'There used to be the sound of children playing. Now there is nothing'

It is 40 days since the Beslan tragedy, the end of the traditional Orthodox mourning period when normal life resumes. But few residents believe life will ever be the same, reports Andrew Osborn
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"Lida you are a bitch. Lida you are a mistake of nature. We will kill you. How could you sell out other people's children? You betrayed our children." The graffiti scratched into the blood-smeared classroom walls of the Beslan school points the finger of blame for what happened here on 3 September. Lida Tsalieva is the target of much of the anger; as School Number One's headmistress, she was a survivor of the terrible siege that left more than 330 people dead, including 150 children, when Russian forces stormed the building to end it.

"Lida you are a bitch. Lida you are a mistake of nature. We will kill you. How could you sell out other people's children? You betrayed our children." The graffiti scratched into the blood-smeared classroom walls of the Beslan school points the finger of blame for what happened here on 3 September. Lida Tsalieva is the target of much of the anger; as School Number One's headmistress, she was a survivor of the terrible siege that left more than 330 people dead, including 150 children, when Russian forces stormed the building to end it.

Many local people argue that she was responsible for the children's welfare. They say she gave the gunmen the opportunity to plan their attack on the school when she hired a group of Chechen and Ingush workmen to renovate its dilapidated red-brick building.

The "workmen" were transformed into 32 hostage-takers a few months later, having used the renovation to conceal some of their weapons beneath the school's wooden floorboards.

"Lida you are the whole world's enemy," more graffiti says. As this small Caucasus town prepares today to mark the 40th and final day of mourning, few of the bereaved have found peace and many are looking for someone to blame.

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, the soul of the departed is supposed to ascend to heaven on the 40th day of mourning and "normal" life may resume, but few in Beslan believe that their lives will be normal again. Some direct their anger at Ms Tsalieva, others at the Chechens and the Ingush who made up the majority of the hostage-takers, and others at the region's authorities, which have stubbornly refused to take responsibility. Deprived of anywhere to vent their feelings, those involved have made the school's bullet-ridden and blackened shell a canvas for their words of frustration, bewilderment and hatred.

Together with the now-withered floral tributes, candles and "We will never forget you" messages, dozens of vengeful voices scream from walls caked in blood. As the rain fell yesterday, hundreds of people traipsed around its corridors sobbing and staring listlessly at the devastation, a routine that has been followed repeatedly.

Dressed in black, women cried and men shook with grief. "Ruchsag Ut" ­ Ossetian for Rest in Peace ­ was scratched into the darkened building's shattered walls. The gymnasium, where most of the victims died when the roof was brought down by powerful explosions, remains a shrine to the departed. Its rain-soaked floorboards are crowded with cuddly toys and dolls, as well as unopened chocolate bars and water bottles, a reminder that the hostage-takers did not allow their young captives to eat or drink.

Coming from the town's unnaturally full cemetery, many were still leaving elaborate floral wreaths. They say they have not tired of wandering each day around the school's eerie corridors, looking for answers they cannot receive. A large crucifix marks the centre of the gym. At the side, a rain-soaked photocopy of a picture of Madina Kusova, a pupil, stares back. "You were a good person," someone has written.

"What has happened to our planet?" asks one poster in the shape of a cloud adorned with cardboard angels.

Others are less philosophical. "Raising a hand to a child is not the action even of a beast but of a demon or of Satan himself," reads one message etched into the wall. Scrawled in a blue pen above a disturbing patchwork of blood stains in a corridor from the gym, another message reads: "You will be punished!!!"

Other messages promise to hang the perpetrators. "Beasts were here," says one, while another drawn in bold black letters says: "Death to terrorists."

On a staircase to the first floor, Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who claimed he organised the school seizure, is singled out. "Burn in hell Basayev," says one inscription.

Throughout the classrooms, piles of school books still cover the floor, though much of the detritus from the siege ­ spent shells and blood-stained clothing ­ has been removed by souvenir hunters.

Yesterday, at 3.45pm, the sobbing stopped for a short while when Episcope Feofan, head of the Russian Orthodox church in nearby Vladikavkaz, paid a visit to the school gym. For a few minutes, the bass voices of a choir filled the room and weeping women stopped to listen, many crossing themselves during the prayers and hymns. "We must build a cathedral here," Episcope Feofan told his rain-drenched audience. "I wouldn't even want to break down these walls, but leave them as they are." Kissing an elaborate golden iconostasis of the Madonna and Jesus, he blessed the school with a rose plucked from a bottle of water.

The bearded cleric urged his audience not to take revenge on those they held responsible. "We are hoping for one thing; patience and a peaceful solution," he said. "Ossetia is courageous and we can deal with this tragedy. In no circumstances should there be revenge. Revenge is for the weak."

Responding to calls from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, for clerical support for the fight against terror, he talked about global terrorism, as the rain grew heavier and people pressed forward to kiss the icons. "This was a reminder of what evil can do. It was also a reminder to all mankind that there can be no haven from terrorism." After his speech, a strange silence enveloped the school. Its corridors emptied.

But Episcope Feofan's advice appeared to have fallen on deaf ears in many quarters. In the rain outside a red-brick house near the school, a crowd of men had gathered to remember Albina Shotaeva, 28, and her seven-year-old daughter, Zalina.

"They were both burnt in the school," said Soslan Beg, a close relative, dragging hard on a cigarette. "Our mentality is to take action so that something like this never happens again." A former colonel in the Soviet army and a former pupil of School Number One, Mr Beg, 54, said the moment of revenge was at hand. "We know where these bandits are, we even know which houses they live in. When the time comes, I will take a machine-gun and go with the others to punish these terrorists. We need to sort this out ourselves. Many of those who suffered have been sent away to clinics in the Crimea and the Black Sea, to try to defuse feelings here, but when they get back there will be revenge. Every second person here has a machine-gun at home."

Inside the school, Anatoly, an elderly man in a leather jacket and a flat cap, seems to be on the edge of reason. Staring around a ransacked classroom, his words come out quickly. "How was it possible? Why did they not act? Why did they not storm the school immediately? Why did they not enter into proper negotiations? I would have taken a child's place if I could. So many lives could have been saved."

Later, he says that his niece died in the siege. His two grandchildren are badly injured and have been sent away for treatment. His eyes are glassy and full of pain and his voice choked, and his frenetic hand movements belie a deep trauma. He says he is not interested in revenge. He wants peace.

Another man, who gives his name as Sasha, is less sanguine. His shouting fills the corridors. He rails against the school's headmistress and the region's much-criticised president, Alexander Dzasokhov. "They should all be hanged," he screams, his breath heavy with the odour of alcohol. "It was negligence and incompetence. There used to be the sound of children playing here but now there is nothing."

The women sobbed. In a whitewashed building nearby, six remembrance services to mark the passing of 40 days were taking place. Trestle tables were covered with enormous wooden drawers stuffed with lamb and beef, bottles of vodka, pies and cakes. Hundreds of men had sat at the long tables all day in strict order of seniority, toasting the dead, eating, drinking and swearing revenge.

Smoking was strictly prohibited. Nobody was allowed to leave the table without the permission of an elder. Few finished the day sober. Across the street, women busied themselves preparing more food and drinking tea.

Ruslan Gappoev, a 43-year-old mechanic and father of two, finished the day in pieces. His voice broke up as he disclosed that he had not yet found his wife, Naida, 41, despite four of his relatives giving blood for a DNA test. "I've checked all the bodies myself. If there was anything left of her lower jaw, I could identify her from a gold capped tooth she had, but none of the bodies I've seen fit that description. She was blown up ­ that much I know ­ but I can't even begin to imagine where she is." His children, Soslan, 11, and Alan, seven, survived.

Alik Alikov, who has two children and lost his wife, Darima, a history teacher, in the siege, was also in a bad way. "Life will get back to normal at some point but I don't know when." He initially says he is not interested in revenge and wants his children to live in peace but quickly changes his mind. "If I knew exactly who was responsible of course I would go and do for them. But at the moment I don't know.

"If the Ingush had come and offered their apologies, that would be one thing. We wouldn't have accepted it but it would have meant something."

David Dulaev, a taxi driver from the town of Mineralny Vody, whose father is Ossetian, fears that a fresh civil war will break out between North Ossetia and Ingushetia.

"How can you forgive what happened? You can't. People blame the Ingush for this," he says. "You tell them that the terrorists were just losers, druggies and criminals and just took some money to do what they did. You tell them that not all Ingush are the same, and they say, 'Yes, we know, but it doesn't matter.' Ingush were involved and blood will be spilt."

North Ossetia, home to Beslan, and Ingushetia fought a bloody five-day war in 1992, in which up to 800 people were killed. "The people who planned this knew exactly what they were doing. The Ingush and the Ossetians have feuds and disagreements which stretch back for centuries, and the ultimate aim of Beslan was to blow up the Caucasus."

In Chermen, near the Ossetian-Ingush border, people are afraid. Rosa Gazdieva, 52, an Ingush housewife and mother of seven, says: "Who knows what will happen. There are rumours that they'll attack us and kill us. I used to go to Beslan and Vladikavkaz but you won't find me there now."