Backlash in Beslan as families fight government inaction

Nobody can forget the horror of the school siege but it seems the Russian government would like to. Angered by its inaction, mothers of the victims have taken up the fight for justice. Andrew Osborn reports from the grieving city
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Emma Betrozova was entitled to almost 1.5m roubles (£30,000) to compensate her for the murder of her family. Half a million for Ruslan, her dead husband, half a million for Alan, her murdered son, and a further half a million for Aslan, her other slain son. The sum is astronomical by local standards.

Emma Betrozova was entitled to almost 1.5m roubles (£30,000) to compensate her for the murder of her family. Half a million for Ruslan, her dead husband, half a million for Alan, her murdered son, and a further half a million for Aslan, her other slain son. The sum is astronomical by local standards.

However, It is not money that Mrs Betrozova wants - she wants justice. "I'm not interested in money. When my children were alive they didn't want for anything," she says. "How can you value people's lives in money? Nothing can bring them back."

Almost five months after her family was wiped out during Beslan's school siege, Mrs Betrozova is one of many mothers who have unexpectedly been radicalised and politicised by the experience. Before 3 September 2004 she was an ordinary Ossetian housewife, an apolitical woman who was deferential to her husband and spent her days toiling in the kitchen and doting on her children.

But after she lost her family she became a vocal member of Beslan's Committee of Victims' Mothers, an organisation that sprung up about a week after the massacre. Initially conceived as a cathartic exercise to allow people who had shared a common tragedy to console one another, the group has unexpectedly metamorphosed into a potent political vehicle that has the authorities in this impoverished region of southern Russia running scared.

Women who had previously not given politics a second thought and who were seen as victims to be pitied and paid off have suddenly become the authorities' enemies-in-chief.

Their numbers are small - estimates vary between 20 and 34 - but members of the committee seem to be able to attract hundreds of other disgruntled townspeople to their cause when necessary. Recently, they succeeded in bringing Beslan to a halt for three days by blocking its main highway to neighbouring Azerbaijan. Mothers, teachers and sympathetic Beslan residents took part in the blockade - at its peak, the protesters numbered about 500.

The mothers had one central demand: the resignation of Alexander Dzasokhov, the Kremlin-backed President of North Ossetia where Beslan is located, and the man on whose watch the school massacre took place.

Early one morning, Mr Dzasokhov visited the blockade and pleaded with the mothers to go home. Mrs Betrozova approached him hoping that he might at least say he was sorry.

Sorry for the fact that his government allowed a group of heavily armed Chechen militants to bribe their way into the republic and take more than 1,100 people hostage in a local school. Sorry for the fact that Mr Dzasokhov's officials consistently lied to the world about what was going on and that he himself appeared to take no interest in the negotiations. Sorry for the fact that he and his officials did not do more to prevent what turned out to be a bloodbath that claimed the lives of 330 people, 186 of whom were children. Sorry for the fact that Beslan's bereaved residents are still waiting to find out what really happened...

Mrs Betrozova thought she had every reason to expect some kind of apology. She had lost her entire family and had camped out in sub-zero temperatures to get Mr Dzasokhov's attention. "I went up to him and said: 'We placed our trust in you and you let us down. I lost all my family. How can I go on living?'" Mrs Betrozova remembers, her eyes welling with tears. "He looked at me and said: 'Apart from my condolences I can do nothing for you.'"

At the time, Mr Dzasokhov dismissed the protesters as "a handful of mothers" but he swiftly threatened to break up the demonstrations using force. "He came and told us not to block the road because it was illegal. We told him the murder of our children was also illegal," Mrs Betrozova said.

The crowds eventually did break up after a phone call from Dmitri Kozak, President Vladimir Putin's troubleshooter in the region. Mr Kozak promised to meet the protesters but such a meeting has so far not taken place and the women are once again considering direct action.

What they can't accept is that, five months after Beslan's shell-shocked residents scratched their demands for Mr Dzasokhov's resignation into the school's bullet-riddled, blood-stained walls, the septuagenarian leader is still clinging on to power.

Mr Dzasokhov's term has a further year to run and he is apparently hoping that Mr Putin will renew his mandate. The last thing he wants to do, it is said, is to bow out under a cloud. Yet his idea of damage limitation was strange. Instead of stepping down, he sacked his entire government but the reshuffle was largely superficial and bizarre in the extreme.

Lev Dzugaev, the press spokesman who lied to the world's media that there were only 354 hostages being held (in fact there were more than 1,100) and they were being treated well (in fact they were not allowed to eat and were forced to drink their own urine) was, for some reason, made Minister for Culture and Mass Communications.

For Mrs Betrozova, 42, the price of what she views as Mr Dzasokhov's dereliction of duty was high. Her husband, Ruslan, 44, was the first victim of the three-day siege. He was shot dead in the first hour in front of his two sons and hundreds of other children in the sports hall in a show of force designed to cow the hostages. His body was dragged across the floor leaving a trail of blood and lay doubled up in the corner for several hours.

Her 17-year-old son, Alan, escaped from the gym when the siege was broken but went back for his 15-year-old brother, Aslan. A single shot from a sniper killed Alan. Aslan was dead by then anyway, his body ripped apart by anti-personnel mines that the militants had strung round the school's gym.

Mrs Betrozova didn't want to take the body that the authorities told her was Aslan from the morgue. "One arm was completely missing. half of his other arm was missing. I didn't want to believe it was Aslan."

These days, Mrs Betrozova does not like spending time at home and devotes herself to the Committee of Victims' Mothers. She says she hasn't touched her compensation payout and, when The Independent interviewed her, was painstakingly copying the names of children into a green exercise book in the town's administrative headquarters; the children were earmarked to receive new bicycles.

A navy blue headscarf wrapped around her head, Mrs Betrozova does not look like she could threaten the republic's government but that is exactly what she and others like her are doing. "I consider someone who did not guarantee the safety of our children does not have the right to occupy that post [of president].

"It would be easier for us if he recognised his guilt and stepped down. Even now he hasn't said he is guilty yet he is responsible for the death of our children. Their blood is on his hands."

Mr Dzasokhov is clearly rattled. Officers from the FSB security service regularly monitor the mothers' meetings, eavesdropping on their conversations and relaying their plans. When asked by The Independent why they felt it necessary to spy on a group of angry bereaved women, one FSB source said: "We are here to maintain order and to make sure that nobody kills anyone else."

Marina Pak, who lost her 12-year-old daughter, Sveta, has a more plausible explanation: "They are afraid of us." FSB officers look on uneasily as the education specialist shouts at the top of her voice in the local cultural centre: "Can there be anything more important than maternal instinct and the knowledge that our children were sold out [for bribes taken by policemen and officials to allow the militants through checkpoints]?" She tells her fellow committee members. "Have you forgotten what happened? Don't give in!"

The mothers say they have come under heavy pressure since they became more radical. The local media is overwhelmingly ranged against them, there have been official inferences that they are mentally unbalanced, some of them have been blackmailed and had their reputations undermined. Some officials also claim that the bereaved mothers were paid to turn up at the road blockade, allegations which are fiercely denied.

A small grammatical mistake in one of their campaign slogans was seized on with glee and the committee now appears to be on the verge of splitting in two, with some favouring radical action and others ready to compromise. "They [the authorities] are trying to split us up, to foment internal strife and to break us up," Mrs Pak says.

At the centre of it all is a smooth-talking opposition politician and local deputy called Vissarion Aseev, who appears to have realised how powerful the committee has become and is now one of its central organisers.

Some locals believe he is exploiting the bereaved mothers but Mrs Pak, 39, says she is not being manipulated by anyone. Like Mrs Betrozova, Mrs Pak says she too never used to be interested in politics. An intense and articulate woman of Korean origin, she speaks of the authorities with undisguised contempt but immediately becomes more mellow when she talks of her dead daughter, Sveta, and her friends.

Sveta and her two friends, Emma Khaeva and Aza Gumetsova, also 12, were killed when a rocket-propelled grenade crunched into a wall behind which they were sheltering in the gym. A blue folder stuffed with her daughter's memorabilia is all Mrs Pak, a single mother, has left of Sveta now. The folder is stuffed with pages ripped from Sveta's exercise books, photographs, poetry and songs, diary entries and her school ruler.

One photograph of Sveta and her friends recovered from the school is pierced with a bullet hole and, poignantly, the folder contains "a letter about the future" penned by Sveta before she died. In it, the girl says that she dreams of being famous, of living in New York with her husband "and five dogs and cats" and of earning $100,000 a week.

Mrs Pak was told on 3 September that Sveta had survived and been taken to the local hospital in an ambulance. Twenty-four agonising days later DNA tests would prove she had been lied to.

She says she won't give up until Mr Dzasokhov steps down. "All they [the authorities] can do is tap our phones. But there is no greater force than motherly love. We carry our dead children on our backs and our efforts will lead to the authorities' destruction. He [Dzasokhov] knows he has lost."

Sveta Dzeboeva, a 62-year-old pensioner, whose 15-year-old grandson, Oleg, perished in the siege, asks: "Who would dare raise their hand against a mother in mourning?"

She adds that the mothers can neither forgive nor forget. "The children needed the President's help but where was he? The terrorists called them pigs and prostitutes and tortured them for three days. But Dzasokhov left them there defenceless."

In the centre of Beslan on a huge plot surrounded by metal fencing and guarded by machinegun-toting security men a new school is being built. Cement mixers and cranes toil under the grey murk and across the town a second school is being built, apparently with money from Moscow.

The old school, more war zone than educational establishment, still stands. Shrouded in eerie silence and open to the elements, it is like a stage that has been abandoned by its actors and it is possible to walk through its darkened blood-spattered corridors without encountering a single soul.

The battle for Mr Dzasokhov's reputation is being fought even here though. Some of the graffiti covering the school's walls, calling for his resignation, has been doctored with thick black paint or disappeared altogether. Admitting fault, it would seem, is the hardest thing to do.