Millions of people across the world watched in shock the horror and tragedy in Beslan. Everyone will feel deep sympathy with the families of those who have died so terribly.
This is another appalling event in a region that has seen so much blood and tears.
What could have moved people to carry out such killings? Most of the media and politicians will not even raise the question.
Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, regards it as treason to discuss it.
But some of those most affected want answers—and are coming to conclusions which are far more humane and fruitful than the calls for more death and repression from Putin.
Nastya Krugilova survived last year’s Moscow theatre siege, which was carried out by Chechen militants. Her 15 year old cousin was killed. She says she hated those who had carried out the act—until she realised what they had been through.
One of the kidnappers told her, “You can’t know what your soldiers have done in Chechnya to our people. You can’t have any idea how terrible our lives are.” So Nastya spoke to other kidnappers, and discovered chilling stories of rape and murder of children by Russian forces.
Of course she did not support what the kidnappers had done. But she says, “If someone tells you these things, of course you understand their motivation. To hate them and think them evil… I just couldn’t.”
Hundreds of thousands of Chechens have been murdered, raped or tortured by the Russian army during the last ten years.
But rather than acknowledge this, Putin blamed the Beslan massacre on “Islamic fundamentalists” and “terrorist fanatics”.
Chechen leaders such as Aslan Maskhadov, the region’s former president, have been swept aside by the sheer scale of Putin’s butchery.
Meanwhile the Islamic Chechen resistance, headed by Shamil Basayev, has splintered, with some groups pulled towards increasingly savage methods to promote their cause.
Other Chechens—often women who have lost husbands and brothers—have been drawn towards suicide bombing.
These so called “Black Widows” were responsible for the bombings that brought down two passenger planes in Russia last week, killing 90 people.
As with all wars, it is the ordinary people of Chechnya and Russia who pay the price for Putin’s policies.
Putin’s refusal to reach a political solution in Chechnya, and the West’s decision to turn a blind eye to his atrocities, will lead to more blood-soaked tragedies like Beslan.
THE INTERNATIONAL media did not cover other terrible massacres in which hundreds died.
On 4 February 2000 Russian aircraft rained down bombs and missiles on the Chechen village of Katyr Yurt.
These included “vacuum bombs”, which release and ignite clouds of petrol vapour into the atmosphere. They kill by sucking people’s lungs inside out, and are banned for use against civilians by the Geneva Convention.
At one point the Russians paused in their bombing of Katyr Yurt to allow survivors to gather and leave in a white-flagged bus convoy. Then they bombed the bus convoy.
At least 363 men, women and children were slaughtered by Russian forces that day. Countless similar atrocities have been documented all across Chechnya, while many more remain unrecorded.
The horrors of Chechnya have continued and intensified in the past five years. Polish writer Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich visited the region in 2002 and spoke to survivors about what Russian troops were doing to them.
“They went to our neighbours’ house, the Magomedova family. We heard shots and the screams of 15 year old Aminat, the sister of Ahmed and Aslanbek,” one woman told her.
“‘Let her be!’ screamed one of the brothers, ‘Kill us instead!’ Then we heard more shots.
“Through the window we saw a half-dressed commander lying on top of Aminat.
“She was covered in blood from the bullet wounds. Another soldier shouted, ‘Hurry up, Kolya, while she’s still warm.’”
Putin clambered to pwer through terror
VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia’s president, rose to power five years ago on a pile of bloody corpses in Chechnya. A former KGB colonel, Putin was named prime minister in 1999 by Boris Yeltsin, the country’s previous president.
Within months of his appointment Putin launched a savage military assault to regain control of Chechnya, flattening the region’s capital, Grozny.
The devastation unleashed on Grozny was accompanied by a frenzy of Russian nationalist propaganda painting Chechnya as a hotbed of “warlords”, “bandits” and “Islamic terrorists”.
These tactics worked to Putin’s advantage, boosting his image as a “strong man” who could bring “order”.
Yeltsin appointed Putin as acting president on his retirement at the end of 1999. The country’s state-controlled media swung behind him, and he was elected as president in March 2000.
Western leaders approved of Putin’s authoritarian thuggery. They were concerned that the “free market” reforms forced on Russia after 1989 might spiral out of control.
Even token criticism from the West of Putin’s brutality in Chechnya evaporated after 11 September 2001, when he fell in behind Bush’s “war on terror”. The US and Britain gave unequivocal backing to Putin’s actions in Chechnya, in return for him giving Bush and Blair a free hand in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since coming to power Putin has tightened his grip on Russia. He has brought the media firmly under his control, hounding dissident journalists who drew attention to what was happening in Chechnya.
Andrei Babistki and Anna Politkovskaya, two liberal Russian journalists known for their truthful coverage of Chechnya, tried to fly to Beslan last week.
Babistky was detained by Putin’s security personnel, searched for explosives, then physically attacked and thrown in jail for a week on trumped-up charges of assault.
Politkovskaya was barred from boarding her plane. She took another plane but was taken seriously ill on landing. Medical tests showed she had been poisoned on the plane. She is still recovering in hospital.
Such abuses are becoming increasingly commonplace in Putin’s “democratic” Russia. But the latest crisis has also shed light on the weaknesses of his grip on power.
Sections of the Russian press have criticised Putin for his handling of the situation. This anger could explode if the conflict spreads wider.