Chechen Stands Trial for Beslan School Attack

A young Chechen accused in last year's deadly terrorist attack at a school in southern Russia is now on trial. Former hostages, including many parents who lost children, are using the first phase of the trial to raise questions about the atrocity happened and why security forces botched a rescue.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

It's been nearly a year since the deadly terrorist attack on a school in southern Russia. Chechen and English fighters held more than a thousand people hostage for three days. Then Russian forces stormed the school, and, in the end, by official count 330 people had died, half of them children. Now a young Chechen has gone on trial. The government says he's the sole surviving terrorist. NPR's Martha Wexler says the victims are also using the trial to bring out their own truths about what happened in Beslan's School Number One. She begins her report at the town cemetery.

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Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTHA WEXLER reporting:

Construction crews are working overtime to finish putting in the identical tombstones and low red-granite borders that will surround each grave site. The deadline is September 3rd, one year after Russian forces stormed the Beslan school.

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WEXLER: Teen-aged boys, former hostages who saw their friends and siblings killed, are volunteering. They want to make sure everything's ready before the anniversary.

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WEXLER: Yelena Kasibiava(ph) comes every day to the grave of her grown daughter, Alina Alekava(ph). Like parents across Russia, Alina accompanied her children to the festivities for the opening of the school year. Alina had two daughters in the Beslan school, a first- and a fifth-grader. Her five-year-old also went along to see her big sisters off to school. All three girls survived the siege, but their grandmother says Alina died of shrapnel wounds.

Ms. YELENA KASIBIAVA (Victim's Mother): (Through Translator) When the first-grader came out of the hospital, she was in shock. She kept telling us what happened and kept saying, `I was trying to wake up Mommy. I was trying and trying, but she wouldn't wake up.' The other hostages who survived say that my daughter covered her children with her body and saved them.

WEXLER: Yelena Kasibiava doesn't want to testify at the trial of Nurphashi Kulayev, supposedly the sole surviving terrorist. Many victims see him as no more than a pawn, and they call the proceedings a farce. They say investigators aren't interested in the truth. Police took down only parts of their statements immediately after the siege. But others who lived through the horror or lost loved ones are showing up to testify.

Unidentified Woman: (Russian spoken)

WEXLER: A clerk stands on the steps of the courthouse in the regional capital, Vladikavkaz, and reads out the names of witnesses who've been summoned. As the court opens, a judge ticks off the charges against Kulayev: murder, attempted murder, terrorism, hostage-taking. The 25-year-old Chechen is dressed in a black T-shirt and black pants. He stands motionless in a cage, his face downcast, framed by the white bars.

In this first stage of the trial, victims have the right to confront the defendant, but Kulayev seems almost irrelevant here. There's barely a question for him. The testimony is free-flowing, as witnesses recount the fear, the constant gunfire, the heat and unbearable thirst and the threats from the terrorists. Larisa Tumayava(ph), who survived with her two children, testifies with precision. She's an intensive care nurse and says she's used to keeping cool in a crisis. For Tumayava, it's obvious the school takeover was planned well ahead of time. She suggests that Russian security forces should have known that terrorists were about to strike in Beslan, which is less than 30 miles from the border with Chechnya.

Ms. LARISA TUMAYAVA (Survivor): (Through Translator) When we got back from vacation on August 26th, I got a phone call from my sister-in-law. She said, `Don't do your back-to-school shopping for the kids at the bazaar. Something's in the works.' The Chechens, who were getting treatment in the clinic here, all started disappearing. They always do before terrorist attack. They know.

WEXLER: Another witness, a man who lost his wife and daughter, testified that he saw military crates outside the school just before the terrorist attack. Several witnesses were critical of the school principal: `Why didn't she notice what was going on?' And they alleged that she hired outsiders to do school repairs at a cut-rate price. Many suspect those workers hid weapons under the floor.

Ms. TUMAYAVA: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: In her testimony, the nurse, Larisa Tumayava, says there were about 70 hostage-takers, not 32, as the government claims. `Did some get away?' And she says she saw Russian security forces take three other men into custody besides the one on trial. Tumayava tells the court the terrorists were expecting the government would negotiate their demands, including the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. The government refused, and Tumayava has harsh words for the chaotic way it did react.

Ms. TUMAYAVA: (Through Translator) We had helicopters overhead. I thought, `OK, finally, this is going to be like in the movies when the commanders come down and rescue people.' But these helicopters just disappeared.

WEXLER: Then when Russian forces stormed the school on the third day and the gym caught fire, there were no fire trucks at the ready.

Ms. TUMAYAVA: (Through Translator) My 12-year-old son, who was with me, asked, `How come--when there is a forest fire, they get helicopters to put out the flames. Why wasn't there a single fire truck where we were?'

WEXLER: The cause of the blaze, which burnt so many hostages alive, is in dispute. The Russian government has said one of the terrorists' bombs detonated, but local people suspect Russian security forces set fire to the building with the weapons they used to retake it, incendiary blast projectiles.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: After earlier denials, the prosecutors in the Kulayev case admitted last week that the weapons were used, but he said they don't cause fires. The prosecutor went on to insist that army tanks fired only after the hostages had been freed to flush the remaining terrorists from the basement.

Witnesses have also been testifying before a commission created by the parliament of the Republic of Ossetia, where Beslan is located. The commission chairman, MP Stanislav Kesayev, sees the attack on Beslan as part of a bigger picture. It's a picture of widespread lawlessness and corruption here in the Caucasus region of Russia. Ethnic groups and clans are constantly warring for control of criminal enterprises, often using weapons purchased from corrupt Russian army officers.

Mr. STANISLAV KESAYEV (Commission Chairman): (Through Translator) If, in this country, armed groups are driving around in trucks, this is a problem. It means the security forces aren't doing their job. And if, in the course of a half-hour, people are herded into a school like cattle with automatic weapons fire and the original administration building is five minutes away on foot, four minutes if you run, and not a single valiant defender of public order got a weapon and ran over there, that's a problem.

WEXLER: Kesayev notes that Russian police systematically take bribes to let Chechen fighters and smugglers pass through checkpoints.

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WEXLER: While Kesayev and the judges in the courtroom ask witnesses to shed light on what happened and why so many children and parents died, thousands of pieces of forensic evidence lie untouched. Police searched school Number One for two days after the siege ended, but the building wasn't sealed off. Now, more than 10 months later, a group of Korean tourists steps over the heaps of broken glass, bricks and smashed furniture.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: Strewn about the floor are books, homework papers and a poster reading, `The rules of our school.' Blood still streaks the wall near where one of the hostage-takers blew herself up. The walls are also covered with graffiti, the worst epithets directed at the school principal. A Russian journalist says visitors have also scrawled insults against local officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that graffiti has been wiped away. Martha Wexler, NPR News.

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