Amid the captors' gunshots, indifference and contempt

Hostages: Survivors of the school siege in Russia tell their stories.

September 05, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BESLAN, Russia - Many escaped smeared with blood and bore hideous wounds. Others, soaked in sweat and clad only in their underwear, looked pale and spectral.

Almost all had the shining eyes and grimly set mouths of people who had experienced the worst, people who had expected to die.

They began to tell their stories yesterday, about the school siege in the Caucasus that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said was part of "a total and full-scale war" against all of Russia.

Before the blood-soaked rescue of hundreds of schoolchildren, they saw teachers and parents shot dead. They were deprived of food and water, forced to sit in their own filth. They drank their own urine and fainted from dehydration.

When the confrontation between the hostage-takers and Russian forces began, explosives detonated over the children's heads, and bullets and shrapnel sprayed past them. Classmates were shot in the back as they ran for their lives.

As of last night, authorities said that they had pulled 210 bodies from the now sealed-off ruins of Middle School No. 1 and that the number of dead was more than 340, nearly half of them children. Officials said 26 hostage-takers were also killed. Medical authorities said that more than 540 people were wounded and that 448 remained hospitalized, most of them children.

The four Dzutsev cousins were among the hostages who escaped unhurt.

Yesterday, they quietly sat shoulder to shoulder on a couch in a house on a dirt street lined with plum trees. After a thunderstorm, the sky was a patchy blue, the streets marked by pools of water. And Zarina, 15, her brother, Zelin, 12, and their cousins Svetlana, 12, and Dzambulat, 13, told their story:

First day of school

On Wednesday, they stood outside their school in sunshine.

Zarina, on her first day as a 10th-grader, had bought a bouquet of asters and roses for her teacher. Russia's traditional first-day-of-school speeches hadn't begun.

When the gunfire began, she was standing in a crowd of older children near railroad tracks next to the school.

"We thought it was because of the holiday, that maybe it was a wedding," said Zelin, a dark-haired boy. When the children turned, they saw gunmen running across the tracks, firing automatic rifles into the air. The children saw that the gunmen were dressed every which way: in camouflage uniforms, in track suits, in street clothes, and some with masks, some with long beards. Two were women.

They leveled their guns at the crowd. And they demanded to know where the gymnasium was.

The main building of the school, behind an 8-foot-high perimeter wall, is shaped liked a "T." The T's leg houses the gym, a two-story red-brick building with a pitched tin roof. Someone pointed it out.

Hurrying everyone inside, the gunmen shot two guards, leaving the bodies where they fell.

Once in the school, some of the children tried to hide in a boiler room but were quickly brought back into the gym. On one side were women and the youngest children, on the other everyone else, with an aisle to keep them separate.

A heavyset man in his 40s - the father of one of the students - began to tell the children to calm down, not to be afraid.

One of the hostage-takers shot him. He crumpled to the wooden floor and died.

It was only the beginning.

At one point, the gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at cars that strayed too close to the school. One of the female hostage-takers detonated an explosive belt in a school hallway when the men she was guarding tried to resist, apparently killing herself and her hostages.

Terrifying the hostages

The hostage-takers sometimes seemed determined to terrify the captives for their own amusement.

At one point, one of the gunmen shouted, "Everyone stand up" and fired his assault rifle above the heads of his hostages.

On the other side of the room, another gunman yelled, "Sit down" and fired his weapon.

The captors broke out in laughter, Zarina said.

They took every cell phone and smashed them with their rifle butts, and confiscated the dozens of cameras brought along to record the happy scenes of the first day of school. The hostages threw their money, including hundreds of U.S. dollars and tens of thousands of rubles, into a pile. The gunmen never bothered to pick up the money. The bouquets brought for the teachers were thrown into a corner, where they quickly wilted in the rising heat.

Most of the time, the hostage-takers treated their captives with indifference or contempt, Zarina said. The Dzutsevs, like most Ossetians, are Christian. Their captors were all Muslims, praying five times a day.

One gunman taunted Zelin about his Orthodox religion and its best-known saint.

"Where is your St. George now?" he asked.

Everyone had to sit upright on the floor. No one was allowed to speak.

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