satisfactorily answered include how many of the hostage-takers, if any, escaped alive, what really caused the two explosions that triggered the storming of the school, what caused the fire that subsequently ravaged its gym, what weapons were used by federal forces and who was in overall charge of the rescue operation. Nor has the trial of the only alleged hostage-taker acknowledged to have been captured alive been a smooth affair.

The twice-weekly cross-examination of Nur-Pashi Kulayev, 24, a Chechen carpenter, was supposed to be an opportunity for the bereaved to channel their anger into what looked, at first sight, like a simple case of good versus evil. But as the trial has progressed, parents have become frustrated with the lack of reliable information from official sources, and the courtroom drama has taken an unexpected twist. Mr Kulayev, initially a figure of hatred, has been told by the Mothers of Beslan that they are now willing to petition the authorities for leniency if he reveals the full extent of what he knows about the siege and its planning.

Fed up with the speed and nature of the courtroom proceedings, the group recently held a 28-hour sit-in protest. They believe that the entire investigation is flawed and corrupt and that a panoply of officials, from the border guards who allegedly accepted bribes to allow the terrorists into North Ossetia, up to and including Mr Putin, are evading responsibility.

"It is almost a year since our children have not been next to us," Rita Sidakova, one of the bereaved mothers, said recently. "They are in the cemetery. Not a single person has been punished for this evil."