Russia's ongoing conflict with Chechnya reached a horrific apogee with the siege of more than a thousand pupils in a school in Beslan, a town in north Ossetia. On the third day of the stand off, Russian troops stormed the building, using a range of artillery and exploding parts of the school in an attempt to overwhelm the militants. Hundreds of hostages, many of them children, were killed in the ensuing gun battle. Several hundred more were injured. Western journalists arriving on the scene were confronted with a display of horror most had thought unimaginable.
The children were laid out in a row. Fourteen bodies on the dry grass, their eyes rolled upwards, their faces caked in blood, frozen in time with shock. All wore only their underclothing. Blood-stained white bedsheets barely covered their tiny torsos. Pink cardboard labels were tagged to their small feet, marked with their names.
Hours earlier, they had been huddled together, frightened out of their wits in Beslan's now burnt-out school gymnasium; now they were laid out on the grass in front of the town's white-washed morgue which was too full to accommodate them.
Inside the morgue, at least 40 more bodies were piled on metal plinths and scattered on the floor, already starting to decompose in the blistering September heat and there were said to be many more corpses in the town's enormous sprawling hospital opposite.
Locals covered their faces with handkerchiefs to stifle the smell as – one or two at a time – people went in to try and identify their loved ones.
The 14 bodies outside were so small and the children so young – some looked like they were just five years old – that sometimes two children were squeezed on to the dark green military stretchers.
The air around Beslan's morgue and hospital was filled with wailing yesterday evening as the brutal reality came home that 100 or more people - most of them children - had been slaughtered in the bloody denouement of the 53-hour siege when Russian troops stormed the school.
It is unclear how the battle between the hostage-takers and Russian special forces began. But it seems to have been triggered when a number of children tried to escape at about 10am British time, when the fighters had agreed to allow a vehicle to remove number of dead bodies.
Two enormous explosions reverberated across the town and then the shooting begun. Rocket-propelled grenades screeched across the sky as MiG helicopter gunships hovered overhead, feeding intelligence to Russian special forces troops on the ground. Machine-gun, pistol and high-velocity rifle shots filled the air for the next five hours as the authorities fought a desperate battle to get to the hostages before it was too late. The children were running naked and bloodstained out of the building.
As soon as the Russian forces began returning fire, the terrorists detonated explosives and brought down the school roof. Gunfire and explosions went on for more than an hour and hostages fled in terror. Parents and local men armed with hunting rifles besieged the building seeking their loved ones.
Many of the victims were treated at the scene amid the chaos of the gun battle but, at the last count, 556 were taken to hospital, 332 of them children. Apart from gunshot wounds, many were dehydrated after being refused water.
In the hospital morgue, a broken man clutched his dead son's lifeless hand unable to cry any more, while three women collapsed on their knees when they found the little boy they had been looking for. The boy's grandmother nervously pulled back the white sheet to reveal his bomb-blasted body, the flesh lacerated and hanging off in places – his mother simply screamed, beating the ground with her fists. Strangled, tear-choked refrains of "Oh my God" echoed everywhere as those who had lost loved ones vented grief.
"Vladislav" (a boy's name), screamed one woman repeatedly as she staggered around on the grass. "I'm going to go mad. They should have killed me instead." Several woman collapsed in shock and needed treatment when they discovered the worst by consulting hastily-printed sheets of the dead and living but most simply cried until there were no more tears.
Sitting on a bench surrounded by hundreds of weeping people, Bela could not stop sobbing after finding the lifeless body of Regina, her 14-year-old niece, in the hospital. "Poor little girl. Her mother doesn't even know she is dead yet because she is still in the hospital searching for another child. I'd already told her that Regina was safe. What am I going to tell her now?"
"They killed her," she intoned repeatedly, overwrought with shock and grief. "It was definitely her. I could tell by the eyes." A few metres away, a man called Goram stared listlessly into the middle distance as he said that his eight year-old niece was still unaccounted for.
Yet the day had started with hope after Lev Dzugaev, a spokesman for North Ossetia's president, said a deal had been struck to collect the corpses of the dead which had been lying in the sun for more than two days.
At that stage, he reassured the media, "according to the information we have all the children are safe and we hope to secure the release of more of them today." At 13.05 (10.05 BST) Beslan's fear-racked residents knew, however, that all was not well.
As the shooting intensified, waiting relatives could not contain themselves and many of the women began to shriek, shake their heads and stagger. It wasn't too long, however, before a crowd of relatives nervously watching Russian soldiers sprinting for cover gave an enormous collective sigh of relief as a burly man in a Hawaiian shirt was spotted running across the road with a small boy in his arms. The boy's face was contorted in horror and shock and his skin badly burnt.
A small trickle of hostages then began to emerge into the sunlight, some on their own feet but most cradled in rescuers' arms or prostrate in the back of an ambulance or an estate car. A boy in black underpants staggered along the pavement while his mother, in a red dress, followed closely behind.
Shortly afterwards a girl on a stretcher, her dress soaked in her own blood, was rushed out. Cars beeped their horns as they rushed the victims towards the hospital while local men clutching Kalashnikov machine-guns and shotguns implored the authorities to allow them to help.
"I have to help," said one man. "My daughter is inside." Another man who had apparently been held hostage walked along the pavement unsteadily. His eyes wide open with horror, and his arms shaking uncontrollably, his gaunt face resembled the figure in Edward Munch's The Scream. A man who had been praying suddenly reached for his mobile phone. "Are you sure it's him. He's in hospital?" he shouted before sprinting to his car. A steady stream of ambulances then raced away from the school as people strained to peer inside the speeding vehicles to see if their loved ones were safe. The main collection point for the hostages quickly became chaotic.
A dark day for Russia. A day of foreboding for the rest of the watching world.Reuse content