They kept digging more graves as the dead were buried and the living wept

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Leaden rain lashed the black and white photograph of Alina Anatolyevna Alikova in Beslan's cemetery yesterday as the girl carrying it struggled to see more than a few feet in front of her.

A fine-boned olive-skinned 30-year-old woman with a neat bob stared out from the framed photograph across a muddy waterlogged field that was filled with tortured cries of anguish and hundreds and hundreds of mourners.

Alina, a mother of three, a wife and an enthusiast of salsa dancing and choir singing, was laid to rest yesterday along with some 130 others. She had died in the gymnasium of her children's school when a piece of shrapnel from a hand grenade pierced her heart, killing her almost instantly.

On Sunday Beslan had begun to bury its dead. Yesterday they were lowered into the rain-drenched ground on an industrial scale.

Scores of funerals took place simultaneously, with mourners from one service mingling with those from two or three others. Some lost their bearings in the driving rain and found themselves listening to someone else's funeral.

"They wouldn't let them drink," said one woman, referring to the hostage-takers' refusal to allow food and water to be taken in during the 53-hour school siege. "Now the children will have all the water they need."

The muffled sound of shovels filling graves and an eerie wailing cut through the air as mourners stood stock still and tried to comprehend the apocalyptic scene unfolding around them.

One woman shrieking at a funeral is harrowing enough, but the howls of grief yesterday seemed to echo from every corner of what quickly became a muddy swamp.

A small boy in a coffin who looked no more than six was carried past, his face blemished by red burns, as his grandmother sobbed and a woman passed out nearby. "Bring a doctor. Quickly, quickly," someone shouted.

It didn't matter which way people turned; somebody, usually a small child, was being lowered into the ground. Elderly men were pronouncing the last rites in Ossetian as the voice of North Ossetia's President carried across the cemetery. "Terrorism has no roots in North Ossetia. We will make sure that something like this never happens again," he said. "Terrorism must be vanquished," he told the mourners through a loudspeaker as he sheltered under an umbrella some distance from the burials.

Not everyone appreciated his presence. "It's so obnoxious and disrespectful and it's total bullshit. It's all too little too late. People don't want to be disturbed by this kind of talk when they are burying their dead," said Ruslan Sozranov, Alina's cousin.

The road to the airport was choked as winding processions - some of 300-strong - trudged behind battered grey ambulances carrying coffins. They were closely observed by armed police and other officials.

There were so many bodies to bury that people had to queue to enter the cemetery at times as dozens of different funeral processions merged into one long line of grieving humanity. To attend one funeral was to attend them all.

The men, all dressed in black, walked in front of each, with the women a few paces behind carrying colourful wreaths.

Konstantin, 37, Alina's husband had to be physically supported by friends as he walked to his wife's funeral, the rain drops soaking into his expensive black suit.

Earlier he had stood like a statue outside 35 Kirov Street, the family home, as hundreds of men lined up to shake his hand, shake their heads with sorrow and hug him. The ceremony was carried out in absolute silence. The women gathered around the open casket inside and cried.

Alina, who worked at the local social security office allocating pensions, had been an inspiration for those around her. She doted on her three daughters, Elizaveta, 4, Madina, 6 and Amina, 10 and had a strong marriage.

She died so that her children could live. As she huddled in the school's gym with her mother-in-law Svetlana and her three children, one of the terrorists told her to hide in the canteen when the federal authorities began their assault.

There, she placed giant saucepans over the heads of her children and tried to protect them by arching her body over theirs.

When Russia's elite Spetznaz troops starting shooting through the canteen at the terrorists, one of the hostage-takers threw a grenade inside.

The blast killed Alina and Svetlana fell to the ground with two pieces of shrapnel and a bullet lodged in her body. She is in intensive care now and it is not known if she will live. The three children, although all wounded, survived.

Alan Alikov, Alina's brother-in-law said everyone admired her for what she had done. "She gave her life for others," he said at her wake last night.

"Amina, one of her daughters, saw her mother die but didn't realise what she had seen. She thought she was sleeping and tried to wake her up."

Later, he said, the little girl asked to be taken far away. "She told me that she didn't want to live here any more and that she wanted to go to a different country."

Marina, Alina's sister, said with bitterness that the ex-president of neighbouring Ingushetia had almost managed to get the children out on the day before the siege turned into a bloodbath. "Alina had begged him to take the children and not her but it didn't happen. Why didn't he take them?"

Alan flicked through photographs yesterday of Alina playing with her children. Three days before the siege the family had flown back from a family holiday in Turkey.

Her relatives talked about how they remembered her life: How she doted on the children, taking them everywhere, making sure they had English lessons and cooking for everyone.

How she sang in a Greek choir and loved salsa dancing. How she loved to play practical jokes on people, studied economics and was always on form no matter what. She had met her husband at school when she had stolen his photograph from a notice board of star pupils.

After the funeral one more great task remains. "We will have to tell the children in a couple of days. They have to know," sighed Alan Alikov. "The children are asking for their mother and the eldest is starting to guess the truth."

Alan says he wants his sister-in-law's story to be told to the world. "I want people to know the truth, not just the statistics but the people behind them."

Alina was just one of at least 338 people who died in School Number 1; each had their own stories.

THE DEAD AND INJURED

The official death toll from the school siege stood at 338 yesterday as families continued to bury their loved ones. The North Ossetian health ministry announced yesterday there were 207 bodies which had yet to be identified.

The ministry said 411 people remained in hospitals, including 23 seriously hurt victims who had been airlifted to Moscow hospitals and a further 11 who had been taken to the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

Some 200 people were still missing, three days after the siege ended in a massacre of the hostages. However, the authorities believe these were most likely to be included in the unidentified bodies and an official said the death toll was not thought likely to rise.

Of the Russian special forces soldiers who stormed the school, 10 were killed and a further 31 wounded. All but three of the estimated 30 hostage-takers were killed during the siege.

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