The Big Moment: The air was filled with wailing. Locals entered the morgue to identify relatives

A series of articles from The Independent archive recalling key events of the past decade: the siege of Beslan ends, 3 September 2004

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there