Dawn rousted them from their sleep, the forest encampment providing a peaceful respite from the constant movement of the past days. They were close to their objective and readying themselves for the moment to depart and strike fear into the conscious of a nation.
The group was small. 32 members attired in the green leafy camouflage of the Russian army. But these were not Russian, an enemy they despised. These were Ingush and Chechen guerillas, a faction of fighters dedicated to the same goal for a land called Chechnya… Islamic independence and control of the region from Mother Russia… whatever the cost may be.
And today, September 1, 2004, as they made final checks of their weapons and explosives, they pulled black and camouflage balaclavas down over their heads, and prepared to bring the boiling conflict of their homeland to the most innocent of all…
Comintern Street SNO was a school of about 800 students and 60 teachers. It was located in the town of Beslan of North Ossetia in the Russian Caucasus. September 1st is the traditional start of the school year, the ‘Day Of Knowledge’ as it is called, complete with festivities, and this day found hundreds of pre-teen children along with hundreds more parents filtering into the gymnasium to take part in the events.
At about 9:11 A.M local time, a police van and military truck pulled near the school. No one paid any attention to the occupants exiting them, figuring it was just another military exercise, an event not uncommon to this region.
The masked fighters raised their weapons and began firing into the air. Terrified parents and children found themselves being corralled and pushed into the building. Some managed to flee and found their way to the authorities. Within minutes, a brief shootout occurred between the gunmen and arriving police, killing 1 militant and wounding 2 others.
Inside, the terrorists completed sweeping the building and herded their hostages, approximately, 1,100 men, women, and children into the gymnasium. There was hysteria of screaming and crying, and a father of one of the children tried to calm the people down. A gunman soon shot him in the head. Another father who refused to kneel down was shot and allowed to bleed to death in front of his child.
The worst was yet to come.
Gunmen walked through the jumble of people on the floor and in the bleachers singling out 20 who appeared to be the strongest adults, all men. These, fathers, teachers, and employees of the school, were ordered into a hallway next to the cafeteria.
A suicide vest on one of the female terrorists suddenly exploded, killing 2 of her accomplices and several hostages. The survivors were forced to lie down afterwards and all but one were shot and killed by their guards. Other hostages were forced to collect the bodies and dump them out the windows, and another managed to escape.
The only remaining survivor of the explosion and shooting was allowed, oddly enough, to return to the gymnasium where he passed out.
The gravity of the situation grew on the police as they established a 225 meter cordon around the school. OMON special units of the Interior Ministry (MVD) were summoned, as well as the elite Spetsnaz counter-terror teams Alpha, and Vympel of the Federal Security Service (FSB). All arrived a short while later, as up to 5,000 civilians, many of them relatives of the captives, gathered nearby, while all around them armored vehicles began positioning.
Rifle stocks smashed windows as the terrorists had no intention of letting government forces use gas against them, as had been done in the Moscow theater attack. They roved the school mining the gym and several other rooms with IED’s, and threatened to kill 50 hostages for every one of theirs killed by the police.
They ended by reassuring to blow up the entire school if police tried to storm it. And, in a final act of cruelty towards the hostages, told them they would not be permitted to eat or drink, that they were to undergo a “hunger strike,” which they claimed they would join too, until North Ossetia’s President Alexander Dzasokhov came to negotiate with them.
After hearing of this, Dzasakhov received a notification from the FSB that if he attempted to go to the school he would be arrested.
The Russian’s announced there would be no use of force and a peaceful resolution would be sought.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, minds worked nonstop to come up with something, anything that might bring a bloodless end to this, one of the worst hostage situations in history. Civilian authorities opened lines of communications, while the military forces planned an assault. It turns out; these opposite approaches by the parties involved would have grave consequences later.
Thus ended day 1.
Day 2 began with no headway made with the gunmen, who still refused food and water and the removal of dead bodies from school grounds. In Beslan, 2 headquarters sprang up. A formal one for handling publicity and responsibility, and a secret one handling the military side and making the real decisions on a leash tied to Moscow, which still remained silent.
Not only silent, but downplaying the event, releasing numbers to the public of a much lower number of hostages and gunmen. President Putin later in the day managed to offer the following words: “Our main task, of course, is to save the lives and health of those who became hostages. All actions by our forces involved in rescuing the hostages will be dedicated exclusively to this task.” He would offer no more words until after the end. By then public sentiment had turned against his government.
Small progress occurred in the afternoon when the gunmen allowed a dignitary to enter and depart with 11 nursing mothers and 15 babies. Their older children were forbidden to leave. Also sent with him was a videotape made inside the school, offering the world their glimpse at the horrified faces of the captives, and the IED’s in place around them. A note accompanied it which listed the demands of their leader, Shamil Basayev, who was not among his henchmen. In it was the usual demand of Chechen independence.
After taking potshots at police with grenade launchers, wounding one and destroying a car, terrorists and hostages fell under night again. This day had been brutal for the captives. Many had taken off their shirts in the stifling heat. Others had fainted.
With dehydration rampant, some were so thirsty they drank their own urine. And then there was the crying, the ceaseless crying from the children that agitated their captors with each passing hour, resulting in threats of execution unless they stopped.
More shots fired from the school into the darkness, wounding another police officer. The talks broke off for the rest of the night.
Just before morning, 133 members of Alpha and Vympel settled in the shadows near the security cordon as the first streaks of the third day began. The previous day had been spent rehearsing the storming of a building 30 kilometers away.
They were as ready as could be even though the ‘GO’ plan remained absent of many specifics due to lack of intelligence. It was going to be a classic assault through designated entry points to clear the facility as quickly as possible and get the hostages out.
FSB and OMON snipers began positioning for overwatch. The assault teams waited for the order to come down as sun started peaking between the trees.
Instead, talks were reestablished and local political leaders persuaded a Chechen political leader and separatist named Aslan Maskhadov to fly to Beslan and negotiate directly with the terrorists. He was expected to arrive at 2:00 P.M
Another negotiator, a former police general and Chechen was also making progress. He was bringing from Moscow the names of 700 well known Russians who agreed to let themselves become hostages in order to free the current captives. The terrorists granted permission for him to enter the building at 3:00P.M.
As the hours passed, an agreement was made for 4 medical workers to remove the bodies lying outside the windows. As they drove up in 2 ambulances, an explosion rattled the gymnasium. Gunmen started pouring fire into the vehicles, killing 2. The other 2 leaped out and dove for cover.
No one knows for sure the order of events that followed. Some say a sniper killed a terrorist whose foot was on a detonator, his fall setting off an IED. Another theory is that RPG’s were fired into the attic above the gymnasium from units on nearby rooftops. Either way, Alpha and Vympel was ordered to assault now, confusion working against them as gunfire rang from the school.
Snipers began engaging targets as Special Forces fired RPO Schmel thermobaric rockets at terrorist positions. More explosions followed, demolishing part of the sports hall wall, permitting some hostages to escape despite spreading flames.
Alpha and Vympel teams, backed by OMON troops and even civilians, ran toward entry points under heavy fire trying to get into the school. Tanks and armored personnel carriers covered them targeting the muzzle flashes blinking in different windows. Fires blazed in the corridors and rooms as Alpha and Vympel breached, engaging and killing gunmen at point blank range.
They found live and dead hostages everywhere they turned, and began helping those trying to escape the carnage, but several members were shot in the back and killed shielding children before they got out.
In the gymnasium where most of the hostages were, the roof collapsed, killing hundreds in a tangle of smoldering debris over which Alpha and Vympel teams battled to kill the remaining gunmen trying to hold out.
Still, the fighting raged on, explosions constant and automatic weapons chattering as room after room was swept and cleared. Even 2 hours in, after the FSB claimed control of most of the school, gunmen still popped up firing until shot down. Some managed to escape into a nearby building only to have it demolished by the main guns of T-72 tanks.
Of the 32 terrorists, only 1 survived and was taken prisoner.
Outside the school, the far too few ambulances on scene began transporting the first of 437 injured survivors to hospitals. Another area of weak response proved to be the fire departments, arriving 2 hours after the initial blaze. It was slow and agonizing, but as more water streamed forth, calm, slow and not without fit, began to settle over Beslan once more.
The blackened, smoking and charred hulk comprising most of the school was silent. Police tried to calm the thousands of weeping relatives trying to get past the cordon. Soon, the grim task came to begin sorting wreckage and collecting the bodies. It took days. In all it was discovered some 334 hostages, about half of which were children, had died in the 2 hour battle.
On the military side, Alpha lost 3 killed and Vympel, 7 – the most in Vympel’s history – with almost all dying attempting to shield children with their bodies. These deaths included all the assault team leaders. Additionally, over 2 dozen more along with OMON troops were wounded. As time wore on though, the selfless act of protecting the children was overshadowed by remembering a day fraught with heartache and above all else, confusion, which is something that still haunts Russia to this day.
Over the following years, accusations were leveled, several inquiries opened closed, and ended with pledges from politicians and military officials that they’ve learned from Beslan.
Like the fact that it’s been determined that the services involved failed to coordinate their responses and had no backup plan for what occurred. These more than anything else are words that condemn. Lesser is that perhaps heavier firepower than necessary was used.
And finally, 8 years on, that there is still no concrete explanation on exactly how the action started, though it’s safe to say it makes little difference to the scores of the dead with their monuments, paying tribute to those innocent lives – most way too young – who died that day.