Monday, July 03, 2006

Questions and Answers

It will soon be two years since the Beslan siege and hostage-taking.

World opinion has mainly tended to classify the horrific massacre that took place along with other terrorist acts around the globe – Bali, Madrid, July 7, even September 11. Now the Western media are now mostly silent about the event – the world has moved on.

In Russia, the view promoted by the government authorities is that the matter of the Beslan school seizure has been definitively cleared up - the trial of what is claimed to be the only surviving hostage-taker, Nurpashi Kulayev, is over. Kulayev has been sentenced to life imprisonment. Islamic terrorists led by Shamil Basayev were responsible for the deaths of the 330 people who died in the siege – 317 of whom were hostages, and 180 of whom were children.

Yet in Russia also, questions continue to be asked, not least by the families of the victims. There is, for example, the fact that a majority of the hostages who died – more than 160 – perished not as a result of bomb explosions, but under the collapsed roof of School No. 1. There is also the admission by a representative of Russia’s Public Prosecutor that tanks and rocket flamethrowers were used by federal forces during the ending of the siege – these weapons were fired directly at the school.

Two major and detailed accounts the Beslan seizure are available in English. One is contained in Hoover Institution scholar John B. Dunlop’s The 2002 Dubrovka and 2004 Beslan Hostage Crises (2006). The other is an 18,000 word article, entitled ‘The School’, by the New York Times Moscow correspondent C.J. Chivers, who witnessed the hostage crisis and covered it for the newspaper. 18 months later, in March 2006, Chivers revisited Beslan to interview the survivors. ‘The School’ represents the results of this visit, and consists of an impressionistic reconstruction of the entire sequence of events.

There are obvious dissimilarities between the two accounts. While Dunlop’s approach is scholarly, meticulously listing sources and collating official and unofficial reports and materials, in an attempt to establish a precise log of what took place, when and why, Chivers opts for a much more emotional technique, emphasizing above all the human aspects of the crisis, the sometimes confused accounts of eyewitnesses, and the sufferings of the victims. For this he cannot conceivably be faulted – the horror of what took place goes beyond the parameters of even the most nightmarish imaginings. On the other hand, his essentially journalistic approach entails a certain loss of clarity, and a tendency to mix "official" versions of what happened with the reality itself. In this, it is not unlike certain kinds of war reporting.

The rights to Chivers’ article have been bought by Hollywood’s Universal Studios, and it seems probable that a film version will be made by Image Entertainment, the company behind The Da Vinci Code. While this is probably to be welcomed, as it will inevitably serve to keep the issue of Beslan from fading in the mind of the world’s public and media, one wonders just what the film’s approach will be – in other words, how much emphasis will be given to the sensational, and how much to the careful logging and analysis of the events themselves.

As mentioned before, the dissimilarities between the accounts of Chivers and Dunlop extend to more than matters of style. Dunlop’s version of what happened on the afternoon of September 3, when explosions were followed by a fire and the collapse of the gymnasium roof, is in line with the findings of the Kesayev commission and the Beslan Mothers. In its draft report, the Kesayev commission concluded that the first explosions

unquestionably had a behind-the- scenes dimension, both a legal and a political one. The possible ap­pearance in Beslan of Maskhadov and Zakaev placed the Kremlin before a complex choice: to permit the saving of the hostages and thus to legalize the figure of Maskhadov and to permit the possibility of a political regulation of the Chechen problem. An unprepared storm, as a variant of the develop­ment of events, by contrast, allowed such a situation not to be permitted.
There was also the claim by Nurpashi Kulayev at his trial that a Russian sniper had killed the terrorist whose foot was on a pedal controlling a powerful bomb:
Kulaev stuck stubbornly to his story. Russian deputy procurator general Nikolai Shepel' insisted, in sharp contrast, that, "the examination has shown that snipers present around the school could not have shot the rebel who was controlling the button [pedal], inasmuch as he was located behind plastic, non-transparent windows, and the sniper could not have seen him."

But you didn't see it?

[Kulaev responded:] It [the plastic] wasn't there. They re­moved it so that the people could breathe. They took away the plastic... The Colonel said that a sniper shot him from the roof, from a five-story building.
As Dunlop goes on to show, Kulayev’s statements seemed to be rather clearly backed up by testimony from former hostages. By contrast, Chivers’ version shows a sequence of events much more in accordance with the official Russian line:
The explosion was a thunderclap, a flash of energy and heat, shaking the gym. Twenty-two seconds later a second blast rocked the gym again. Their combined force was ferocious. Together they blew open the structure, throwing out the plastic windows, splattering the walls with shrapnel, and heaving people and human remains through the room. One of the blasts punched a seventy-eight-inch-wide hole through a brick wall twenty-five inches thick, cascading bricks and mortar onto the lawn. It also lifted the roof and rafters above the hole, snapping open a corner of the building like a clam before gravity slammed the roof back down. Much of the ceiling fell onto the hostages below.

Scores of hostages were killed outright. Their remains were heaped near the fresh hole and scattered across the basketball court. But most survived, hundreds of people in various states of injury. At first they hardly moved. Many were knocked senseless. Some were paralyzed by fright. Others, worried about another blast, pressed to the floor. At last they began to stir, and escape.

Dzera Kudzayeva, the first-grade girl who was to have been the bell ringer, had been near the blast that knocked out the wall. She had been asleep under her grandmother, Tina Dudiyeva, whose body had seemed to rise above her with the shock wave. The child stood now, and seeing sunlight through the hole, she scampered out, over the shattered bricks and onto the lawn. She began to run. She had arrived on Wednesday in a dress with a white apron and ribbons; she left now in only panties, filthy, streaked in blood, sprinting. She crossed the open courtyard and lot and came to the soldiers who ringed the school. She was free. The sound of automatic weapons began to rise.

The hole was only one route. The pressure of the explosions had thrown the windowpanes clear of their frames, exposing the room to light and air. The hostages reacted instinctually. A desperate scramble began. The sills were a little more than four feet above the floor, and throughout the room many of those who were not badly injured rushed to the sills, pulled themselves up, and dropped out to the ground.
This is only one example of a sequence where the versions differ. Although Chivers is sceptical of the official Russian reports, writing that “official lies have eroded public confidence, including the insistence during the siege that only 354 hostages were seized, and an enduring insistence that the T-72 tanks did not fire until all the survivors were out, which is false,” he goes on say that “it remains unclear, and a source of acrimonious debate, what caused the first two explosions and the fire in the gym, although the available evidence, on balance, suggests that the blast damage and the majority of the human injury were caused by the terrorists' bombs.”

The most logical conclusion that an outside observer can draw is that both accounts – Chivers’ and Dunlop’s – are equally deserving of attention. While Chivers’ article is particularly effective in registering the human dimension of the crisis, Dunlop’s book is better at sorting out what really took place.

Dunlop is also better at sorting propaganda from fact, and in noting the actual details of the “official lies” referred to by Chivers – lies which attempt to conceal, among other things, the fact that Khodov, the second-in-command of the mostly Ingush guerrillas who seized the school, was beyond any reasonable doubt acting as an agent of the Russian security forces.

See also: Amy Knight: The Kremlin Cover (TLS, May 2006)
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