Masked terrorists, booby-trap bombs, and trails of blood: the calculating and cold face of evil

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The Independent Online

It is hard to know whether the images from inside the school at Beslan are worse in the imagination or in reality. Until now those outside have had to live with the horrors which the mind could conjure. But now we are forced to confront the reality ­ in all its banality and bravado. This is as near as most of us are likely to come to staring into the face of evil.

It is hard to know whether the images from inside the school at Beslan are worse in the imagination or in reality. Until now those outside have had to live with the horrors which the mind could conjure. But now we are forced to confront the reality ­ in all its banality and bravado. This is as near as most of us are likely to come to staring into the face of evil.

The pictures released last night of the scene inside the school gym where 335 people died and hundreds more were seriously injured are a curious mixture of the ordinary and the outrageous. The room has the bald functional threadbare quality which is the hallmark of post-Communist Russia. we have come to expect. They cannot afford to have wallbars the length of the room. The basketball hoops at either end of the room look battered and old.

So much for the ordinary. The outrage floods through you when you see the occupants of the place. Row after row of children, parents and grandmas, sitting, their knees drawn up as they huddle. It is as if they are trying to make themselves small to escape the attention of their brutal captors. As well they might.

From the battered basketball hoops hang homemade bombs. There is another in the centre of the room. It appears to dangle from a coathanger from the line suspended from one hoop to the other. The bombs are crude and amateurish. But the wires dangling from them mean there is no mistaking what they are.

Around the edges of the room the terrorists stand or lounge with callous insouciance. They are clad mainly in black. One or two wear dark camouflage. All are masked with heavy balaclavas.

In the doorway stands a female terrorist. She is clad in a black burkha from head to foot. There is only a slit for her eyes to reveal her humanity ­ and they show precious little of that. Like the men she is a sinister figure, dark and impenetrable.

Yet their message is clear enough. As the camera passes in the shaky video ­ barely a minute long, and clearly taken by one of the terrorists for propaganda use ­ on the floor we see blood. A few drops here. A streak there. We can only imagine the story the bloodstains tell. But those in the room do not need imagination to know.

The camera pans across the huddled ranks. It pauses for a moment on a woman in late middle age. A grandmother, perhaps, who had come to the school for the celebration with which the first day of term is always marked ­ with children in their new school clothes, carrying flowers and helium balloons.

But there is no sign of joy here. As the camera catches the grandmother's eye she turns away. She knows the price of eye contact. She lifts her hands to her head, as if remembering her captors' earlier instruction, which fatigue had gradually erased from her memory.

In the hall a boy is standing. He has a white object balanced on his head. It is hard to make out what it is. A punishment, perhaps, for some casual misdemeanour. This is the place where a boy was bayoneted for asking for a drink of water.

The pictures seem to have been taken early in the siege. The children are still wearing their clothes, which most of them later removed as the temperature rose to unbearable levels. Some have removed their shoes. The camera lingers on an explosive as a terrorist is rigging some wires. In the shot are a pair of bright new white shoes, someone's back-to-school pride, no doubt. She will not need them now.

In some shots adults are moving round the room, holding children by the hand. This must have been before the captors, enraged by the lack of progress in their desultory negotiations, forbade the children from going to the toilet, and smashed the taps so they could not drink anything except their own urine. One terrorist, by contrast, is seen holding a bottle of water, bringing home the callousness of their three-day regime. A vivid indication of the appalling heat which made their ordeal so much worse is the way that the captives are shown furious fanninng themselves in the intense heat of the North Ossetian summer.

The camera moves to a man who looks like the terrorist leader. His foot is on a book which appears to be a detonator for the bombs. With a flourish which is as theatrical as it is arrogant he waves his hand, white-gloved like some television magician, to the detonator. These were pictures the outside world was clearly ­ whatever the outcome ­ meant to see. Their intention, presumably, was to provide proof of their appalling plans if the authorities failed to meet their demands.

In the event, they were found by investigators after the siege was so tragically broken up. Their screening last night on Russian television- on the day that hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets to demonstrate their revulsion of terrorism in general and the Beslan massacre in particular- will only inflame a population already at boiling point. And at a time when Russian politicians show little sign of wanting to calm down their people.

It is cold. It is calculating. It is chilling. We stare into the face of the evil that sees children as an easy, unresisting and sensationally headline-grabbing target. We stare. We keep staring. And we learn nothing.

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