BESLAN, Russia — Nadezhda Guriyeva huddled with her children on the floor of the sweltering school gymnasium. An explosive device rested ominously just a few feet away. The two older children, Boris and Vera, were dressed for a folk dance performance to celebrate the first day of school. The festivities never began.
Boris and Vera were among the 334 people, including 186 children, killed amid explosions and a hail of bullets after being held captive for two days in a terrorist attack on School No. 1 in Beslan. Guriyeva’s youngest daughter, Irina, survived. The girl’s escape allowed Guriyeva to survive the aftermath of the horror.
“I had no choice,” Guriyeva says. “I had my little daughter. She was always watching me to see if I cried. I couldn’t even cry.”
Ten years have passed since armed militants stormed the school on September 1, 2004, and took 1,100 children, mothers and teachers hostage in the gymnasium. The ordeal came to an end 52 hours later. But for the survivors and their loved ones, it changed everything forever.
“Some left for good and completely altered their lives,” says Guriyeva, who has taught at School No. 1 for 36 years. “Some dedicated their lives to investigating what happened. Some lend me a helping hand, for instance, with the museum [commemorating the tragedy]. Some still cry and live at the cemetery, trying to raise their children there.”
Guriyeva, 54, coped with witnessing the deaths of her own son and daughter in part by internalizing her sorrow. “I decided that, however terrible the grief, you must not transfer it to other people,” she says. “It feels like it happened yesterday.”
After seizing the school that morning, dozens of Ingush and Chechen gunmen herded the hostages from the courtyard into the small gymnasium and rigged it with homemade bombs. They issued their demands: the withdrawal of Russian troops from the war-torn North Caucasus republic of Chechnya.
Guriyeva, who had already taught at the school for 26 years, was one of the last to be moved inside. Only then did she realize her three children were there. “Ten years have gone by,” she says. “I just don’t understand how we survived it. Not dying from the explosions, but from those 52 hours we spent there. It was real horror.”
At School No. 1, portraits of more than 300 victims hang in the gymnasium where 1,100 children, parents, and teachers were held hostage for 52 hours. The school stands in ruins, and the room itself has been largely untouched since 2004. Bullet holes and haunting inscriptions of “we remember” adorn the walls; there is a charred gym ladder to one side and blackened basketball hoops at either end. An Orthodox cross has been placed in the middle of the gym floor, surrounded by freshly opened bottles of water left to commemorate the captives, who endured over two days in fierce summer heat with almost no water. Residents continue to bring teddy bears, model cars, and other toys in memory of the 186 children who were killed here.
Amina Kachmazova stands in the cafeteria of School No. 1. She was just shy of her 8th birthday when she went to school on September 1, 2004. She walked there with two teenage neighbors, Lyalya and Alina. When the hostages were forced into the gymnasium, she had no relatives with her. She remembers the militants executing a man at the front of the hall to warn everyone to be quiet. Before those days, Amina had never heard of an “explosion.” But by the end, she had lost an eye in the blasts that rocked through the room on the third day. Lyalya and Alina were killed. Ten years later, Amina is studying international relations at a university in Vladikavkaz. She laughs easily; she says she loves life.
Time has stood still in Oksana Kokova’s bedroom. Her father, Ruslan, likes to keep her door open. Oksana managed to escape after the explosions on the third day, but she returned to the school to help the younger children flee. She was killed in the process. Oksana was talented at sports, and loved karate and knitting. Living alone with her father and older brother, she had become accustomed to taking care of the house. She was friendly and talkative; she liked to take charge. Oksana was 15 years old.
“I feel like she is still with us,” says Ruslan Kokov, 63. Ruslan was at the market when Oksana walked across the road to school, never to return. On her birthday, Ruslan and his son, Uruzmag, 27, always lay a place for her at dinner. They eat the foods she liked: melon, persimmons, blood oranges. Ruslan is pictured here standing in front of his house on Komintern Street. School No. 1 is clearly visible from his front room. Russian special forces were staked out there during the siege; during the final gun battle, bullets shattered his two front window panes. Ten years later, Ruslan hasn’t gotten around to fixing them. “When I come across something that reminds me of the tragedy, it just upsets me unnecessarily,” he says.
Nadezhda Guriyeva, 54, a history teacher, stands in the classroom at School No. 1 where she taught for more than 20 years. The curtains she put up with her son, Boris, still hang in the windows. Nadezhda — or Nadya, as she prefers — was taken hostage with her three children. Boris and her older daughter, Vera, died and their bodies burned in a fire sparked by explosives on the last day of the siege. They were 14 and 11. Boris and Vera had been scheduled to perform a dance at the school to mark the first day back. Vera’s body was identified by the dress she had worn specially for the dance. Nadya and her youngest daughter escaped. Nadya now teaches in a new school built across from School No. 1.
Azamat Dzebisov’s cousin, Zaur, was like a brother — the “closest person” in the world to him. They were raised together in the same house, separated by only a year. On the first day of school, they were taken hostage together, along with Azamat’s mother, Svetlana. During the course of the three-day siege, the cousins were split up. Zaur’s burned body was later found in the school gymnasium. Azamat, 20, now studies in Moscow, but still spends his vacations in Beslan. Standing in his old classroom, he remembers a series of dreams he had about Zaur in the weeks after his death. “In the very last dream, he was parting with me and calling for me to come with him. I told him no, I have things left to do here. He smiled and told me good-bye.”
Lena Gaitova and sisters Rozita and Zarina Tsirikhova were 12, 10, and 14 on September 1, 2004. The girls escaped at the end of the siege, but when Lena got home, she found her parents dressed in black and her 16-year-old brother, Alan, missing. First her parents said he was in the hospital. But soon they admitted he had died at the school. Today, the three girls remain best friends. All three study at the same institute in Moscow; Zarina has already graduated. They are pictured in the former library of School No. 1, where the militants stored their weapons. “It was easier before, when we were little and we didn’t understand everything,” says Lena. “We didn’t understand what it meant when suddenly there were seven fewer of our friends in class. Now we’re grown up. As time goes by, the pain doesn’t go away. Quite the opposite, it gets harder. We are more aware.”
Kristina Dzgoyeva was 11 when she went to the first day of school with her 10-year-old sister, Dzera, and their mother. They stayed close together in the gymnasium after they were taken hostage, but got separated from each other after the explosions on the third day. Kristina and her mother survived, but Dzera died at the school. The family had always lived next to the school, but after the attack, they moved several blocks away. Kristina, pictured here in her old classroom, keeps all of her memories about the siege written down in a diary. Ten years later, she is studying in Moscow and prefers to be far from Beslan. “I don’t want anything back here,” she says.
The grave of Kristina’s sister, Dzera, stands with those of other Beslan victims in the cemetery that locals now call the “Little Town of Angels.” The cemetery is almost never empty. For many survivors, it’s become a place to seek calm and carry out symbolic rites of passage for the children who never lived to adulthood. This year, many parents adorned gravestones with graduation ribbons for children who would have finished high school in 2014. Kristina says she still goes to the cemetery during trips home to talk to Dzera; it makes her feel happy. Kristina’s mother remains deeply scarred by the loss of her younger daughter. The inscription on Dzera’s gravestone reads, “Forgive us that you’re not here with us, and forgive me that I’m not there with you — Mama.”
In recent days, locals have cleared away a year’s worth of toys from the gym in School No. 1 to make way for a wave of new offerings that people will bring to mark the 10-year anniversary of the siege. The three-day commemoration will begin September 1 with a now-traditional funeral service at the old school, followed by a procession to the cemetery. The gym itself is encased in a golden sarcophagus that, with its floral pattern, signifies a huge wreath. On the second day, there will be a requiem concert in Vladikavkaz, the regional capital of North Ossetia. On Wednesday, September 3, mourners will hold two final funeral services, and release white balloons to represent each of the lives lost.
PHOTOS: Ten Years After Beslan, Memories Still Fresh
When the hostages failed to remain quiet, the gunmen executed a man at the front of the gymnasium to make their point.
At first children were allowed to use the bathroom, where they tried to drink water to bring short relief from the stifling hall at the end of a fiercely hot summer. To this day, mourners bring open bottles of water to the gymnasium as offerings to the dead. Boris, 14, was running a temperature that day and was too weak to go.
“The militants broke the sinks and smashed the pipes so that we couldn’t drink water,” Guriyeva says. “The [children] tried to soak it up in their shirts where it dripped in order to bring it back. Some children brought their moms water in their mouths.”
Negotiations made no progress, and by the second day almost no children were allowed out.
‘Tears Of Blood’
After midday on September 3, Guriyeva remembers an almost delirious longing for the standoff to end — whatever the consequences. It soon did. A deadly silence had often reigned in the hall. The militants had fired shots into the ceiling to keep them still. But already the hundreds of captives were becoming unruly.
Shortly after 1 p.m., a powerful explosion shook the gymnasium.
Those who could summon the strength stood up and ran, though many were promptly gunned down as they fled, Guriyeva says. “From the second floor attic, the militants began firing at the backs of the children running away,” she says.
One little girl who managed to escape ran straight to a drinking fountain, Guriyeva recalls. “She couldn’t stay away from the fountain — to the water,” she says. “A sniper killed her on the spot.”
Russian soldiers take up positions in front of School No. 1 in Beslan after militants stormed the building on September 1, 2004.
Women stand outside the school on the first day of the hostage crisis.
A screen grab from Russian NTV shows special forces soldiers outside the school.
A soldier carries a baby after the militants released 26 women and children on the second day of the crisis.
Volunteers carry an injured civilian to safety while soldiers storm the school on September 3, the third day of the hostage crisis. A number of witnesses said they saw tanks fire on the school. Russian authorities’ handing of the crisis would come under heavy scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy.
A man assists two young hostages who managed to escape from the school after special forces stormed the building.
Recently freed hostages comfort each other outside the school.
Boys take shelter in a vehicle after their escape from the school.
A man carries an injured boy to safety.
A view of the damaged school building the day after special forces ended the siege.
A mother touches her injured daughter’s hair as she recovers at a hospital in Vladikavkaz, the regional capital of North Ossetia.
Relatives try to identify the bodies of victims outside a morgue in Vladikavkaz.
Relatives mourn at a cemetery in Beslan.
Two girls touch pictures of hostages who remained missing three days after the end of the hostage crisis.
A bailiff tries to silence women speaking out during the trial of Nurpashi Kulayev, the only militant arrested during the Beslan hostage crisis, at a court in Vladikavkaz on May 19, 2005.
Nurpashi Kulayev, the only surviving militant of the Beslan siege, was sentenced to life in prison on May 26, 2006.
Family members expressed their anger in court in 2007 after three policemen implicated in the event were given amnesty. The police officers had been charged with negligence in the handling of the crisis.
PHOTOS: Beslan — Three Days Of Terror
A second explosion followed quickly, bringing the roof down and igniting a fire. “When I came to, my little Verochka was no longer alive,” Guriyeva says.
She points to a photograph of Vera, who was 11 years old at the time of the attack.
“She had the same expression as she has there. She had exactly that smile, only her eyes were closed and there were tears of blood on her cheeks,” Guriyeva says.
In her hand, Guriyeva recalls, Vera clasped a cross that she had found, and her arms were crossed over her chest. She had a shrapnel wound in the back of her head.
Both Boris’ and Vera’s remains would be scorched in the blaze that tore through the gym. Vera’s body was identified from the traditional dress she had worn for the planned folk dance.
Boris was covered in blood, much of it Guriyeva’s. But shrapnel had penetrated his stomach and exited through his back.
Irina suffered only minor injuries, and Guriyeva told her to make a dash for it. Boris was still breathing, and Guriyeva stayed with him. With her arm badly injured, however, he was too heavy to carry. She dragged him to a group of hostages who were also unable to move due to their injuries. Fragments of body parts lay nearby.
The militants ordered Guriyeva out of the gymnasium toward the cafeteria. Grabbing a small girl by the hand, she ended up in the adjacent kitchen where, parched, they drank filthy water that their captors had used to defrost chicken legs. She told the little girl to wait for her there and returned to get Boris. The militants stopped her and turned her away. One of them smashed out her teeth with a rifle.
As Russian special forces moved in, Guriyeva escaped out of a window. Irina had made it too.
“After such a cruel situation, every person has to find meaning in life again, to find something to live for — or to just fade away and end up in the cemetery, too. We had suicides among adult men. A fair number of our men ended their own lives.
Questions still persist about culpability in the bloody conclusion of the crisis, including whether the militants or Russian security forces initiated the final firefight. Some were unable to forget these questions.
Guriyeva’s husband, Stanislav, was tormented by thoughts of revenge and the conflicting belief that finding those responsible was impossible, and that mindless violence leads to more violence, she explains.
A year and a half ago, at age 46, Stanislav passed away. He had turned to alcohol. “He couldn’t sort himself out. He turned to alcohol to forget, and alcohol finished him off,” Guriyeva says.
‘A New Life’
Two months after the tragedy, Guriyeva was teaching again.
“My first lesson was with my son’s old class,” she says. “I was walking down the hallway and a little girl came up to me and said: ‘Great, Nadezhda, you’ve come! Where’s Borya?’ People didn’t know at that point who had died and who hadn’t. Our first class, we simply cried together.”
But for Guriyeva, her teaching was also a source of strength: It’s like acting, she says.
“Whether you like it or not, whether it hurts or not, whether your heart is breaking into pieces, you have to go out and teach children,” she says. “I had 10 children outside the school classes whose homes I worked at. Before going in, it was: deep breath, put a smile on and go in, finish teaching, go out and cry all the way to the next home. Some of the children were so difficult.”
A new school was built opposite School No. 1, across the railway tracks where cows and goats graze. Multicolored lettering above the entrance proclaims “The start of a new life.”
But for Guriyeva, it’s not about escaping the past.
“The story of School No. 1 is our story,” she says. “The terrorist attack is our story. It’s hard. It’s terrifying. It’s bloody. But it is our story. We remember it. We didn’t move to a new school and begin a new life. We didn’t start afresh. We continue to live our life.”
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty