Is the Kremlin Capable of Coming Clean?

Kasayev is trying to find the truth

BESLAN, Russia—There are paved roads here, and there are dirt roads. By law, the paved roads are the only way to access the republic of North Ossetia, via manned checkpoints.

Until now, it was widely believed that armed militants bribed their way through these checkpoints on Sept. 1, 2004, as they approached a school and took nearly 1,200 people hostage. That siege ended with 331 dead, many of them children.

But two new inquiries released this month—one of them outlined today in Russia’s parliament—suggest that the militants’ route to the school was much more premeditated than a few easy bribes, and it very likely involved the collusion of police.

The most critical of the two reports was authored by local firebrand and politician Stanislav Kesayev, who headed an eight-member North Ossentian parliamentary commission that examined the motives and tactics of the militants—and what Kesayev says was wrongdoing on the part of officials.

In an hour-by-hour recounting of the siege, Kesayev’s report says militants camped unmolested for weeks in the forested hills of Ingushetia, the republic just east of here. Then, he says, they circumvented the paved roads and checkpoints by taking “smuggling routes” across the border into the tiny farming village of Khurikau and then on to Beslan.

To do this, Kesayev says, militants would have had to arrange the route ahead of time with corrupt police who control the illegal dirt roads.

Locals in Khurikau corroborate the claim. Early on  Sept. 1, 2004, they say a Soviet-era military truck known as a GAZ-66 approached the village from the eastern woods. Militants inside the truck abducted a town guard who tried to stop them. Then the truck proceeded south along a crude and muddy road toward Beslan.

The catch is, that southbound road has been closed to all traffic for years, and it is riddled with deep, impassible trenches. (The reasons are complicated: Khurikau, situated in the mostly Christian republic of North Ossetia, is home to Muslims from Ingushetia. The two republics went to war in 1992, and relations remain tense. For more than a decade, Khurikau has had no running water, no heating gas, and no access to the rest of North Ossetia.)

Khurikau resident Ali, who declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals, jumped in a car that day to follow the GAZ-66. He said he was shocked that he, too, could barrel down the forbidden road. “I looked out of the window and saw that all the trenches had been filled in.”

Ali’s car was unable to catch the GAZ-66. After an hour or so, he headed back to Khurikau. By then, though, the trenches had been dug afresh, apparently with a backhoe, so Ali had to take the long way home.

Three policemen suspected of allowing militants to travel this route and to camp in the woods went on trial for negligence this week.

Kesayev says their trial should be the first of many. His report traces blame up through the echelons of power—starting at the dirt roads of Khurikau and ending at “the center,” as people here still refer to Moscow.

“Human lives are the most important thing, and the state is meant to protect human lives,” Kesayev told me recently. “In this case, the state failed to protect them.” Officials, he says, are not only to blame for how militants got to the school; they also should have done more to negotiate the release of hostages.

Within two hours of seizing the school, militants had begun making their demands—by telephone to a federal negotiator and by way of one hostage, an emergency-room doctor named Larissa Mamitova.

“I asked them, ‘Why did you come here?’ And they said, ‘We want Russian troops out of Chechnya. Our people suffer, too,’ ” Mamitova told me recently. The leader of the militants, who called himself “the colonel,” took out a sheet of paper and told Mamitova to write down the names of the three men he said he would negotiate with.

Mamitova waved her son’s white undershirt and carried the list to police outside the school. The names included Aleksandr Dzasokhov, North Ossetia’s then-president. Dzasokhov was ready to go to the school and negotiate, Kesayev’s report says. But he was told by a Russian official that if he did, he would be arrested.

By that time, control of the government-response team had been assumed by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the latest incarnation of the KGB. The feds had opened their own makeshift headquarters downstairs from Dzasokhov’s. Outside the room stood two armed guards.

In all, the report says, there were at least six separate “official” headquarters operating simultaneously throughout the siege. The feds wanted an armed solution, and the locals wanted to negotiate.

By the end of the second day, Kesayev says, all substantive negotiations with militants had stopped. When militants realized they were being stonewalled, they punished hostages.

“They stopped giving us water. It happened so suddenly,” says Mamitova. “I was absolutely sure that for the children’s sake, authorities would do everything possible to save us. I kept believing that, right up until the last moments on the third day.”

Those last moments, when two explosions rang inside the school and sent a cloud of smoke into the air, are still the most contested of the siege. To date, more than a dozen theories abound about what caused the blasts.

The most likely scenarios involve militants accidentally tripping one of the bombs they’d hung around the school’s gym. Or a soldier or vigilante firing a high-powered weapon such as a grenade launcher from the roof of a nearby apartment building as a way to initiate the feds’ armed solution. Locals here call that theory “the storm.”

Kesayev says he might not live to know which theory is true. What he does know is that heavy weaponry was used in the battle that raged for hours afterward. He says tanks, armed personnel carriers, grenades, and automatic rifles were fired at the school while innocents were still inside.

Eye-witnesses such as Kazbek Torchinov, who saw an APC fire at the school just moments after the first explosions, agree. Sitting at his kitchen table, he can still see the school’s battered outer wall.

But Moscow continues to deny that such weaponry was used until all the survivors had escaped. What’s more, the Kremlin continues to delay publishing the final version of its report on the siege; Kesayev says this postponement only makes officials look guilty.

“Think about Chernobyl,” he suggested to me, referring to the nuclear accident of 1986. “At first, the center pretended that nothing happened. Then they took people there to clean the place, and thousands became seriously ill. Only then did they begin to say how horrible it was. And then, after that, everybody just forgot about it. That’s what they hope to do here.”

But the stakes are much higher now. Revenge against “the center” and its policies—whether merely incompetent or fully conspiratorial—has an outlet in this region. And that outlet is militant Islam.

Kesayev’s recommendation to the Kremlin? Stop answering violence with violence and do what a government should do: Provide people—Muslims and Christians alike—with the basics. Like water, gas, and roads.