Beslan school siege: New hope amid the bitterness

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Beslan, Russia

  • Published
Liza Tsirikhova
Image caption,
Liza died when Russian forces stormed the school building

Zhanna Tsirikhova keeps a big, smiling portrait of her daughter on the sideboard.

"She was full of mischief," she says, and admits that the house is quiet without her.

Liza was just shy of eight when she was taken hostage with her mother, sister and more than 1,000 people in the 2004 Beslan school siege.

Zhanna describes how they lived through three days of "hell". Then came two devastating explosions and when she regained consciousness, Liza was motionless behind her. Still, she tried to drag her daughter to safety.

Any anger Zhanna once felt at the Chechen militants who forced them into the school at gunpoint and packed the gym with explosives, has mixed with anger at the way Russian officials then handled the siege.

"They didn't prevent the terror attack, they didn't rescue us. They couldn't even do a deal to bring us water," Zhanna remembers bitterly. "For the sake of the children, they could have negotiated so that more were freed."

Media caption,

Zhanna Tsirikhova: "For the sake of the children they could have done more"

For years, she and other mothers in Beslan have been pushing for a full investigation into what happened, including why security at the school was so poor. There had been clear warnings that terrorists were planning some kind of mass hostage-scenario.

The women have also claimed troops used tanks and flamethrowers as the school was stormed, with hundreds of hostages still inside.

Tireless efforts to prove such points in the Russian courts have been rejected at every turn. Only one gunman was caught alive and no official has ever been held responsible for the huge loss of life.

Image caption,
More than 1,000 people were taken hostage and more than 300 were killed

So Thursday's strong ruling in their favour by the Human Rights court in Strasbourg has given the mothers new hope. They marked the moment together with a feast of Ossetian pies, as the court concluded Russia had committed serious failings in its duty to protect their relatives.

Anastasia Tuayeva survived the siege, but a staggering 28 children in her school year were killed. Almost 13 years on, writing music is one way for her to cope.

"We finished school without you... but we will carry your memory in our hearts forever," Anastasia sings over a video clip with images of her friends kidding around in class, and dancing together on stage.

"We all share the pain; one heart alone will not bear the burden," the song continues, then come photographs of the dead.

Image caption,
Ms Tuayeva says she has stopped thinking about who is to blame

"Just after the terrorist attack, when we were still children, we felt like everyone had betrayed us," Anastasia admits, rubbing her hands nervously as she talks. "We blamed everyone around. How could they have abandoned us? We were so desperate for someone to save us."

But Anastasia says her fury has faded over time and she's stopped thinking about who's to blame. "We can't change what happened."

The children of Beslan were granted places at good Russian universities when they graduated and Anastasia headed for Moscow, like many. She studied tourism at management school but she's now teaching music back home. Friends have struggled to find work.

It's said there was a spike in the birth rate after the siege in Beslan; other bereaved mothers adopted babies from the local children's home.

Image caption,
The dead included 186 children

Zhanna Tsirikhova's youngest girl is now 10.

"I didn't want my eldest to grow up alone, with no-one to play with," she explains.

Zhanna had to abandon Liza's body in the school sports hall as she and Zalina fled for their lives. The building was later engulfed by fire and she could only identify her child by her dental work.

The ruins of school number 1 are now encased in a gold-tinted shield. Beneath is a charred shrine to those killed, filled with flowers, candles and toys for the 186 child victims of the siege.

A short drive away, Beslan cemetery is now meticulously tended, with row after row of granite gravestones.

Media caption,

Mother of Beslan siege victims seeks answers

Emma Tagayeva often comes here just to sit. Her two young sons died when the school was stormed and her husband was executed for trying to persuade other hostages to stay quiet.

Emma hopes the European Court ruling means relatives of the siege victims can now demand a new investigation here in Russia, to learn the lessons from their tragedy.

"As a mother, it's not right to bury your child," Emma insists, beside the headstones of her two boys, Alan and Aslan.

"Having felt this pain, I can't let anyone else suffer the same way. We have to make sure something like this is never repeated."