The siege through journalists’ eyes 15 years after a horrific terrorist attack in Beslan, ‘Meduza’ asks reporters on the ground what they remember
On September 1, 2004, terrorists seized a grade school in Beslan, capturing 1,128 children, parents, and staff. For the next two and a half days, the assailants mined the building and waited. By the end of the ordeal — one of the worst terrorist attacks in Russian history — 333 people were dead, and 783 were injured. Throughout the tragedy, Russian and foreign journalists were in Beslan, reporting the story live from on the ground. Fifteen years later, Meduza asked some of these journalists what they remember about those difficult, dark days.
Journalist for “Strana.ru” in 2004
There’d been reports since August that terrorists were planning an attack in North Ossetia. Some ex-soldiers in Chechnya told me. On September 1, some colleagues from [the Japanese news agency] NHK called me and said they’d been informed that terrorists had seized a school, and they invited me to travel with them to Ossetia as a producer. Before leaving, I contacted some local officials, and one of the offices verified the information. You know, I didn’t want to believe that it might end tragically. I was counting on the fact that these were children, and nobody was at war with children, and they’d be released.
The driver from Mineralnye Vody to Vladikavkaz started telling us what had really happened. He said he didn’t believe the official reports that there were 120 people in the school. He said he knew the school: it was the best in Beslan, and everyone knew it and tried to get their kids in. At that moment, he said, there were almost 950 people in the school, since September 1 had been the first day of class, and it was full of adults, friends, and relatives showing their support [to the incoming class].
We drove up to the local community center, where the hostages’ friends and family had gathered. People were throwing themselves at each other, asking, “What are the authorities saying? Is there really no one to go inside to talk to the terrorists?” Officials would come out and repeat the same thing over and over: negotiations were underway, and there were 124 hostages. I remember how family members ran up to Lev Dzugaev, an adviser to the head of the republic, and said indignantly, “Why are you lying? There aren’t 120 or even 300 people in there — there are more than 900!” A woman was carrying lists of people from the school, and the tally exceeded 1,500. Dzugaev explained that these 124 had been confirmed, but not the rest. Parents wanted the republic’s leadership and members of law enforcement to meet with them and explain what was happening, but officials only asked them to calm down, accusing them of making the situation more nervous. I still couldn’t fathom how a few dozen men had taken hostage such a large number of people, or where all the law-enforcement agencies were at that moment.
The local police officers came up to us journalists a few times, apparently convinced that there were some terrorist sympathizers among us. We were almost taken away to a police station, but I contacted our newsroom and raised hell, saying I wasn’t going anywhere, because I was doing my job. And if they wanted me to have accreditation, let them show me the press center responsible for this.
On September 2, a colleague and I made our way to Lermontov Street, which led to the school. We accidentally stumbled onto some riot police, who were dispersing everyone, but we managed to hide behind an unfinished garage. There was a soldier lining up other men in uniform. Under his arm, he had this enormous map, and he started explaining the scheme by which the terrorists might leave with the hostages. If the terrorists left with the children, shooting at them would be forbidden, but not one of them was meant to escape, if they left with the adults.
Later that same day, there was a rumor that [former Ingush President Ruslan] Aushev had come to talk to the bandits. And he really went into the school and sometime later he returned with [a few] children: he was able to arrange for the release of kids with their mothers. On September 2, there were a lot of negotiations and talks to get the terrorists to agree to release the children and they were about to let them go.
The next morning, we expected more negotiations. Later, one of the teachers for the early grades told me that they’d been woken up that day early in the morning and told, “We’re either going to release you today or kill you.”
The first explosion was at 1:03 p.m. I called Strana.ru and informed them about it. I couldn’t fully understand how it was possible — what about the children? I saw how children were being carried out from the building, some of them in bed sheets. My newsroom asked me: where are the soldiers? I told them that I still couldn’t see them. After about 20 minutes, the shootout began, and they started forcing people out from the school. The adults were crying and carrying children. They took them to the community center, and some were taken in passing-by cars to the hospital. The hostages were covered in blood, terrified, and exhausted.
It took a long time to drive the terrorists from the school. By lunchtime, they brought in a tank that fired a blank shell at the school to make a hole in the wall where hostages were being held then. People later said that the tank fired a live round, but that’s not what happened. About two days later, I got a look at the cafeteria, and live shells do different damage. And the hostages themselves later confirmed that it had been a blank, and not a live round. Today, everybody’s got a conspiracy theory about this.
We stayed until early October, and we saw how they laid the dead to rest. I’ll always see that street in my mind. Caskets in front of every house. And then it rained. It was as if the sky and the people were mourning together.
Now “RT” (Russia Today) editor-in-chief, special correspondent for the program “Vesti” in 2004
Fifteen years ago, on September 1, we’d set up a camera at one of the rural schools in Karachay-Cherkessia, and together with journalists in the Kremlin press pool we were waiting for the president. [Alexey] Gromov, then the [president’s] press secretary, walked in and said, “Putin won’t be coming — a nearby school has been seized.” We asked him, “How many hostages?” He said, “It’s pretty bad. Seems to be about 200 people.” In the beginning, we thought 200 was bad. We loaded everything into a helicopter and flew to Mineralnye Vody, where we hailed a taxi and drove to Beslan.
The town was already cordoned off. After a half hour of phone calls and bargaining, they let us through. Inside, there were heavy weapons, many soldiers, and a lot of Army commotion. But there was a deathly silence at the school. We set up our cameras in the square nearby and spent three days there with the hostages’ relatives. All this time, we heard bursts of gunfire from the school. Nobody cried or screamed — not the children or their families.
At night, a local police officer gave us a place to sleep. His house was inside the security perimeter, but they let us through. Everyone expected an assault on the building at night, but it didn’t come the first or the second night. On the third day, there were terrifying explosions at the school, and new booming sounds we hadn’t heard before. Immediately afterwards, there was gunfire. We started airing special broadcasts: every 15 minutes, at first, and later a bit less often. There was continuous shooting from all sides, and half-naked children covered in blood. I squatted the whole time I was on the air, too afraid to stand upright. My colleague, Edik Bondarenko, covered me in his body armor, leaving himself exposed.
When it was all over, the town didn’t go back to being quiet: an inhuman, heartbreaking howl set in, and it didn’t stop, that whole week of funerals. I’ve never wept like that — not before or since. We walked into a courtyard and there were six coffins there propped up on stools. In another courtyard, we found a naked first-grader beside his sister. They had burns all over their bodies and couldn’t be dressed. There were no parents: just a grandmother staring at the wall.
I remember how we walked along the street and saw a man, swaying from side to side, death on his face. It turned out that his wife and two daughters were in the school. The wife had pulled out the youngest daughter, but she couldn’t get the oldest, who was crushed when a wall caved in. And this man — their father — didn’t know how to go on living with this.
After Beslan, I started getting idiopathic urticaria — when the soles of your feet or wrist or your eyes suddenly swell up completely. And I have the same recurring nightmare of the burning school. There’s been nothing in my life more terrifying than Beslan.
Now a “Radio Svoboda” journalist, head of the “Mze” Georgian TV station’s Moscow bureau in 2004.
As soon as the hostages were seized in Beslan, they called me from Tbilisi and said I needed to get there right away. I didn’t arrive until September 2, because all the September 1 tickets were sold out. My colleagues had already set up camp by then, and there were mobile television stations and tents everywhere. I was told that there was a single hostel in all of Beslan were I could stay, but all the beds were taken, by the time I got there. Not knowing what to do, I asked the first taxi driver I found where I might stay for the night. We drove around for a long time, and eventually we met a woman, and the driver smoothed things over with her. She let me stay with her, and I learned only later that she was the mother of one of the girls taken hostage. Despite this, she was kind to me. Sadly, I don’t know what happened to her daughter. Next, I stayed with a very poor family: a grandmother living with her granddaughter.
I worked in Beslan for 14 days. The fact that there was no information about what was going on in the school aggravated the situation. There were no negotiators and no representatives of the local authorities — there was an information vacuum. Each reporter clawed out information from their own sources, and sometimes we got more information from the TV, when there were news broadcasts. Some of it was true, and some of it wasn’t. There were a lot of journalists from the national networks, but they kept to themselves, away from others.
Chaos reigned. Everywhere you looked, the lack of information was literally driving parents insane, and there were militia members armed with automatic weapons who tried to storm the building, as well as special forces, an anti-terrorist unit, and the local police. There was a total lack of coordination, and everyone operated on their own. You could sense it. When I talked to the local guys, they said, “It’s a weird story. When we got here on September 1, there wasn’t a single patrol car.” It turns out that they’d all been pulled from their posts and redeployed at some event. So either by coincidence or malice aforethought, there were no police officers in Beslan when it started. [When I filed my reports], I couldn’t say anything good about the Russian authorities. What I said was that chaos reigned and people were terrified. Chaos was the core impression you got in Beslan.
General [Ruslan] Aushev arrived, got a few kids released, and said the terrorists were ready to free the rest, if Putin would announce an end to the anti-terrorism campaign in Chechnya. But Putin answered sharply that he doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. So there was a chance to save the children, and the Kremlin didn’t have to lose so many lives. I was shocked when I learned that Putin didn’t go for it, and thereby sealed the hostages’ fate.
On September 3, everything was quiet, until gunfire suddenly erupted. There was a total lack of coordination between the security forces, and the whole story of the beginning of the assault on the building happened when someone took it upon themselves to start shooting at the windows and the terrorists. The explosions came after the gunfire, and not the other way around. When the terrorists realized that the assault had begun, they decided to detonate their bomb.
In the morning, they said Putin landed at 4 a.m., and spent literally 10 minutes with the wounded, before he turned around and flew away. He didn’t have the civic courage to face the public in broad daylight. He came in secret, through the backdoor, without informing the press, spoke a few platitudes, and left. The national networks covered this, and it was only through television that the people of Beslan found out that Putin had visited them.
After the tragedy, the security forces bluntly told me to leave the area, if I didn’t want any problems. They got aggressive after rumors started circulating actively [thanks in part to State Duma Deputy Speaker Sergey Baburin] that the terrorists had come in from Georgia. People were coming unscrewed, and it was becoming clear that they might unload on anybody. When I returned to Moscow, I was completely depressed. We’d just survived this horror over there, and here in Moscow everything was peaceful and pleasant. Restaurants and nightclubs were open, and the city was humming like normal.
I was in shock, despite the fact that I’d been in Abkhazia and Chechnya during the wars. In war, you’re psychologically prepared for bodies and blood, but it’s too horrifying to comprehend when it’s children. The world around you collapses in an instant — especially when you realize that the children could have been saved. And then, when you find out that they muzzle the mothers in Beslan every year, forbidding them to speak their minds, your hair stands on end. People who lost their own kids are forbidden from saying that they lost their children because the authorities didn’t want to negotiate.
War correspondent for “Rossiyskaya Gazeta”
I was the first journalist in the world who found out about Beslan. It happened by accident. On August 29, 2004, Chechnya held presidential elections, which I covered. I decided to come back to Moscow through North Ossetia, because the Grozny airport was still offline at the time. But there weren’t any tickets left, and I called up [North Ossetia] Parliament Speaker Taimuraz Mamsurov, with whom I was pretty close. It turned out that we were both in town. He was meeting then with a delegation of deputies from the Duma’s “Rodina” faction, led by Dmitry Rogozin, all of whom planned to travel to South Ossetia to see firsthand the skirmishes between the Ossetians and Georgians that had already begun by that time. Taimuraz invited me to come with them to Tskhinvali, and fly out at nine in the morning, the next day, with Rogozin.
I agreed. We visited a hospital in Tskhinvali, spoke to wounded soldiers, and then stopped at [South Ossetia President] Eduard Kokoity’s residence. There was this huge table there where they served home-brewed wine in giant drinking-horns. Everyone raised a horn filled with wine, and said a toast. We learned only later that this was our salvation. When we returned to Vladikavkaz for the night, Taimuraz Mamsurov asked Rogozin to address a local school assembly the next day. “We have a school in Beslan that my kids attend,” he said. “You’re somebody who’s on TV. Say a few words to the children. They’ll love it. Five minutes, and we’ll head to the airport.” Rogozin agreed. So, by the will of fate, we were supposed to appear that fateful morning at the Beslan school, and we were saved by the fact that Rogozin overslept and was 15 minutes late. That delay saved our lives, otherwise we would have ended up as hostages, too.
When we were driving up to the school, we saw teachers, parents, and children running in a panic. The only thing we managed to learn from them was that some terrorist had seized the school. This was the very first information we got, to which Rogozin and Mikhail Markelov (my former colleague at TVTs) reacted with lightning speed, saying, “Okay, we’re going to the school, and we’ll talk to the terrorist and offer him an exchange for the children.” And they went ahead, but they only managed a few steps forward before a grenade launcher fired. The terrorists had shot from one of the school’s windows at the railroad, where an oil car was idle. It was then immediately clear how serious all this was. I called the newsroom and asked whether I should come home or stay, telling them that a serious terrorist attack appeared to be underway. They told me to come back — there was nothing yet about it on the news wires — and I started looking for transportation to the airport. But a couple of minutes later the newsroom called me again, and I didn’t come home until much later.
I was lucky: I was the only journalist who spent all three of these tragic days inside the field headquarters set up in the Beslan administration building. On the night of September 2, when the special forces came and started expelling all the journalists from the building, I used my acquaintance with Rogozin. I went up to him, and they mistook me for his assistant. That’s how I heard everything that was said at that field HQ, and how they drew up plans for a special op, and then how they rejected one plan after another.
For the first time in my life, I saw the confusion of authority. There were several options for staging an assault, and they were all worked out carefully to the last detail, but by the end of the second day it became clear that the options were nonetheless unfeasible. Taimuraz Mamsurov came to the headquarters and said categorically that he wouldn’t let them storm the building because there were children inside — including his own children. The special forces realized that the situation was a complete stalemate: It was impossible to assault the school from above by air or from below through a basement, which the school didn’t have. All this was discussed, and there was still no plan of action.
By September 2, North Ossetian leader Alexander Dzasokhov went into a small room where there was a single telephone. He spoke to the Kremlin, and then came out and said the children mattered more than anything, and the authorities would negotiate. Everyone knew then that we could expect another case like with the Basayev-Raduyev hostage crises, when the terrorists were given buses and granted some or all of their demands. Everyone expected negotiations, and they rejected the idea of a special operation. But the next morning, in a surprise for everyone, there was an explosion at the school, and then, after a couple of seconds, isolated gunfire started. It was sparse in the beginning, and then it was more and more, until after about 20 seconds the crackle of gunshots had merged into an unbroken thunder.
At that moment, I got a call from the radio in Moscow, and I had to go on the air live with Ekho Moskvy like five times. That was pretty difficult: commenting and discussing the terrorist attack for a media outlet where I didn’t work that had an oppositionist reputation. I commented on everything that happened, not knowing how it would reflect on me, but I thought it was necessary and important for myself as a journalist. I myself worked for a state publication, and I knew this could have cost me my job. I’ve got to hand it to my supervisors: they didn’t even try to fire or reprimand me.
After Beslan, I realized that you can’t compromise when fighting terrorists. There’s no playing around. I understand how the Israeli special forces handle this: it’s brutal when they refuse to negotiate with terrorists and destroy everyone, even if it threatens the hostages, but it’s so the next potential terrorists know that hostage-taking is pointless, because there will be no negotiations. This is why I think the terrorist attack in Beslan was inspired by the previous attacks that were successful for terrorists in Kizlyar and especially in Budyonnovsk, when the terrorists were allowed to return to Chechnya and we met their terms.
Now a “PBS Newshour” correspondent, journalist for “The Moscow Times” in 2004
Back then, I was working for The Moscow Times in Moscow. As soon as I learned about the tragedy, I asked my editors to send me [to Beslan], but the newspaper didn’t have the resources. It was another newspaper, The Sunday Times, that agreed to send me. So I went to Beslan, and immediately wrote for three publications: The Moscow Times, The Sunday Times, and People Magazine.
I got to the scene on the second day of the siege. I had an incident with security officials: Russian state TV networks spread the false information that the school seizure was being staged by foreigners. They said these foreigners were Islamists, but the channel ORT, for example, reported vaguely: “Investigators are looking into foreign ties.” All of this had an impact on the foreign journalists covering the events in Beslan, where locals started to suspect that they were part of the same group responsible for the siege. Like at one point I ran to the store because I needed to recharge my phone card, and somebody thought it was suspicious that I was running, so several guys pinned me down and brought me to the police station, where they held me for about a day. I just disappeared and didn’t have access to a telephone, but before that I’d managed to send a message to a colleague. I wrote three letters — “FSB” — and thanks to that alone, they started looking for me. The police held me at first, and then handed me over to the FSB. In the end, somebody called the Foreign Ministry and said that I was a journalist and I needed to be released. There were also cases of mob law: People strongly resented all the journalists, because they were talking about foreign ties, and at this time the official news channels were reporting the wrong number of children in the school. And the locals redirected all this anger at journalists.
“RIA Novosti” journalist in 2004
On August 31, I made arrangements with an editor at RIA Novosti (where I wanted a job) to do a couple of reports for them, so they could see what I could do. The next day, there was a press conference with Rogozin at the airport in Beslan, and I went there from Vladikavkaz. It was over before you knew it, but then a whisper started passing through the hall, until someone said aloud that a school had been seized in Beslan. I called RIA and told them what was happening, and it was decided that I would cover the story. The press conference ended, and we all went to the school.
On September 3, when the explosion happened, I was in the command headquarters building. It wasn’t easy getting inside, but one of the staff helped me. The explosion was so powerful that it was clear that something had happened. In the background and up to this time, there’d been other booms, but this gave you the sense of something irreparable. It also became clear that children were starting to die. I ran out of the building, just in time for a second explosion. I’d forgotten my recorder inside, and I wanted to go back in to get it, but they wouldn’t let me back now. And that’s when the shootout started. They yelled at me: “Get down!” I hit the ground, and tried to call the newsroom, but the connection failed. The line had gone silent, it was impossible to get through, and there wasn’t even a dial tone. Then I finally got through to an operator, and I started saying something, when they began carrying out the first boy with a deep wound in his back. Everything happened in just a few minutes. To this day, I can still see that boy before my eyes.
The most terrifying thing were the funerals. Everyone was laid to rest on the same day, in a whole field of graves. That day, I went to a meeting at the airport, which is about five minutes from town, and the cemetery is located between the town and the airport. I asked a friend to drive me, and we got caught in a traffic jam of hearses. It was an endless stream of cars with coffins on their roofs. This was the most concentrated horror I witnessed.
At one point, whenever I heard or said anything about Beslan, I immediately started crying. It’s a difficult, tragic story, but you can’t cry forever. I talked about this with a psychologist, and then it passed. They told me it was a post-traumatic syndrome, but I feel funny talking about my experiences, compared to those who lost their children. I have great admiration for the mothers of Beslan. These are courageous women who endured everything. People tried to write them off as crazy, and they haven’t always been understood. When they started receiving humanitarian aid, people had a strange reaction. These women survived enormous psychological pressure, and they managed to remain decent and wise, and they’ll fight to the end for an investigation. Today, these women help a lot of people in Beslan. They’ve become the ones to whom everyone turns, if there’s ever a problem.
Translations by Kevin Rothrock