On September 1, 2004, a group of terrorists took control of a school in southern Russia. Over the course of three days, more than 1,000 hostages made up of mostly women and children were subjected to the horrors of the Beslan school siege.
The Beslan school siege began on September 1, 2004, when a group of Chechen gunmen attacked a school in southern Russia. The gunmen kept over 1,000 hostages in the school’s cramped, hot, gym, threatening to slaughter everyone unless Russia obeyed their demand to withdraw its troops from Chechnya. Three days later, the siege came to an explosive end.
When the smoke cleared, more than 300 people were dead, making the Beslan school siege the deadliest school shooting in history. Today, many families still struggle with unanswered questions about the siege, as well as the lingering trauma of losing their loved ones.
The Beginning Of The Beslan School Siege
On the morning of Sept. 1, 2004, students and their families gathered at School No. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia, to celebrate the beginning of the school year. But at around 9 a.m., the celebrations took a horrific turn when 32 gunmen (including two women) appeared in the school courtyard.
The gunmen were from Chechnya, just a couple of hours across the border from Beslan. Though Chechnya had declared its independence following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia had since battled to keep control over the territory, launching a mass invasion in 1994 that led to bitter fighting.
In 2004 alone, Chechen terrorists had already struck out at Russia several times. In February, they killed dozens of people on a crowded Moscow subway; in August, they blew up two civilian planes leaving a Moscow airport, according to The New York Times. Now, in September, they targeted Beslan.
Armed with machine guns, explosives, and handguns, the Chechens fired into the air, which some of the children mistook for fireworks, according to Time Magazine. The reality of the situation soon became starkly clear, as the gunmen forced 1,200 students, parents, and teachers into the school gym.
Though 100 people were able to get away during the shootout, most were not so lucky. The Chechen terrorists forced them into the gymnasium or shot them dead — and the Beslan school siege began.
Captivity And Crisis During The Siege
Once they had gathered their hostages in the school gym, the Chechens announced that they were terrorists, according to an investigation conducted by the European Court of Human Rights. They then proceeded to collect the hostages’ phones, personal belongings, and cameras.
That was frightening enough, but the situation quickly grew even more terrifying. To the horror of the hostages, the terrorists began setting up explosive devices around the gymnasium, placing some on the basketball hoops, and connecting others to pedal detonators called “dead man’s switches” which the terrorists took turns standing on.
The Chechens also demanded that the hostages speak only Russian, and not Ossetian. But when one of the hostages tried to spread the message in Ossetian to the others, the terrorists executed him in front of his two young sons and left his body in plain sight.
The gunmen also had little sympathy for the increasingly hot, stuffy atmosphere in the gym, or the thirst of their hostages.
“The militants broke the sinks and smashed the pipes so that we couldn’t drink water,” Nadezhda Guriyev, who was trapped in the gym during the Beslan school siege with her three children, told The Guardian. “The [children] tried to soak it up in their shirts where it dripped in order to bring it back. Some children brought their mums water in their mouths.”
The next day, the Chechens started killing male hostages.
Military Response To The Violence
As the hostages of the Beslan school siege suffered within the gymnasium, Russian authorities worked to free them. As CNN reports, they established contact with the Chechen gunmen at around 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 1 and convinced them to release 26 hostages on Sept. 2, all women and children.
But the Chechens also had a demand, one that Russian leaders refused to consider. They wanted all Russian troops to withdraw from Chechnya. Instead, Russian police, soldiers, and members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) gathered outside School No. 1 and prepared to fight.
Before either side could make a move, however, an explosion rocked the gymnasium at around 1 p.m. on Sept. 3. It may have been a mistake — many hostages believe that the Chechen standing on the dead man’s switch may have accidentally moved — but the result was the same. Explosions rocked the building, fires broke out, and the Russian troops swept forward with tanks, grenades, flamethrowers, and other weapons.
Many of the hostages were caught in the crossfire. When the smoke cleared, 331 people were dead, 186 of whom were children. Of the 32 terrorists, 31 were also killed, leaving just one survivor: Nur-Pashi Kulayev.
The Legacy Of The Beslan School Siege
Soon after the Beslan school siege ended, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the site and the hospital treating many of the survivors. He called the attack a “direct intervention of international terrorism against Russia” and announced future counter-terrorism methods in a televised address.
Less than a year later, on May 16, 2005, Nur-Pashi Kulayev was found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, he states that he is unremorseful of his actions during the Beslan school siege.
But many family members of the Beslan school siege victims want more than just televised statements and convictions. Even immediately following the end of the siege, survivors and their families expressed concern and anger for the way the situation was handled by the Russian government.
In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling that Russia experienced “serious failings” when it came to the Beslan school siege. Not only had Russian authorities failed to prevent the attack — despite having intelligence about its possibility — but they’d also used excessive force during the siege, which contributed to the high death toll.
The Russian response, the court ruled, violated the hostages’ “right to life” by neglecting to use only what was “absolutely necessary” to end the siege.
According to Russian news agency Interfax, Russia agreed to uphold the European Court of Human Rights ruling and pay $3 million as ordered.
Nearly two decades after the siege, however, many families are still grieving. Every year, families and friends meet at a special cemetery for the victims of the Beslan school siege. For them, those three days in September 2004 weigh heavy even today. Tamara Shotaeva lost her two daughters in the siege, and every year she tries to think about what they would look like.
“Time doesn’t heal at all,” she stated to CNN, placing two lit candles in the snow to honor her daughters’ memories. She does this for her daughters every year and plans to continue until the day she sees them again.
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