C.J. Chivers, Telling the Beslan Story

New York Times journalist C.J. Chivers has written a lengthy article for Esquire magazine on the bloody Sept. 2004 siege of a school in Beslan by Chechen militants. He talks with Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In early September 2004, a horror story played out in the southern Russian town of Beslan. On the first day of classes at School Number One, armed Chechen-led terrorists took more than 1,100 people hostage, most of them women and children. Fifty-two hours later, explosions rocked the school. Russian troops and locals advanced to try to kill the terrorists and free the surviving hostages.

New York Times Correspondent C.J. Chivers was there. Since then, he's made repeated trips back to Beslan to interview survivors about what happened inside that building. What he learned is the subject of an extensive and vivid article in the June issue of Esquire magazine.

Mr. C.J. CHIVERS (Correspondent, New York Times): Not counting the terrorists, we had 331 dead in all. That includes 10 members of the Special Forces, two members of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, 186 children, a number of local men who never were hostages, but two of whom tried to resist the terrorists when they arrived and were shot in the first minutes, and then several men who tried to rescue the children during the last battle.

There also were officially 31 dead terrorists and one terrorist who was captured. Although I would say the preponderance of the former hostages think that there are other terrorists who remain unaccounted for.

HANSEN: There were suicide bombers in there. Negotiations went on for a long time. Tell us one story of one individual. There's one in particular, it begins your story, and it's the gentleman who was actually trying to disconnect a wire in full view of the terrorists. And this wire was leading to an explosive, a bomb hanging right above his family's head.

Mr. CHIVERS: That's Kasvic Misikov(ph). And Kasvic is in his early 40s. He'd gone to school that day with his two sons, one who's a teenager and the other who was to be a first grader, and of course with his wife. And they were rounded up with everybody else and put into the gym. And Kasvic, because he's quite tall, was used to help assemble some of these bombs because he could suspend them at a height above the crowd.

And on the first day, he spent a lot of time, when the terrorists were not looking, trying to disassemble the bomb that had been hung on, basically, a wall ladder or a pull-up bar almost that was right above his family. And Kasvic has a very interesting background in that he was a former Soviet sapper, which meant he knew explosives and worked with them as a young man.

And like a lot of terrorist explosive rigs, this one was a fairly simple one. It was an electric circuit. The circuit was left open and had the circuit been closed, the current would flow through the wires and detonate the blasting caps which would set off the explosives, which would throw the shrapnel around the room.

And Kasvic knew that if he could separate a wire, that he would prevent the charge from flowing to the bomb above his family. And so he spent much of the first day, when the terrorists were not watching, and a portion of the second day, crimping and folding back and forth one small section of the wire until it parted inside the insulation. And then he pulled it apart a little bit further so that no spark, in his view, could jump across it.

And when the bombs did explode on the third day, at about one o'clock, the bomb above his family didn't go as the others.

HANSEN: What happened to him?

Mr. CHIVERS: He survived, barely.

HANSEN: Elaborate.

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, it's, like a lot of the hostages who were injured, they don't know exactly how they were injured. This, you know, there was a flash after one o'clock, a huge, thunderous flash, and another one 22 seconds later. And after those two flashes and after all of that shrapnel had passed through the crowd, he found that he had terrible injuries to both of his arms and some to his head. And one of the arm injuries cost him an awful lot of blood.

And he was able to remain conscious when - gather his family and get into another nearby room. And not very much long after, some of the rescuers came to the windows and they were able to pry some bars off the windows together and his family and other hostages who had huddled there were taken out the window and survived.

HANSEN: How are they today, though?

Mr. CHIVERS: Kasvic is officially classified an invalid. His arms are damaged. His wife suffered two shattered eardrums and a cracked vertebra in her neck, and small shrapnel and burn wounds. And the children were also injured, but less so. And they're all living still in Beslan and his wife, Irena, has recently had another son.

HANSEN: When you talk to some of these survivors, did you get an indication or a sense, perhaps, that anything could've been done to save more lives?

Mr. CHIVERS: Almost to a person they think that the siege was handled very poorly by the Russian government. They can tell you one thing after another that they believe went wrong, from there not being enough ambulances staged so that when people came out injured, there was not medical care available for a majority of them. The fire trucks were not prepared, so when a fire broke out during the last battle, the building burned for some time and the roof actually came down on many wounded hostages before the fire trucks even had arrived.

They talk about a false account of 354 hostages that was circulated by the local and the Russian government on the first day, which they believe led to an inadequate preparation that the Russians were preparing to rescue 354 hostages when, in fact, they had more than 1,100. They talk about the use of indiscriminate weapons during the last battle, including shoulder-fired rockets, two T72 tanks. They have a lot of complaints.

HANSEN: What about official response from either town officials, Russian government officials? What do they say about their own role in this drama?

Mr. CHIVERS: The Russians have been, I would say, climbing the ladder rather slowly over the last year and a half since the siege. There have been two investigations. There has also been the investigation of the prosecutors who have been examining two different cases that are going forward, one against the terrorist who is on trial and the other against three police officers who have been charged with negligence. The investigations have been widely panned by the people who were in Beslan during those days and by the former hostages and by the bereaved.

They initially concluded things that frankly were false. They initially concluded that rockets had not been fired into the school, but local people found the remains of some of these shoulder-fired rockets and turned that on its head. They initially claimed that the tanks did not fire until something like 9:00 p.m., although we saw them fire between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., right in front of us.

They have since, as I say, climbed the ladder. Now they say that the tanks did fire, but when they fired in the afternoon there were no hostages left in the building, so they found a way, if you will, to finesse that. I, in my time down there, have not found a single person who's been satisfied with any of this and there is an enormous bank of animosity that's been built up. There is some warmth in the town for the special forces soldiers who actually breached the building, because these men displayed in many cases tremendous acts of individual courage, but there is disgust at the larger handling of it by their government.

HANSEN: What do you think is the next chapter in Beslan?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, we expect this week, or if not this week, soon thereafter, for there to be a conviction of the surviving terrorist, Nurpashi Kulayev. This is an interesting case because the prosecutor has called for the death penalty for Kulayev, and the judge will have to sort out whether or not he is going to sentence him to death, and if he does, this will pose a very interesting question for civil society in Russia because the death penalty and capital punishment has been under moratorium here since 1996, and this case potentially could start that discussion again at the government level.

But we're not sure about that, but that's certainly the chapter we're looking at immediately. There also are three police officers who are on trial for negligence in Beslan. And one chapter that certainly everybody is waiting for the conclusion of will be the fate of Shamil Basayev, who is the Chechen terrorist leader, who has claimed responsibility for this, and there's roughly a $10 million reward on his capture or killing, and he is the most hunted man in Russia, and I expect at some point there will come a day when this hunt will be over.

HANSEN: New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers joined us from NPR's bureau in Moscow. His article, The School, is running in the current issue of Esquire Magazine. Thanks very much for your time.

Mr. CHIVERS: You're welcome.

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