What the Beslan School Siege Taught Us

When hundreds of hostages were killed during a shootout in southern Russia in 2004, the world got a glimpse of how Vladimir Putin values human life.

Author: Debra Javeline

The worst act of terrorism in Russian history began as any other first day of school, with excitement and celebration. On September 1, 2004, in the small town of Beslan in southern Russia, schoolchildren and their teachers, families and other guests gathered at School No. 1, wearing their best clothes and ready to participate in rituals that date back to the 1930s. They expected the oldest students to lead the youngest to an assembly. A first-grade girl would sit on the shoulders of an 11th-grade boy and ring a bell to signify the beginning of the school year. The mood was happy and hopeful.

But instead of celebration, what followed was sheer horror. Terrorists herded some 1,200 attendees into cramped and stiflingly hot quarters, often with hands over their heads. People were threatened for talking or crying, denied food and water, and compelled to drink urine. Many children watched as their fathers were executed.

Russian authorities tried to claim that the perpetrators had links to Al Qaeda and global jihad and that they were an irrational, international gang of drug addicts making no demands — certainly not Russian citizens. In fact, most of the hostage takers were ethnic Ingush or Chechen, and almost all were citizens of Russia, homegrown terrorists, several of whom were on Russia’s wanted list. They included murderers, rapists and thieves who later turned to devout Islam and the cause of Chechen independence.

This group targeted Beslan because its residents were mostly ethnic Ossetians and Orthodox Christians who lived within the Russian Federation more agreeably than their Muslim Ingush and Chechen neighbors. Historical rivalries, particularly over territory, had erupted in incidents of violent ethnic conflict many times before. In Beslan, contrary to official reports, the terrorists did make demands: full Russian troop withdrawal from Chechnya, formal recognition of Chechnya’s independence, the presence at the school of specific political officials, and the release of some 30 suspected rebels detained in a June 2004 crackdown in the Russian Republic of Ingushetia.

Onlookers in Russia and most of the world had been glued to their television sets for two days and nights, waiting, hoping and praying for a safe outcome that never came. Just after 1 p.m. on September 3, 2004, explosions triggered chaos, gunfire and the burning and collapse of the school’s gymnasium roof, killing almost 200 hostages beneath it. More than 100 others died in other parts of the school, mainly in the cafeteria, where the militants forced them to stand on windowsills and wave white “flags” — curtains or school blouses — so Russian soldiers would not shoot at the windows.

At the end of the violent, 53-hour siege, more than 330 hostages — one in every 100 Beslan residents — were dead. Half of the victims were children. Many bodies were destroyed beyond recognition. Hundreds of survivors were seriously injured, some maimed for life, and residents of the small town and the North Ossetian republic were traumatized.

Who shot first and started the mayhem, the terrorists or the authorities? How did the gymnasium roof ignite and collapse? Did government troops use flamethrowers, machine guns, grenade launchers and tanks while hostages were still alive and could be saved? Where was the firefighting equipment, water and ambulances, given the two days authorities had to prepare? Were there only 32 terrorists, as the authorities insist — all of them killed except for the one who was tried, convicted and incarcerated for life — or did some escape?

Answers to these questions, and many other basic facts about the Beslan massacre, remain in dispute, even today. Rubble and crucial evidence from the wreckage, including hostages’ body parts, were quickly removed from the scene before a thorough investigation could be conducted. Questions surround not only the days of the hostage-taking and the storming of the school, but the months prior, when the terrorists trained in neighboring Ingushetia — and when some officials had warning of a possible attack.

The Beslan school massacre was a transformative experience in the lives of most Russian citizens. It instilled or worsened fears about the anything-goes style of terrorism in their country and the government’s kill-the-enemy-at-all-costs style of counterterrorism. It meant that nothing and no one, not even schools or toddlers, were safe from perverse atrocities.

At the level of high politics, Russian President Vladimir Putin used the incident to consolidate and strengthen his power by, for example, eliminating the election of governors and republic presidents in favor of direct appointment and taking various measures to rein in the media and civil society. The hostage-taking and massacre accelerated his centralizing control of the country.

From the perspective of Beslan’s victims and their many sympathizers, Russia should have learned from these failures. The horror of Beslan School No. 1 should never have started, they said, let alone ended so tragically.

The violent road not taken

Almost two decades later, the incident at Beslan School No. 1 that so captivated the world is largely forgotten outside Russia — but forgetting is a luxury afforded to humanity thanks only to the victims. After a massacre that permanently upended so many lives, the surviving hostages and the relatives and friends of the deceased made choices that prevented the situation from becoming bloodier. Had they responded differently, Beslan could be a place everyone knows as ground zero for an endless cycle of ethnically and religiously motivated violence, a new global hotspot of unresolvable conflict.

Retaliatory violence was predicted by experts on the region, journalists, politicians and other observers, from Putin himself to the captured hostage-taker Nur-Pasha Kulayev. Many victims also saw the hostage-taking through the lens of ethnic conflict and blamed not only the terrorists but the ethnic groups they represented.

Beslan is located to the north of the Greater Caucasus Mountains that stretch between the Black and Caspian seas. It lies about 570 miles south of Moscow and 40 miles north of Russia’s border with Georgia. Nearby to the east are the Russian republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya. The region has longstanding traditions of vendetta and blood feud; enduring conflict between the Ossetians and the Ingush and Chechens made the anticipated pursuit of eye-for-an-eye justice in the wake of the attack seem logical. Victims themselves predicted vengeance — or “virtuous violence” — sanctioned by culture. As one victim explained, “In the Bible it is one way, but in real life, it is another. Share your bread with your enemy. I will share dynamite with him.”

In this context, the absence of retaliatory violence was surprising and may be attributed to three factors. The Ossetians’ custom of observing a 40-day mourning period, during which they are forbidden to touch weapons, inhibited a rash response, as did their traditional respect for elders, who were largely advocating for calm, and the time required to search for bodies, plan funerals, bury the dead, and locate and care for survivors when officials were at best uncooperative. Still, the expectations and expressed support for violent reprisals suggest that the situation could have gone quite differently.


Holding government accountable

While the widely predicted war never materialized, the attack on the school unexpectedly precipitated the most extensive and sustained political activism in modern Russian history. Risk often accompanies political activism, even in democratic regimes. In authoritarian or hybrid regimes, the peaceful demand for accountability represents a bold challenge to local executives, security forces and top political officials, and it is therefore especially risky. Understandably, would-be activists in Russia might fear calling out their leaders, let alone the then-extraordinarily popular Putin, for their roles in the Beslan massacre. And yet, afraid or not, many victims dedicated their lives to demanding truth and accountability.

Beslan residents, led mostly by women who had little access to political power, held rallies, set up websites and organizations, attended town meetings, signed petitions, met with local and national officials, blockaded a highway, staged a courtroom sit-in, went on hunger strikes, aggressively made demands and challenged authorities. They litigated and took their case through Russia’s highest courts all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. In their most brazen act, protesters erected a road sign with an arrow pointing to the school wreckage and the message Kurs Putina, or “Putin’s course,” a sarcastic play on the campaign slogan of Putin’s party, United Russia.

Their activism was motivated by their long list of questions about exactly how so many of their children, spouses, parents, siblings and friends had died. Although Ingush, Chechen and other terrorists certainly took them and their loved ones hostage, Beslan residents suspect it was not terrorists who killed and maimed once counterterrorist forces began their storm. In the name of annihilating the terrorists, the government used indiscriminate weapons, despite the probability of killing innocent hostages. Most of the hostage deaths occurred after the explosions and the ignition and collapse of the roof. Conventional wisdom in Beslan says Russian authorities, not the hostage-takers, initiated the lethal finale — or at least exacerbated the carnage.

Alongside the most basic question of who killed the children were questions about the conditions that had enabled the hostage-taking in the first place, what led to the tragic ending, why official investigations seemed to cover up more than reveal, and why the surviving victims were being so callously mistreated, their questions dismissed and the activists among them threatened and harassed.

Authorities persecuted Beslan’s victims through the legal system, taking Voice of Beslan leader Ella Kesayeva to court for the Kurs Putina road sign, charging Voice of Beslan members with extremism, banning their public appeals and intimidating their lawyer into quitting. When protesters went on a hunger strike, the telephone line to Voice of Beslan’s headquarters was turned off and the organization threatened with eviction. Then, when one hunger striker’s blood pressure shot dangerously high, emergency responders took 25 minutes to arrive, even though the hospital was a mere five-minute walk from the organization’s front door.

The scale of the tragedy was likely the result of horrible mistakes. The terrorists gained nothing from the early explosions at the school, which took them by surprise and thwarted their plans. The authorities too gained nothing but bloodshed, including that of 10 Russian security forces personnel. Blunders and negligence are the most reasonable explanations for the outcome, but whose blunders and whose negligence? These questions will likely remain a matter of debate and a source of grievance indefinitely.

“Blunders and negligence” surely included intelligence failures and police corruption that enabled terrorists to pay bribes and operate freely, stash weapons and gain access to the school. The authorities’ unclear chain of command and general incompetence in managing the crisis particularly enraged victims, because by the time of the attack, the Russian government had a decade of fighting experience in the North Caucasus and around Russia as a whole, including two Chechen wars, a 1995 hostage-taking at a hospital in Budennovsk, roughly 150 miles to Beslan’s north, and another hostage taking at a Moscow theater in 2002.

Those incidents resulted in more than 120 deaths, hundreds of severe injuries and widespread trauma. In Budennovsk, the siege culminated after four days in shootouts between Russian forces and Chechen separatists, and many hostages were killed in the crossfire. In Moscow, again on the fourth day, Russian special forces pumped an aerosol form of the synthetic opioid fentanyl into the theater’s ventilation system. Once the militants and hostages were in a deep sleep, the special forces stormed the theater and shot all the militants, but they also inadvertently killed many hostages when they carried them out of the theater and laid them on their backs, a recipe for choking to death on the vomit induced by fentanyl overdose.

From the perspective of Beslan’s victims and their many sympathizers, Russia should have learned from these failures. The horror of Beslan School No. 1 should never have started, they said, let alone ended so tragically.


A landmark judicial victory

The case before the Strasbourg Court, Tagayeva and Others v. Russia, is named for the first litigant, Emma Tagayeva, a leader of the nongovernmental organization Voice of Beslan and the wife of a hostage named Ruslan Betrozov, who attempted to calm the terrorists and his fellow hostages and was executed in front of his two sons for his efforts. “My whole family was killed in School No. 1. My husband was shot right in front of my sons’ eyes,” Tagayeva has said, explaining her leading role in the litigation. “I agree that my husband was killed by terrorists. But I do not agree that terrorists killed my sons. No one has proved that they did.”

“None of us is against Russia. We just want our country to begin to value human life,” said Susanna Dudiyeva, leader of the NGO Mothers of Beslan. Another victim explained, “I would like to feel proud that Russia is learning to value human life and dignity,” and still another concurred, “For now it is not valued.”

In June 2007, Tagayeva, along with 88 other former hostages or next of kin filed the lawsuit in the European Court claiming violations of their rights to life, objective investigation, fair trial and efficient legal defense, as set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights. By 2009, a total of 447 former hostages or next of kin had brought complaints. Five years later, a decade after the massacre, victims finally got their open public hearing — webcast with simultaneous Russian translation and posted on the court’s website, all of which was rare for the court and designed for maximum access by Russian citizens.

The victims won. In 2017, the court validated the victims’ claim that governments have a positive obligation to prevent threats to life before, during and after a hostage-taking. In an unprecedented verdict against the Russian state, the court ordered Russia to pay nearly 3 million euros in damages to victims and another 88,000 euros in legal costs, and by September 2019, all but one victim had received the payout.

Although many victims considered the sum offensively small, their accomplishment should not be diminished. Tagayeva and Others v. Russia has been called a landmark case for prioritizing human rights and states’ obligations to victims even in the context of national security interests and counterterrorist operations. Rescuing hostages and protecting innocent human lives, the court declared, should take priority over killing terrorists.

Beslan offers hints about who the first and most regime-threatening group of protesters might be: Russia’s mothers.

Beslan’s relevance today

As a professor of political science and a scholar of Russian politics, I am often asked about the brutality and inhumanity of Russian forces in Ukraine. Those familiar with Russia’s response to terrorist attacks are unsurprised. In Beslan, Budennovsk and Moscow, Russia acted ostensibly on behalf of its own citizens — the hostages it claimed it wanted to save. Half of those whose lives hung in the balance in Beslan were children. And yet the state has consistently displayed a callous indifference to human life in the name of proving its superior might.

Indeed, one of the main grievances of the Beslan survivors is that Russia’s counterterrorism operations are basically a death sentence for hostages. Many refer to a famous 1999 TV interview in which Putin vowed to pursue terrorists everywhere — even wasting them in the outhouse. The monstrous effort to waste Ukrainians feels consistent with this pattern of behavior.

I am also often asked how the Russian public could possibly support their government’s brutal war in Ukraine and why citizens are not taking to the streets in protest. The first question is a fair one. Polling routinely reveals that 40 percent or more of Russians support the war. But Russia, like the United States, is a divided country. To ask about the Russian public, as if it is a monolith, is to do an injustice to a country of 143 million people and their diverse opinions.

Which brings us to the second question. Those who do not support the war are justifiably scared of saying so in public. The risk of prison and torture for anti-war expression, let alone full-on activism, is real. After all, activism was risky even in response to the Beslan school massacre, and those activists were sympathetic figures — the parents of dead children, often mothers still wearing their mourning clothes, whose activism began long before Russia’s initial 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. If authorities went to such lengths as fraudulent criminal prosecutions, cutting phone lines and tampering with the response to medical emergencies against a small group of activists in a remote town during a less vulnerable time for the Putin regime’s stability, imagine the consequences for activism now.

And yet protest may still come. If it does, Beslan offers hints about who the first and most regime-threatening group of protesters might be: Russia’s mothers. In Beslan, parents often felt they had nothing left to lose after the hostage-taking. The school violence, and the idea that one’s family could be wiped out when children skipped off happily to their first day of school, were once unthinkable. Compared with what happened on those three terrible days, the government’s threats and harassment may be outrageous and inconvenient, but they seem somehow less fearsome.

As more of Russia’s sons come home from Ukraine in body bags, or fail to come home at all, their mothers may indeed follow the tenacious example of Beslan’s victim activists. Even if the terrorist attack and its aftermath is all but forgotten in the West, they remain high on Russians’ radar. On September 3, 2019 — the 15th anniversary of the tragedy — popular video blogger Yuri Dud published a three-hour documentary about the massacre that has over 25 million views and 130,000 comments as of this writing.

Much of the interest is humanitarian, raising money to pay for the ongoing health care costs of Beslan’s permanently disabled victims. But as Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine destroys more families, public interest may extend to the Beslan victims’ quest for accountability and determination to prevent future violence. Russian authorities undoubtedly worry about the threat of anti-war activism, particularly by parents. Their fear of backlash and lost regime support likely plays into their disinformation campaigns about the military’s war performance and their underreporting of casualties.

The hostage-taking in Beslan School No. 1 remains sadly relevant, both for the victims’ positive example in stopping a cycle of ethnic violence and for their courage and perseverance under adversity and risk. 

Debra Javeline is an associate professor of political science at Notre Dame and author of After Violence: Russia’s Beslan School Massacre and the Peace that Followed.