BESLAN, Russia—Something astounding is happening here.
Ten months after the three-day siege of School No. 1 by Chechen separatists, the only militant known to have survived the firefight that ended the siege is being tried. On his first day in court, the accused, a 24-year-old Chechen named Nurpashi Kulayev, was greeted by a crowd of vengeful mothers crammed onto wooden benches and clad in the black skirts and headscarves of mourners. "We'll kill you," the women screamed at Kulayev. "We'll tear you limb from limb."
That was a month ago. Now the mothers have made a complete turnaround: They are calling for Kulayev's pardon. They believe that only with immunity can he speak freely.
Their reasons are as complicated as the byzantine court proceedings themselves, but they boil down to this: The mothers want answers, and they believe Kulayev is one of the few people who can provide them. In their minds, it's not only militants like Kulayev who are responsible for the deaths of their children. Blame also rests with officials, they say, from the local police, who accepted bribes and let the militants pass checkpoints in the first place, all the way up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We are waiting for an explanation from President Putin," says Susanna Dudiyeva, who heads the Committee of Mothers of Beslan, which maintains that Kulayev's trial is merely a way for officials to focus on a man most agree was a minor player in the school siege and to deflect attention from potential mistakes by officials. "If we do not receive an invitation from Putin, we will go to Moscow ourselves. Not by train, not by plane, but on foot. After the deaths of our children, we have nothing to fear. We have already lost everything."
The mothers demand more information about three key elements in last September's standoff. First, the bribed police. Second, did officials do enough to negotiate for the hostages' freedom? (Authorities say the militants' demands—such as an end to the war in Chechnya—were unrealistic; residents that say if high-level officials had been more involved, more professional, and more forthcoming with hostages' families about the demands, victims could have been spared.) Third—and most important in a town many residents now describe as "sick" with all the grief—how did the victims die?
On Friday, Sept. 3, 2004, just after 1 p.m., an explosion jolted the school's gym, where some 1,000 people were in their third day of confinement. Soon after, a second blast went off, and in the confusion, hostages fled the school in every direction. Russian officials say militants shot hostages as they ran, and seeing this, the military fired back. What followed was an hours-long exchange of rifle and machine-gun fire, grenade explosions, and, eventually, tank fire from the Russian side. In the end, reportedly, all the militants except Kulayev and more than 300 hostages were dead.
That's the official line, anyway. Around here, though, more sinister theories abound. Kulayev has testified—and some residents believe him—that a Russian sniper shot a militant whose foot was resting on a detonator and that ignited the first explosion. Local policewoman Fatima Dudiyeva was in the gym that day; just before the explosion, she stretched near a window and was shot in the hand "from outside."
"I heard a sound like a stone being thrown through the window. And then there was a pain," says Dudiyeva, sitting at her kitchen table and pointing to the curled, unmoving fourth finger on her right hand. "I don't know who fired the shot, but I know there weren't any terrorists outside."
Others claim that Russian soldiers used flamethrowers to storm the school after the explosions, igniting the roof of the gym, which collapsed and killed the majority of the victims.
Walking me through the ruined gymnasium, where the floor and walls are covered with flowers and wreaths and bottles of water and graffiti excoriating Putin, local retiree Ruslan Tebiyev points to the corners where the bombs ignited and then to the missing roof. "The people who burned my wife alive must be held responsible. Even if it was the 'federals,' " he says, using the local term for Russian soldiers. Tebiyev is collecting incendiary launchers that were found near the school and working with Moscow-based journalists to determine if they are Russian military issue.
At the trial, citizens like Tebiyev are allowed to question the accused, and lately the questions focus almost entirely on the sniper and flamethrower theories. Prosecutor Nikolai Shepel has insisted that neither tactic was employed.
It's likely that the truth lies somewhere between the official line and the residents' theories. According to eyewitness accounts and to Western reporters who were here that day, militants ignited the first bomb by accident and the second bomb after realizing their mistake. These explosions, witnesses and reporters say, caused the roof to collapse.
But residents here can't forget the 2002 Nord-Ost hostage-taking in a Moscow theater that ended with Russian forces gassing the theater with a substance that eventually killed more than 100 civilians. So, the question that remains is how the Russians handled the firefight after the gym explosions. Many witnesses agree that the soldiers' response was disorganized at best. Residents also question why tanks were brought in when so many innocent lives were at stake. Russian authorities say no tanks fired until all the survivors had escaped the school; the mothers say they want proof.
In addition to the mothers' investigations, the local parliament is also conducting an inquiry, as is a parliamentary commission in Moscow. But the release of those reports has been repeatedly delayed. Officials say the investigations will not be complete until the end of the year.
For Susanna Dudiyeva, whose 13-year-old son, Zaur, left for school on Sept. 1, 2004, "looking like a grown man, a handsome man" and never came home again, that's not soon enough.