BESLAN, RUSSIA—Nearly a year after the deadly siege at School No. 1 in this North Ossetian town that killed more than 300 people—most of them children—a trial is under way of the sole hostage taker captured alive. Nurpashi Kulayev, a 24-year-old from adjacent Chechnya, faces life in prison on charges of terrorism, murder, and assault on law enforcement personnel.
The CNN images from September 3, 2004, the third day of the siege, won’t easily be forgotten: stunned, soiled, half-naked children fleeing a wrecked school gym, some in the beefy arms of Russian soldiers. The conflict between Chechnya and Russia was reduced to a compact tale of good versus evil, the state versus terrorism. What is gradually coming to light in Kulayev’s trial, though, is that the Beslan story isn’t so simple. It’s lucky for the Russian government that this more complex account of the siege—including the possibility that the Russian military needlessly put the hostages at risk and used excessive force—gets little play in the international press.
Russian president Vladimir Putin benefits much from the TV images. Just as George W. Bush can describe a good-versus-evil world, Putin can spin Chechnya’s bid for independence as connected to global Islamic militancy and say any misdeeds by his army are necessary in a time of war.
Here on the ground, though, Putin’s analysis doesn’t seem so tidy. What happened to the children of Beslan was despicable, but what’s happening in the North Caucasus Mountains to Chechens and their fellow Muslims, the Ingush, is equally grim. These days, in the name of rooting out terrorism, the Putin government kidnaps, beats, tortures, and even kills civilians. Sometimes they are suspected militants.
But in one family, a young man disappeared simply because he was studying Islam and discussing his ideas with friends. He hasn’t been seen since. Another family’s eldest son disappeared for a week, only to be dumped, starving and naked, at the side of a road.
Like most raids here, this recent one went down just before dawn. A tank rolled up to the front gate of the house and flattened it. Soldiers, their faces concealed by black masks, filed into the backyard and began shelling the house next door. Residents asked if the women and children could cross the street for safety. They were told to shut up.
The houses are in a middle-class suburb in the Republic of Ingushetia, about an hour’s drive from Chechnya. People here speak the same language as the Chechens; they practice Islam. The Russian military believes that Ingushetia also harbors militants.
On this particular morning, soldiers used bullets, then grenades, then flamethrowers. Finally, a man hiding in the target house rushed out to confront his accusers. He was shot and killed on sight.
The Russians said this man was Iznaur Kodzoyev, a terrorist, one of the 32 hostage takers at the Beslan school. This account, however, was dubious, because months ago the Russians announced that Kodzoyev was already dead. No one really knows who this man was, including his landlord, Aleskhan Kaloyev. When the Russians questioned Kaloyev, he said the man rented a room weeks before but only slept in his bed for one night. The 22-year-old landlord was beaten, his house was searched, and his sister was asked to lift her skirt so the soldiers could search for a bomb.
Then Kaloyev was taken outside and kicked to the ground. A grenade was placed in his hands so it would appear he tried to blow himself up. He was laid next to the dead militant and adorned with a green headband, symbolizing Islam. The soldiers switched on their video cameras and filmed him. Then they filmed themselves celebrating.
The tape was later handed off to journalists and broadcast all over the Russian Federation. Kaloyev, the young landlord, was detained indefinitely.
I spoke to his sister, Assa Kaloyeva, about 48 hours after the raid. Showing me the fresh bullet hole in her couch, she said, “They say they are doing these operations to keep us safe. But they are killing civilians and then celebrating and laughing and drinking juice like it was nothing. It’s not right.”
Just down the road, at the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, I spent a day with Chechen refugees who fled their homes in 1999. They told me the Kaloyevs’ story is nothing compared to what they hear and see at the camp and in Chechnya.
Assyat, who wouldn’t reveal her full name because she feared reprisals, said masked soldiers stormed her concrete-and-corrugated-steel shack in the middle of the night to question and intimidate her 15-year-old son. Assyat’s neighbors told me that other teenagers in the refugee camp have disappeared in similar raids.
Assyat had wanted to remain at the camp until Chechnya simmered down. But she said she might as well return to her homeland, because it couldn’t be any worse than this life. “I’m tired,” she said. “I’m tired of everything. I’m tired of my tears. I’m tired of worrying whether my son will last another day.”
Journalists are rarely allowed inside Chechnya, so refugees who frequently travel back and forth between the camp and Chechnya are among the few reliable sources these days.
Assyat’s older friend and neighbor—also named Assyat—had just returned from the Chechen village of Samashki.
Assyat the elder told her friends how she saw a neighbor there who was kidnapped in the night by masked soldiers. It was a familiar story: He was beaten, starved, and interrogated for a week; then he was discarded when it became clear he had no information. The man was found on the side of the road between two villages, unconscious, naked, and bound by tape and chains. His story was later corroborated by a human rights worker.
Assyat the elder said this violence against civilians only escalates the problems, that the militants will continue to recruit followers and launch attacks like Beslan, and there will be no peace.
“I understand why you want to go back,” she said to Assyat the younger. “But if we all go back, they will close the borders of Chechnya to journalists, to everyone. And no one will know what happens to us in there. Then they will be able to do anything they want to us.”