July 05, 2020
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A Caspian Of Spilt Blood

Moment of truth for Putin? Or the Chechens? For the Russians certainly, who want the festering wound healed or excised. Updates

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A Caspian Of Spilt Blood
A Caspian Of Spilt Blood
It’s Sunday, September 5, and Beslan in North Ossetia wakes up to a grey sky that gets murkier every minute. This is the day people are to bury those killed at School No. 1, where the firefight between Chechen rebels and the Russian security forces left behind a heap of bodies in the rubble of devastated buildings. With a population of just 30,000, and the unofficial death toll possibly touching 500, every 60th person in Beslan has a kin to mourn.

The coffins are placed in the courtyards of apartment blocks. The funeral ceremony is immaculately Ossetian. Dead boys are dressed in suits, girls in all their finery. In even-numbered groups, visitors express condolences to ashen-faced family elders standing in rows. In Ossetia, only men speak at the funeral. But this ritual has been waived today. An old lady, Irina Sikoyeva, steps forward to ask, "Who’ll bear the responsibility for the killing of our kids? What’s the fault of our elders who survived the Great Patriotic War (World War II) that God made them see their grandchildren dead?"

Women in black crowd around the coffins. One among them howls the wail. It prompts a shriek in the adjoining block; it sparks another in the adjacent building. These howls merge into one piercing ululation that reverberates in the doleful silence of Beslan. From the courtyards, groups of people slip out on the streets carrying coffins. It’s a short drive to the cemetery located outside Beslan. Some groups play the clarinet and horns. Separate knots of mourners merge into a cortege winding out of the town.

At the cemetery, workers have toiled overtime to dig fresh graves; there isn’t enough space to accommodate all the dead. Some sniffle, others sob violently; soil is thrown over the dead children. It has started to drizzle; even the gods can’t seem to stay stoic.

A tragic story waits at every turn. You can choose what you want to hear. Valeriy Tsogoev lost his three children. Yet he displays tremendous fortitude to explain the Ossetian funeral rituals to the outsiders. Zarima Badtiyeva is mourning her daughter, Anzhela Varziyeva, 32. Anzhela had gone to School No. 1 to drop her seven-year-old, Mairbek; he’s in hospital nursing the wounds. As Zarima trudges behind the coffin, she mutters, "God, why did this happen? No mother should outlive her children."

As Beslan mourns its dead, voices everywhere are seeking explanations for some inexplicable aspects of the crisis. Outlook pieces together a few of these.

How many really died?
Counting the dead is a futile exercise in a tragedy as enormous as Beslan’s. Yet the numbers have assumed salience because of the attempts to underplay them. When Chechen rebels stormed the school, Moscow said there were just 500 inside. In the immediate aftermath of the blow-up, more than a thousand were reported inside. The initial death toll was put at 150; it ballooned to the neat figure of 335. Parents in Beslan complain their children have neither returned nor been declared dead. More than a 100 are missing.

The numbers are linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy of zero tolerance towards hostage-takers. Much of Russia had thought Beslan would be an exception: children can’t be sacrificed to uphold the supremacy of the State, they believed. But they were mistaken. For, the less the death count, the less Putin has to explain.

This in itself is linked to the September 3 blow-up: did the Russian military storm the building? Or were the explosions an accident? Were they a result of infighting among the hostage-takers?

Who sparked the blow-up?
When the Chechen rebels took over School No. 1, they herded hostages into the gymnasium. Witnesses say two men controlled the wires to two powerful bombs, linked to a pedal. They had to only press down the pedal to trigger the explosion. Inside the gym, a rope was connected to two basketball hoops, with bombs taped to it. There’s also unanimity on what happened around 1 pm on September 3. Then the Chechen rebels had allowed emergency ministry workers to retrieve the dead bodies rotting in the school compound since September 1. As the workers walked into the premises, a loud explosion was heard. Its reverberation apparently detached the smaller bombs taped to the rope in the gym. Pandemonium broke out: hostages began to flee. The Russian government says the hostage-takers began to fire at those fleeing, and the special forces retaliated to provide cover to those trying to escape.

However, school vice-principal Lyudmila Shcherbinina says gunshots from outside prompted the terrorists to press down the pedal. The Russian government denies this, claiming it was an accident, that the special forces didn’t fire till the explosion. A few also say there was intense disagreement among the hostage-takers. Not all knew what their intended target was at the time they embarked on their operation. Once inside the school, the ‘dissidents’ were horrified to discover that they were to hold children hostages. As the crisis extended beyond two days, and the arguments among hostage-takers became heated, the hardliners sought a closure by detonating the bombs.

There’s another intriguing perspective. Hours before the blow-up, North Ossetian president Alexander Dzasokhov talked to Chechnya’s former president and underground leader Aslan Maskhadov’s envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, in London. Zakayev agreed to negotiate with the hostage-takers. He has been quoted saying his trip to Beslan was to be finalised on Friday, the day of the blow-up. Zakavey’s intervention was a threat to Putin: a success could have rehabilitated the Chechen leaders in the eyes of the Russians. Says Pavel Felgenghauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, "The government didn’t reveal that the terrorists’ only condition for releasing the children was that Putin sign a decree pulling Russian troops out of Chechnya. A piece of paper could have saved hundreds. Instead, a bloody attack was carried out to demonstrate Putin’s resolve." But then, Putin’s acquiescence could have become a catalyst for rebels in other republics like Dagestan to adopt the same tactics.

Witnesses say the Russian military encountered stiff resistance from the Chechens at Beslan. One among them, nicknamed Fantomas, allegedly a bodyguard of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, killed several Russian commandos, firing from the roof of a building. Ultimately, a tank was summoned to blast the building to kill him. Another terrorist, nicknamed Colonel, went around the compound firing simultaneously from weapons he held in both hands.

Underground leader Aslan Maskhadov and Chechen warlorrd Shamil Basayev

What makes Chechens such vicious fighters?
ASCRIBE their fighting prowess to the cause of independence they made their own for nearly two centuries. They were crushed brutally by Russian general Alexei Yermolov, who governed Chechnya with an iron hand between 1816 and 1826. The Chechens rose again under Imam Shamil who wanted to establish an Islamic state. Defeated in 1858, Chechnya was incorporated into Tsarist Russia. They sniffed freedom in the confusion following the Bolshevik revolution; in 1922, the Chechnya autonomous region was established, subsequently renamed in 1934 as the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Ten years later, Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to Siberia and Central Asia, citing their collaboration with the Nazis as the reason. Khrushchev allowed them to return to their land in 1957.

It’s a truism of Russian history: a weak Moscow enables Chechens to breathe freer. With the Soviet Union collapsing in 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev, hero of the Afghanistan war, declared independence. The following year, a constitution was adopted, declaring Chechnya an independent, secular state to be governed by an elected president and parliament.In 1994, then Russian president Boris Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya to crush the independence movement; an estimated 1,00,000 perished in the 20-month war, and Dudayev himself was killed by a Russian missile in 1996. The torrid experience of the Chechens created a receptacle of resentment waiting to overflow.

Momentarily, though, there was hope. Chechen rebel commander Aslan Maskhadov and Moscow signed the Khasavyurt Accord, providing substantial autonomy. With not much money spent to repair Chechnya’s devastated infrastructure, it nosedived into chaos. Rival Chechen factions wanted imposition of the Sharia laws. In 1999, they crossed into neighbouring Dagestan to establish a Chechen-Dagestan Islamic state. Clashes between them and Russian troops broke out. A wave of apartment block explosions rocked Russia. The presidential election was nigh. Then as prime minister, Putin redeployed troops and built his campaign around crushing terrorism.

The advance of Russian troops saw some 2,00,000 Chechens flee to neighbouring republics. President Maskhadov went underground; much of capital Grozny was razed; stories of brutality did the rounds. Moscow’s denials proved hollow with the discovery of a mass grave of mutilated bodies. Thus were born Black Widows—women suicide-bombers intent on raining destruction in retaliation for the death of their husbands.

Putin then nominated loyal Chechen cleric Akhmad Kadyrov to govern Chechnya and initiate the "process of normalisation". A new Constitution was adopted through a controversial referendum in 2003, stipulating Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation. Kadyrov, now an elected president, was assassinated on May 9, 2004. Yet another election was notified to choose his successor. It prompted a wave of terror attacks, including the blowing up of two airliners.

Says Andre Ryabov, a Moscow-based senior research fellow at Carnegie Endowment, "These terrorist acts reveal that something is fundamentally wrong with Moscow’s Chechnya policy." Adds George Bost, managing editor of influential weekly Izvestia, "Beslan is a moment of truth for Putin." But then the same can be said of the Chechens as well. For, Beslan has poisoned the Chechen cause.

By Elena Kachura in Beslan and Sergei Strokan in Moscow

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