The darkest event of Vladimir Putin's Russian presidency – the Beslan school massacre – has cast a shadow over the expected victory of his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in Sunday's election.
"Do you like the picture I have put up here?" asks Valery Nazarov, pointing to a newspaper front page with a photograph of Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev under the headline "Medvedev's Course". But Mr Nazarov is no fan of either politician. He has hung the cutting atop a wreath of flowers inside the charred skeleton of Beslan's School No 1.
Mr Nazarov's wife taught biology at the school and was killed when Russian special forces stormed the building after a 52-hour stand-off with pro-Chechen militants in September 2004. His daughter and two granddaughters were also among the 334 victims.
As Mr Putin prepares to hand over power, Beslan is still suffocating in a pall of tears and anger. For Mr Nazarov, as for many in this town of 35,000 people, voting for Mr Medvedev on Sunday is unthinkable. "I would not vote for anyone who was recommended by Putin," he says. Hanging the picture of Mr Putin and his heir among the photographs of victims is his way of saying what he believes the political course of Mr Putin and his heir-apparent leads to.
Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the sole surviving hostage-taker, was jailed for life in 2006 but, for Mr Nazarov and other victims' relatives, many questions about the events of 2004 remain unanswered. How were the terrorists able to take School No 1 hostage without any resistance, who ordered the special forces to storm the building, and was the blaze which engulfed the gymnasium and killed so many started by rockets fired by the Russian troops?
While the walls of the sports hall are charred, its wooden floorboards are almost pristine, having been protected by the bodies of hostages packed tightly above them. "The fire engines took nearly three hours to arrive," says Susanna Dudiyeva, who lost her son in the siege and now co-runs the Mothers of Beslan, a group set up to demand an inquiry into the handling of the siege.
"The general responsible said he did not send in the fire brigade because he had not received an order. Children were burning to death after 52 hours inside the school and there was not even a single fire engine on the scene."
Mr Putin rubbed salt into the wounds of Beslan's mothers when, in a recent press conference, he reeled off a list of his successes and said there had been "no serious failures" during his eight years in power. "If he really thinks that, he is a cruel and dangerous man," adds Ms Dudiyeva. She was part of a delegation that went to Moscow to meet Mr Putin on the first anniversary of the siege. "He promised us there would be a real investigation and those guilty would be punished," she says. There was no real investigation. Additionally, the attempts of those in Beslan to uncover the truth have met with resistance.
"[Putin] personally handed out awards and promoted all the people who killed our children," says Ella Kesayeva, of Voice of Beslan, another organisation demanding an inquiry. She says the group has been hounded by officials trying to disrupt its work, with documents confiscated and Federal Security Service (FSB) agents sitting in on its meetings. A campaign in state-controlled media suggested her organisation was being manipulated by unnamed political forces trying to destabilise Russia.
Faced with a court order to close the group, the mothers decided to fight it but were warned by a sympathetic judge that there was no point. "He told us the orders had come from above and there was nothing we could do – the court's decision was predetermined," says Ms Kesayeva. She and two other women have been accused of assaulting seven armed court marshals during hearings, and could face five years in prison. "Not a single official has been held to account for what they did, and now they want to lock up the victims," she adds.
But even in Beslan, there are those who plan to vote for Mr Medvedev next weekend. "I voted for Putin and, of course, I'll vote for Medvedev," says Zaur, a lorry driver. "There are some bad people around him but Putin himself is a brilliant leader."Reuse content