Andrew Osborn








A bell tolls for Beslan"s children

Independent On Sunday, 4th September 2005 14:43

By Andrew Osborn in Beslan

Massacre - A year on, Russian town mourns those who died in the siege, as children prepare to return to school for the first time

Three hundred and thirty-one doves were released over the graves of those who died in last year"s Beslan school massacre yesterday, as the town sought to draw a line under its grief 12 months on.

The number of doves represented the number of victims, 186 of whom were children, and each of their names was read out in a moving ceremony in the town"s graveyard under a leaden, rain-filled sky. Bells tolled while a crowd of some 12,000 looked on, their faces etched with sadness, and a short poem was read aloud.

Exactly one year ago yesterday the bloody siege of Beslan"s School Number One by pro-Chechen militants was broken as explosions ripped through the gymnasium containing more than 1,000 hostages and a fierce gun battle erupted.

Yesterday, a disturbing sculpture called "The Tree of Grief" was unveiled, overlooking row after row of red granite-covered graves. The monument portrays a group of mothers with their arms outstretched like a tree"s branches. Above them hover angels which represent their dead children ascending to Heaven.

Earlier, at 13.05, the time the first of two explosions rocked the school gymnasium, a bell had tolled at the school itself where 4,000 people were crowded into the courtyard. Many had spent the night in the gymnasium or in the cemetery as a mark of respect.

A mass of white balloons was released into the air as a minute"s silence was held, though some women began to wail. At least one mourner collapsed.

"They died here, they were burned here, their souls are still here," said Alyona Bistayeva, 42, standing in a long line of mourners waiting to file through what is left of the gym. "It"s a process of farewell and of not forgetting."

President Vladimir Putin was not present yesterday, having been told he was not welcome, but he devoted a substantial part of his weekly security council meeting to Beslan.

He ordered investigators to examine thoroughly the complaints from bereaved mothers that the ongoing probe is biased and to consider new information provided by them in a meeting the previous day.

In televised remarks he also acknowledged that he and others could not escape responsibility for what had happened in Beslan a year ago. "I must say that each of us, both as a citizen and as a function of his official position, bears responsibility," he said.

President Putin"s meeting with some of the bereaved on Friday in the Kremlin appears to have gone a long way to silencing the mothers of Beslan. They had insisted he was to blame for the poor handling of the siege and its aftermath, which had appalling consequences.

Beslan"s trauma-scarred children will restart their education tomorrow for the first time. The children have spent the past 12 months in counselling, on foreign recuperative holidays and at home, grieving and trying to understand what happened. Some have studied, intermittently, at another school in the town but few, if any, have been in full-time education. Many thought that they would never again have the courage to re-enter a school.

Child victims will not be returning to the ill-fated School Number One. It has not been rebuilt and is due for demolition. Only the school gym, where many of the victims died when the roof collapsed and explosions rocked its core, will be left standing as a monument to the dead.

Two state-of-the art schools have been built in Beslan in the past year, using money from the MoscowCity budget and with funds from the United Russia Party, the party of President Putin. The schools have been designed to look identical so as to avoid causing jealousy.