It was meant to be a sombre day of mourning and remembrance but the first anniversary of the seizure of Beslan's School No 1 was marked by a display of raw anger yesterday as the school's hated headmistress was forced to flee a mob intent on attacking her.
"Murderer! Murderer!" the mob shouted at a frightened Lidia Tsalieva. "Why did you come here?" The Kremlin, which local people accuse of tragically mishandling the siege and its aftermath, was also targeted.
Many parents and relatives of the 331 dead, 186 of whom were children, issued a powerful and politically embarrassing petition saying they did not want to live in Russia any more because they had lost faith in its justice system and asking any country "where the law is respected" to grant them asylum. But it was Mrs Tsalieva, the headmistress, who bore the brunt of mourners' fury.
Still waiting for the conclusions from three separate official inquiries, many local people believe she sold their children out. They claim she collaborated with the pro-Chechen terrorists who seized the school, that she hired workers to renovate the school who "cased" the premises and that weapons, and indeed militants, were hidden inside long before 1 September because of her incompetence. Ms Tsalieva, who was herself a hostage, strenously denies all the accusations.
She argues that she has become a scapegoat, a target for people's irrational and frustrated anger, and investigators agree, saying they have found no evidence that she was either complicit or incompetent.
After a bell had tolled yesterday at 9.15am, the same time as the terrorists seized the schoo,l, Ms Tsalieva tried to join the thousands of mourners filing into the shattered remains of the school gym to light a candle, say a prayer and weep in front of the portraits of the dead as Mozart's Requiem and other mournful classical music floated across the school's playground.
Her approach did not go unnoticed. She was spotted by one of the mothers who screamed at her and alerted the crowd to her presence. Within seconds she was surrounded by a group of furious women who pinned her against nearby crash barriers, assailed her with a barrage of verbal insults and manhandled and jostled her.
She was clearly seconds away from being badly beaten.
Several men, including Batras Tsalagov, struggled to fight their way through the crowd to get to her and, in the ensuing melée she had to be whisked away by security guards who were forced to prise her from vengeful clutches. As she was rushed away her face was contorted in shock. "I wanted to beat her," Mr Tsalagov, 40, said, explaining that his brother Timur, 35, had been killed last year while he was trying to save some of the children.
"She knew all about it. She is guilty." Minutes later, an elderly woman clad in black stood on the grass in front of the school gymnasium and shook her fist.
"There's plenty of security and police today," she said referring to the heavy police presence and the temporary installation of metal detectors.
"But there was none a year ago. Where were the police then? How could they let the terrorists and their weapons into the school?"
The Mothers of Beslan, an organisation expected to confront President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin tomorrow, added to the authorities' discomfort by issuing a damning statement. "We, the parents and relatives of the victims ... have lost all hope for a just investigation into the reasons and the guilty parties in our tragedy, and we do not wish to live any more in this country where a human life means nothing," said the petition. "They will never tell us the truth," the petition continued.
Inside the school gym where many of the victims died, women wailed as they touched photographs of their deceased loved ones. "Forgive me please for being unable to help you," sobbed one woman as she stared at a photograph of her lost child.Reuse content