MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Two years ago, Chechen militants and their allies seized a school in Beslan, Russia, taking more than 1200 people hostage. Three days into the siege, hundreds of those hostages, many of them children, died in explosions and shootouts between militants and Russian soldiers. Many people believe the high death toll could have been avoided with careful negotiations, but Russian leaders say they do not negotiate with terrorists.
In the second of two reports from Beslan, Kelly McEvers reports.
KELLY MCEVERS reporting:
So this is Beslan. It's a really foggy day. My friend, I said, how would describe Beslan? He said, oh, it's a small, boring, dusty town where no one trusts anyone anymore.
Down the road is the regional courthouse where the only hostage-taker to be captured alive recently was on trial. Survivors and relatives of the dead scream at the accused, saying they'll tear him to pieces.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language)
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: But they also yell at colonels and generals testifying in the courtroom. Why did soldiers use heavy weapons while hostages were still inside the school, they ask? Why didn't officials try harder to negotiate?
The remains of the school, bullet-pocked walls and burned wooden floors, still stand in the middle of town. I went there with Larisa Kudzieva. She survived those three days. Packed with other hostages inside the school's gym, Larisa tried to get to know her captors.
Ms. LARISA KUDZIEVA (Former Hostage): (Through translator) She wanted to talk to them and to find out what they feel in the heart.
MCEVERS: One hostage taker told Larisa his name was Ali. He said he came from Chechnya, a small Muslim republic here in southern Russia that's been fighting a separatist war since 1994. Ali said the hostages could go free if Russian troops left his homeland. On the first day of the siege, Larisa could hear Ali negotiating with someone on the phone. But on the second day, Ali said the Russians had stopped all talks.
Unidentified Woman #2: He came into the hall and he was like a lost person. He would stare in the floor and he seemed like a man who doesn't know what to do.
MCEVERS: From then on, hostages were treated even more harshly, forbidden to drink water or go to the bathroom. Some children ate the petals of flowers for moisture. Some children drank their own urine.
Ms. KUDZIEVA: (Through translator) This was the moment when I understood what the word mondrage means. Mondrage is very strong fear. Out of the blue, you feel so cold that your teeth are - (chattering teeth) - like that.
MCEVERS: On the third morning of the siege, with no substantive negotiations underway, relatives of the hostages held vigil outside the school, waiting for news.
(Soundbite of blast)
MCEVERS: Just after one o'clock in the afternoon: an explosion in the school.
(Soundbite of an blast)
MCEVERS: Another one followed soon after. A huge column of smoke rose to the sky. Hostages scrambled out of windows. Militants shot from inside the school. Soldiers and vigilantes shot back. At first, Larisa Kudzieva says she and her two children had no idea what was happening.
Ms. KUDZEIVA: (Through translator) I even couldn't look this way because it was all black smoke.
MCEVERS: Then the roof of the gym caught fire. One hostage taker ordered Larisa and the children to come with him.
So were they running through here, or down like this...
Ms. KUDZEIVA: (Through translator) No. No.
MCEVERS: Larisa shows us how she stepped over bodies on the way to the cafeteria. Then she stops at a windowsill and points.
Ms. KUDZEIVA: (Through translator) There it is.
MCEVERS: There, on top of broken glass, is a green and silver shoe. Larisa lost the shoe that day as she and the children crouched for cover in the cafeteria.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
MCEVERS: Soldiers were firing from tanks outside. The hostage takers inside responded with grenades. Russian Special Forces pried the grating off a window and climbed into the cafeteria.
TRANSLATOR: At this moment, this terrorist jumps out, sees them and throws those two grenades very quickly. One is covered with a special force man. The other explodes.
MCEVERS: And kills...
TRANSLATOR: And kills people...
MCEVERS: ...people and hurts her.
TRANSLATOR: Yeah. She lost consciousness. She knows where her daughter was shouting, Take my mother away, she's alive, she's alive.
MCEVERS: Before we leave this school, Larisa decides what to do with the shoe on the windowsill.
Ms. KUDZEIVA: (Through translator) Let it stay here.
MCEVERS: I went back to the scene of the attack with Israel Totoonzi(ph), a senior staffer at the local parliament. He took me to the top of a five-story apartment building next to the school.
Mr. ISRAEL TOTOONZI (Beslan Parliament): (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: From here, Israel says, Russian soldiers used flamethrowers and these caused the gym's roof to burn, killing many of the victims. Russian authorities deny this.
On our way down, we're stopped by a woman who lives in the apartment building.
Unidentified Woman #3: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: It doesn't matter who shot first, she said, those terrorists came here to kill.
I admit the terrorists started this nightmare, Israel says, but officials share the blame for how it ended.
I also went to the school with Adam Dolnik. He's a terrorism researcher based in Australia who has spent much time studying Beslan and the men who seized it.
Mr. ADAM DOLNIK (Terrorism Researcher): This is where they slept and rested.
MCEVERS: Dolnik now says he's convinced there was a way to negotiate a non-violent end to the Beslan siege, quietly, behind the scenes.
Mr. DOLNIK: Talk to them. Listen to them. Give them the opportunity to voice their grievances and frustrations. Then perhaps you can offer something that will satisfy their desire for peace and security, but will stop short of their original demand, which is unacceptable to you. But instead of employing the standard procedure, the Russians made up their minds that the demand could not be met and they stopped there.
MCEVERS: Adam Dolnik says other countries should learn from Russia's mistakes.
Mr. DOLNIK: The worry is that Russia's unwillingness to admit and identify their flaws during the Beslan siege will inhibit this international learning process. If that continues, then Beslan is likely to repeat itself.
MCEVERS: Two trials and three major investigations later, no high-ranking Russian official has been punished for mishandling Beslan. Those directly in charge have been reassigned or promoted.
In the town itself, they have built a new school, and doctors are reconstructing a part of Larisa Kudzieva's face that was blown off by the grenade. Larisa regained consciousness the day after she was rescued. When she came to, the doctor asked, when is your birthday?
Ms. KUDZEIVA: (Through translator) I say 14th. And she asks, what month? May. She said, no, forget it. Your birthday is today.
MCEVERS: Happy birthday, the doctor said, welcome back from the dead.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MCEVERS: For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers.
BRAND: The alleged mastermind of the Beslan siege, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, died last month in an explosion near Beslan. You can see photos of the Beslan school siege and read about how the incident unfolded. Go to our Web site, npr.org. Our story came to us from HearingVoices.com.
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