Vanessa M. Gezari

The Tender Soldier
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Children play near a school in the Russian republic of North Ossetia where militants who said they were seeking to end the war in Chechnya killed 331 people, 186 of them children. Read the article in the St. Petersburg Times.

(Vanessa M. Gezari)
September 11, 2005 / St. Petersburg Times

How Sorrow Split A City

The room is dim, with a few plants in the windows and a breeze blowing in from the street. Strips of flypaper hang from the ceiling. A woman sits at a computer in the corner, her face glowing blue from the screen. Pictures of children flash in front of her, and music drifts up. “Mother, mother, we want to live,” a choir sings. “We are thirsty.”

The woman stands up and makes her way toward the door, but she doesn’t get there. Halfway across the room, she stops, slams her black leather purse down hard on the table and screams, the sound rising from her throat as sharp and sudden as if someone were holding a flame to her skin.

“I hate everybody!”

Aneta Gadieva sinks into a chair, lowers her head on her arms and sobs. She is 40 years old, a sociology professor at a local university. She used to have two daughters; now she has one.

A year has passed since terrorists in black masks and camouflage took over Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, killing 331 people, 186 of them children. Gadieva was among the hostages, with her 9-year-old daughter and baby. On the second day of the siege, a negotiator helped free a group of women and infants, and Gadieva was ordered to leave. She begged one of the terrorists to let her older daughter, Alana, carry out the baby, but he angrily refused.

“I said only mothers and babies,” he told her.

She took one last, long look at her daughter. Alana looked back with an expression that Gadieva still sees in her nightmares. And Gadieva walked out of the gym with her baby in her arms.

This is what the terrorists left behind in Beslan: hundreds of survivors whose pain is as public as a town square hanging and as private as a windowless room.

The attack fractured this quiet vodka-producing town of 35,000 in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, separating hostages from other residents and drawing an indelible line between the survivors and the dead. It divided children, and made some wives resent the husbands who had been unable to protect them. This is a place where hostages lived or died depending on when they asked to go to the bathroom, and where, a year later, residents who weren’t at the school pity - and sometimes envy - those who were.

“It made a big division between us,” says Alla Ramonova, 34, whose 15-year-old daughter, Marianna, died at the school.

The division extends even to topography. Old Beslan is a sleepy collection of crumbling brick houses along weedy roadsides lined with twisted pear trees and dimly lit corner stores selling fruit juice and cigarettes. But in the past year, new schools and shiny, brightly colored playgrounds sprang up, signs of hope and garish reminders of what the town has lost.

School No. 1 is still here, an open-air museum of crumbling brick and charred metal that has barely been touched since bombs exploded there on Sept. 3, 2004, sparking a daylong gun battle.

In the classrooms, the floors are covered with papers and books. “Quiet! Quiet!” urges one. “Explain how to divide 128 by four,” says another. The cafeteria walls are still spattered with blood.

All year, people have been coming here, walking through these rooms, writing on the walls in paint and pencil. The conversation is part prayer, part politics: a public debate over how well the government of President Vladimir Putin has protected its people.

“Death to terrorists.”

“Putin, you are responsible for all of this!”

“Anya, Olya, we will remember you.”

The school siege may have been the most spectacular rebel attack in Russia’s recent history, but it wasn’t the first. In 1995, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev led the takeover of a hospital maternity ward in the southern city of Budyonovsk; more than 100 people died when the Russian army stormed the hospital. In 2002, suicide attackers captured a Moscow theater and held hundreds of people hostage. After 57 hours, Russian troops pumped an opiate gas through the theater’s air ducts, knocking out the fighters and leaving more than 100 hostages dead.

As in Beslan, the government faced blistering criticism from surviving theater hostages and the families of the dead. Officials refused to fully identify the gas they used, even to survivors stricken with lingering health problems.

On the third day of the Beslan siege, a bomb went off in the gym. Some say it exploded by mistake, others say Russian troops fired into the school first, perhaps shooting a terrorist whose foot was on a bomb trigger. People wonder how a truckload of armed fighters could have gone unnoticed in an area thick with police checkpoints. They question why Russian forces used flamethrowers and other heavy weapons with hundreds of hostages still inside.

Recently, the separatist leader Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for the attack, said that rebels tricked Russian security forces into letting them travel freely, and that a Russian double agent was with them.

“I blame the terrorists, because they are guilty and it’s absolute and you don’t even discuss this,” says Susanna Dudiyeva, chairwoman of the Beslan Mothers Committee, a group of relatives turned activists. “And I also blame our government, because they were given 52 hours to make a decision and they didn’t do anything to save the lives of our children.”

The government says that 32 militants stormed the school and 31 of them were killed. In a wood-paneled courtroom in the nearby town of Vladikavkaz, the lone survivor is on trial. Nurpashi Kulayev, a 25-year-old Chechen, sits in a metal cage surrounded by relatives of the dead. He is clean-shaven and slight, in a black T-shirt.

He is charged with terrorism, murder, banditry and many other crimes, but on this late August day, prosecutors and relatives of the dead are at cross purposes. The government is asking witnesses what they remember, and witnesses are begging for transparency.

“Can you remember my son?” Yulia Siddakova asks, turning to Kulayev, her voice breaking. She is a 50-something grandmother in a blue dress and a head scarf, the badge of mourning worn by Beslan women who have lost relatives. Her son Albert, a police officer, was held hostage with his family and later killed.

“No, there were so many men there,” Kulayev says, his eyes on the floor. “I can’t remember your son.”

Siddakova turns to the judge. “Who can bring my son back to life?” she asks. “And what are we talking about now? When will you tell us the truth?”

“We will tell you the whole truth,” the judge says. “Don’t worry.”

At the back of the courtroom, an old woman stands up. Someone tries to quiet her. “Why are you interrupting me?” she yells. “What are you trying to do with us? You found only Kulayev, but I saw three other men!”

In Russia, words like these are not spoken easily or often in public. The attack has split Beslan, but it has also divided the people of mainly Orthodox North Ossetia from the Moscow government they have long supported. Those days in the school, the attackers talked to the hostages. They said they wanted an end to the war in Chechnya. They said that the Russian government had lied to the public about the number of hostages in the school.

“Where is your God?” one of the Muslim attackers asked. “Why doesn’t he help you?”

Outside the courthouse, a woman who lost her daughter speaks to a TV crew.

“The terrorists told the hostages: "Nobody needs you,”‘ the woman says. “They were telling the truth.”

In her house behind a high wall on a quiet Beslan street, Zemfira Agaeva speaks softly and clearly, without a trace of doubt.

“I blame Putin,” she says.

She and her children were hostages. She lost her 9-year-old son, Georgiy, but she swears he’s still alive. Just before the explosion in the school, the terrorists let Georgiy leave the room to get water. His mother never saw him again.

“Maybe that’s why I don’t believe he’s dead.”

Her son Sasha survived. He’s a skinny 12-year-old in blue Dunlop shorts with long eyelashes, bony knees and a ghost of a moustache. In the last year, his family got thousands of dollars in aid and a small yellow car from a manufacturer in the Russian republic of Tatarstan. He has been to Austria, England and Ireland on charity trips, and none of it has made his life easier.

“I’ve lost many friends, my brother, and my teacher also died,” he says. “And I’m scared of everything.”

Recently, a neighbor asked Sasha to give him his CD player. Sasha said no. Now the kid isn’t talking to him.

“Everybody became different,” Sasha says. “I thought that after this, people would get better. But they didn’t. They got worse.”

Since the attack, one of the fault lines dividing Beslan has been economic. The flood of aid suddenly enriched some families, creating tensions between neighbors that weren’t there before.

“People got a lot of money,” Sasha says. “And they want to have more and more.”

Outside, he starts up the little yellow car. His mother lets him drive within the walls of the courtyard, a few yards forward and back. She thinks the car is tainted, a kind of payoff.

“Maybe the government gives money to make people shut up,” Agaeva says. “The government thinks that if some time passes, people will forget all this, but they are wrong. Nothing can make us forget such pain.”

In late afternoon, the graveyard is alive with chatter. This is a town within the town, where people nod greetings and sit for hours talking or staring into space. Most of the school’s dead are buried here, in a field along the road from the airport. The red granite stones stretch into the distance, the fences are lined with wreaths, and it takes a tanker truck to water the flower beds inside.

Alla Ramonova, a girlish woman in a black dress, gazes down at a picture of her 15-year-old daughter etched in stone.

Ramonova was held hostage with her 9-year-old son and her daughter, Marianna. When the siege and gunfire ended, they tried to climb out a window, but Marianna refused. The teenager had three bullets in her back.

“I’ve been wounded,” Marianna told her mother. “And I’m dying.”

At home she sifts through photographs: That’s Marianna, in a red slicker and her mother’s black high heels. That’s her, reading fashion magazines with her cousin in bed. Ramonova blames her husband and all the men of Ossetia for letting her daughter die. But more than that, she blames the government.

“The terrorists are not flies,” she says. “It isn’t so simple for such a number of men to come. It’s impossible not to notice such a big car with such a great number of men.”

She visits her daughter’s grave every day, sometimes twice. She stays for hours, so long that she has tan lines at the edges of her sleeves.

“It’s easier to be at the cemetery,” Ramonova says. “The air is clearer there.”

Ramonova is sitting near Marianna’s headstone when Alla Batagova, a frantic woman with her gray-blond hair coming loose from her head scarf, hurries up. Her son Timur is buried a few steps away. She rests her hand on a visitor’s arm.

“Can you help me find out if there is a way to clone our children?” she asks urgently. “I’m a doctor. I heard on TV that people can clone other people up to 300 years after their death.”

Timur hated taking baths. He liked to draw, and he liked the girl next door. He told everyone in the gym that he would drink lots of Sprite when he got out, so his mother brings bottles of Sprite to his grave every day. She drinks it herself, or gives it to the men watering flowers and hoisting stones to build a monument nearby.

Batagova says she would kill herself, but then she would be in hell, and that’s not where Timur is. She has a 15-year-old son, but she figures he’s almost grown up and could do without her.

“It doesn’t matter for me,” she says. “I just need my boy. Nothing else matters.”

The sun is low in the clouds. Nearby, Aneta Gadieva, the woman who left her 9-year-old behind to save her baby, lays a hand on the headstone of the daughter she was forced to abandon. Alla Batagova, Timur’s mother, says that her son’s favorite color was red, his favorite number was three, his favorite country was America. At Marianna’s grave, Alla Ramonova sweeps the squares of pink granite with a small broom. She wrote her daughter a poem that’s inscribed in the stone.

“There is a border between us,” it says. “I don’t know whom I should blame.”

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