On September 1, 2004, Beslan, a town in North Ossetia, was forever shaken by a tragic and deadly attack. On that day, a group of Chechen rebels took approximately 1200 children, parents, and teachers hostage at a local school. The hostage-takers belonged to the Chechen separatist movement, and were trying to initiate talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to demand independence for Chechnya and a withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory. Russia had already waged two deadly wars in Chechnya to prevent the region’s secession.
The siege, which lasted for three days, eventually claimed the lives of 334 people, including 186 children.
Every year since then, memorial services have been held on the anniversary of the tragedy at the ruins of the school, with the city’s residents and victims’ families gathering to mourn those killed. This year, however, the service was interrupted by a series of aggressive arrests and attacks on journalists and mourners.
On Thursday, September 1, police arrested five women, four of whom were the mothers of those killed during the Beslan school attack. The women had been wearing white t-shirts that said “Putin is the Executioner of Beslan.”
Elena Kostyuchenko and Diana Khachatryan, journalists with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and online publication Takie Dela respectively, were also detained while attempting to film the protest. Police confiscated their phones, before releasing the journalists.
The grieving mothers were detained for longer, however – more than fourteen hours to be precise. They were eventually charged with two administrative offenses – resisting police and participating in an unauthorized protest. Two of the women were fined 20,000 rubles each ($300). The three other women were required to complete twenty hours of community service, after claiming they were unable to pay the high fine. A photo of the women taken in court by Kostyuchenko shows multiple bruises on the women’s hands, which they sustained during their violent detention.
On Saturday, September 3, Khachatryan and Kostyuchenko returned to the school to cover the continuing memorial events. Again, they were attacked, along with two of the five women who were arrested the day before. Kostyuchenko noted that most of the attackers, who were regular civilians, wore t-shirts that said “Anti-terror” on them. The attackers confiscated the phones and cameras of journalists and the women. Kostyuchenko was doused in green disinfectant (which has previously been used in attacks on Putin’s opponents before), while Khachatryan was hit on the head. Their phones were later found by police in the vicinity of the school and returned to them. According to a Facebook update from Kostyuchenko’s colleague, all files and contacts had been erased from the journalists’ devices.
To appreciate why these attacks took place, it is critical to understand the government’s alleged role in the Beslan school siege. According to the families of the Beslan victims, as well as many activists and journalists, the government and Special Forces were largely responsible for the siege’s high death toll. After an official investigation into the tragedy stalled, the victims’ desperate relatives, Beslan residents, and activists launched their own independent “citizen’s investigation” to establish missing facts and details about the deadly rescue operation. Over the years, the independent initiative, as well as journalistic investigations, have credibly suggested that, after the siege, the government withheld critical information from the public, in an attempt to blame the separatists for the tragedy.
As the evidence suggests, local police, as well as Russian Federal Security Forces (FSB), were, in fact, the first to open fire. This caused the explosion of various bombs planted inside the school, which led to a fire that killed more that 100 hostages – deaths that would have been prevented if authorities had acted more cautiously. A report published by an independent citizen group, Pravda Beslana (Truth of Beslan), whose website has been blocked by Russian Internet providers, has confirmed that Special Forces started the rescue operation using heavy weapons and tanks and that the use of this equipment led to the death of hostages.
The arrests of protesters and repeated attacks on journalists underscore the truth of these reports. Indeed, the more the state attempts to silence independent journalists and grieving mothers, the more apparent the government’s guilt becomes, and the more obvious its failure to admit to its crimes.