Sunday Independent

**hundreds dead; hundreds more maimed and injured

Russia prays while Putin plans

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
Volunteer carrying small child out after special forces stormed the school
Photo: Stringer/Russia/Reuters

THE child's body lay on a stretcher; the skin charred and pale, an arm wrenched off by blasts, the little stomach collapsed - and the little dead face etched for eternity with disbelief.

Maybe a boy, maybe a girl? At 3pm, it lay with 245 other bodies on the floor outside the mortuary in the city of Vladikavkaz. They lay in six neat rows of about 20; black or silver liners partially masking each distorted and burned out human form.

Yesterday, the people of the small town of Beslan struggled with an aching grief, with incredulity and with a fearsome anger as they faced the reality of the siege of Middle School Number One.

So far, Russian officials have said, 330 people, 156 of them children, are dead. The real total could be far higher, 500 or more, with up to 600 injured. All 26 Chechen hostage-takers too are dead but no one cares to add them to the terrible total.

This is the detritus of Russia's worst terrorist nightmare: a hostage crisis in which the fate of 1,000 people was caught between Russia's desire not to pander to Chechen-linked "international terrorism", and the will of the militants to become martyrs for their ideology and their brutalised country.

Based on a growing list of the missing and on eyewitness accounts, fears were growing last night that the final number of dead - if it is ever conclusively known - has still further to climb.

In the mortuary, one man's stomach had been ripped open. Another body was burnt beyond recognition, the limbs gone. Some bodies had been covered up, others laid bare beneath transparent plastic sheeting so that the throngs of wailing relatives outside might eventually be granted a quick identification. None of the bodies we saw carried bullet wounds; most appeared to have blast wounds.

The mortuary workers wore masks or clutched their shirts to their mouths to hold back the sulphurous smell of death. They had been dealing with deliveries all afternoon; the first two full refrigerator trucks bringing their loads from the hospital and overflowing mortuary at Beslan earlier that day. As the second truck backed into the mortuary, relatives crowded around it, trying to squeeze through the tiny gap between it and the gates of the charnel house.

"Of course we expect more," said one doctor standing by, "but we don't know how many." A third truck arrived some 15 minutes later. Inside the mortuary, a frantic official struggled to record the scant number of identified corpses, which at 3pm stood at 59.

Inside, the post-mortem slabs were still wet from being hosed down. A puddle of blood sat, ignored, in the middle of the corridor. For the large crowd of panicked and exhausted relatives outside, the desire to know if their missing loved ones were among the found victims overrode the instinct to avoid such a scene of carnage.

Outside, they fought to get a glance at the dead. One elderly man broke through a gap in the gate. It took three policemen to hold him back. Another woman fainted on the grass, as medics attended her. Five men, among the first few to have found a conclusion to their hysterical search, carried a coffin over their shoulders and passed it over their heads into the grounds of the mortuary.

Half-an-hour later the body of a middle-aged woman had been loaded into the coffin, her black hair and jaundiced face contrasting with the clean, white cotton of the coffin lining. As her relatives lowered the coffin into the back of their truck, a woman broke into a siren's wail. Seconds later the other women around her did likewise.

Igor Sulemana, whose wife Salimat was among the 31 people released on Thursday, was dealing with a more brutal turn of fate. He sat on the grass, speechless in the wait for a chance to see if his son's body was in the mortuary. Sergei, a former policeman, had stood outside his flat in Beslan late on Friday night and cursed the weakness and corruption of his government, after hours wasted looking for his son in hospital.

Outside the mortuary, he said: "I'm giving up. There's no chance getting through this crowd." For some, the indignity of fighting to identify their dead was too much.

Earlier that morning, those in Beslan who had slept had woken to discover the television was admitting that the number of dead and injured had already exceeded 354 - the initial number of schoolchildren and parents the authorities were prepared to admit were in the hall. The local channel showed sombre footage of a bellicose speech by President Putin. The bodies of the militants were paraded for the cameras. "Look, there they are," said the presenter as the camera focused on a young man's shaven face.

Beslan's main hospital had already been overwhelmed. The dead had been taken from the over-flowing mortuary. Savel Tochno, a doctor, said at 9am that 250 bodies had been taken to Vladikavkaz in shifts since Friday morning. He said he expected the dead could total 500 as bodies were still being extracted from the rubble. Two nurses said there were about 20 patients left there, the remainder ferried to Moscow, Germany or Austria for specialist burns, trauma or bullet-wound treatment.

Lists of people thought to have been treated by the hospital were pinned on the walls of the hospital as relatives, their eyes red with despair, roamed the buildings. Madina Khupayeva was looking for her grandson. She said: "Why can't we have new lists - these ones are out of date. I saw all that happened yesterday, and can only keep thinking, 'How did they get there?' How did they [the militants] drive through three or four other towns and not have their weapons checked?

"The government told us all would be OK, there would be no siege and that they had been given water to drink. But really they were drinking their own urine. This shows one thing: neither this government nor Moscow cares for poor people."

Last night Marina Kisiyeva was still searching for half of her family. Her son Aslan, seven, and factory-worker husband, Artur, 32, were at the school, and she has heard from neither of them. Only her daughter is left. She cannot answer questions about blame or anger, clutching a handkerchief to her trembling mouth.

Instead her friend, Irina, butts in: "Of course the terrorists are to blame, and of course the government are covering things up."

The school yesterday was surrounded by police, a Russian and Northern Ossetian flag flying from its remaining wall, the work of a JCB about to begin. For reasons he did not care to explain, Putin has announced the town would be sealed off. Yet across Beslan, the damage was only beginning to be assessed. Women and men burst into tears as the television ran lists of the dead and hospitalised.

"Two-and-a-half-year-old boy, in intensive care, name unknown," read one.

Ilfa Gagiyeva, 32, who yesterday scrambled to safety from the smouldering gym with her seven-year-old daughter Diana, sat before endlessly repeated TV footage of exhausted-looking Russian soldiers, of the three days of the siege and of presidential speeches, her eyes blank. "I'm not even watching," she said. "It's going right through me."

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?