Andrew Osborn








"People want someone to blame and they chose me," says Beslan head as she quits her school

The Independent, 2nd February 2005 13:03

Andrew Osborn in Moscow

FOR LIDIA Alexandrovna Tsaliyeva, Beslan"s School Number One was a lifelong passion. Now 72, Mrs Tsaliyeva worked there for 52 years, more than half the time as its headmistress, and in her youth even studied there. But yesterday she told The Independent in a voice broken by stress that she had become an object of hatred for the school"s grief-stricken parents and could no longer work at a place that has become a global symbol of terror.

When a new School Number One opens its doors on 1 September in a different part of town, a year to the day that the old one was seized by Chechen militants, Mrs Tsaliyeva will not be running it. Vilified and deluged with death threats, she resigned last week.

Despite passionately pleading with the hostage-takers not to harm her pupils and being badly injured herself, many of Beslan"s tortured inhabitants have blamed her for the death of their children. Mrs Tsaliyeva insisted she was "whiter than white" but said she was resigning anyway: "People want someone to blame and they chose me."

She angrily rejected accusations that she unwittingly helped the Chechen militants who seized her beloved school.

Bereaved parents have accused her of hiring workmen to renovate the school "on the cheap" who allegedly stashed weapons for the militants beneath its floorboards.

It has also been claimed that she refused to share an apple with the starving children during the three-day siege and that she took tea with the terrorists after they had denied the hostages water. The children were left with no choice but to drink their own urine.

"I completely reject such accusations," Mrs Tsaliyeva said. "I am not guilty of anything whatsoever. Of course I forgive the people who make these accusations. I understand how difficult it is to lose someone you love."

Almost five months after the siege"s bloody climax, in which 330 people were killed, more than half of them children, the school"s blood-caked walls are still covered with venomous graffiti threatening Mrs Tsaliyeva. "Lida you are a bitch. Lida you are mistake of nature. We will kill you. How could you sell out other people"s children? You betrayed our children," reads one scrawl.

Mrs Tsaliyeva, whose own sister lost an eye in the siege, says she is not fearful for her safety, and will stay in Beslan. "I"m not going anywhere. All my friends live here."

Feelings towards her are still running high.

A couple of weeks ago she joined a demonstration of victims" mothers demanding the resignation of the region"s president, Alexander Dzasokhov, but it wasn"t long before their fury turned on her. "It"s her fault!" shouted one of the mothers. "She is to blame for the death of our children."

"I was there for no longer than two minutes when they surrounded me and some woman told me to go away," she recalled, her voice trembling with emotion. "There are still people that accuse me but the majority have understood."

But the graffiti, like the hatred refuses to disappear. "Every time someone cleans it off, some evil people daub the walls again."

Although her two grandchildren and nephew survived the siege practically unscathed, Mrs Tsaliyeva suffered serious burns and damage to her hearing. "My health is terrible," she says.

While she has plucked up the courage to visit Beslan"s unnaturally full cemetery, she cannot bring herself to go back to the school. "It would be terrible to see my favourite school in such a terrible state," she says, adding that 19 of her 62 members of staff died in the siege.

"Every day, every second, every hour it is difficult to think about what happened. I have lost 10 kilograms and suffered so much. I suppose I always will."

A recently released video shows Mrs Tsaliyeva pleading for the children"s lives. There is no evidence that the workmen she hired were the militants" accomplices or hid any weapons. As for the apple she is said to have eaten, it turned out to be a small chocolate that Mrs Tsaliyeva, who suffers from diabetes, was given.

Five months ago Mrs Tsaliyeva was a heroine, visited in hospital by an anxious-looking Vladimir Putin. Now, her health shattered, her reputation tarnished, and with many of the pupils and staff in her care dead, her professional career appears to be at an end.

If she is bitter, she hides it well. "I just hope God doesn"t allow anything like this to happen anywhere else in the world," she says. "In any country."