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A time for anger

Terrorism | Small Russian community lacked enough tractors to dig graves for its dead children, but how will the government contend with the abundance of grief, anger, and evidence of Islamist fanaticism behind the school attack?

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

Beslan turned deathly quiet after a 52-hour hostage siege ended on Sept. 3 in explosion and gunfire. Middle School No. 1 was a bombed-out shell, its walls pocked with bullet holes. The school became a death trap for attackers and hostages when explosives the terrorists rigged throughout the building suddenly exploded on day three of the standoff. Many of more than 1,200 students and parents who were held inside on the first day of school escaped, many were shot trying, and many perished beneath fiery shards and debris. Afterward, mourners approached silently, laying flowers on the grounds. They laid out bottles of water, too, offering dead children the drink terrorists denied them for almost three days before killing them.

Burying the dead was the community's chief-and endless-task, with at least 350 children and parents dead in Russia's worst ever terrorist attack. At noon on day three of the funerals, Sergey and Taymuraz Totiev, brothers who live with their families side by side, held a memorial service outside their homes. The brothers, who work for Illinois-based Russian Ministries and serve as local Baptist pastors, had eight children trapped in the school siege. Six died.

Taymuraz Totiev lost four of his five children; only his oldest teenage daughter survived. Sergey Totiev, a father of six, lost two of three children caught in the siege (three of his children were not in the school at the time of the attack). His surviving 12-year-old son has lost an eye.

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The Totiev families had only two caskets for the bodies that were found. Finding the remains of the other four children among the charred and sometimes unrecognizable carnage at Middle School No. 1 will come later, but remembering all six came first. About 1,500 friends and neighbors-and fellow Christians from outside the region-came to grieve with the families. Mourners filed up to the open caskets Sept. 7, planting goodbye kisses on the two children's foreheads and weeping.

For this close-knit town of 30,000, "there were not enough tractors to dig the graves," Nadyezhda Abydyonova, Moscow director for children's ministry for Russian Ministries, said after attending the Totiev service and visiting the school. "The cemetery was extended so far and funeral processions were approaching from all directions."

As the grief surged, so did Beslan's anger at the Kremlin and local authorities for the lax and corrupt security forces that let the terrorists plan their attack for months. The attackers sneaked past multiple checkpoints and hid weapons, explosives, and ammunition under floorboards and other building materials while the school renovated its gym. Everyone knew the military convoy truck that ferried the militants onto the school grounds Sept. 1 did not have enough room for both explosives and terrorists.

Whatever their method, almost all terrorist acts in Russia wind back to the war-torn Caucasus republic of Chechnya. The attackers identified themselves with Chechnya's fight for secession, demanding its independence. How many were Chechen or from neighboring republic Ingushetia, or whether they were Muslim or secular extremists is still uncertain.

Kremlin officials have said 10 of the terrorists were Arabs, ready evidence that Chechen separatists are cogs in militant Islam's international jihad against the West. Russian authorities haven't produced proof of this yet, and while some surviving hostages said they neither saw Arab-looking men nor heard Arabic spoken among the terrorists, others told journalists they heard shouts of "Allahu Akhbar" from the attackers upon entering the school's gymnasium. That claim and the sheer depravity of the attack targeting children has given President Vladimir Putin a defense for his policy of not negotiating with any Chechen separatists.

"Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" he said to journalists Sept. 7. "You find it possible to set some limitations in your dealings with these bastards, so why should we talk to people who are child-killers?"

Whether jihadi Arabs were present at School No. 1 or not, ties between al-Qaeda and Islamist Chechens have been growing. Those who first appeared in Chechnya in 1995 were veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s and pledged to fight with other threatened Muslim peoples around the world. Saudi Arabian Amir Khattab led the band of warriors.

According to Chechnya Weekly, a publication of Jamestown Foundation, these Arabs were conduits to wealthy Saudi Wahhabis eager to bankroll the Chechen resistance. Warlord Shamil Besayev allied himself with Mr. Khattab, who remained in the region after the first Chechen war ended in 1996 to open terrorist training camps in southeastern Chechnya. When trainees started invading the neighboring republic of Dagestan in 1999, moderate Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov and his government decried the move. But it was too late: Russian forces invaded Chechnya a second time, leading to a second, and so far endless, civil war.

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