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Beslan School a New Source of Grief
Local residents argue over how to commemorate those who perished in the tragic siege nearly three years ago.

By Elizaveta Valieva in Beslan and Vladikavkaz (CRS No. 391 10-May-07)

One memorial already stands outside the ruins of School No. 1, where 331 people — half of them children — died after the building was seized by Islamic militants seeking Chechen independence in September 2004.

Water drips over two marble slabs to symbolise the refusal of the hostage-takers to give water to their more than 1,000 hostages. Personal messages dot the inside of the sports hall where they were held. Fresh flowers are laid daily. Photographs of the victims cover the walls. Letters from all round the world have also been stuck up.

Otherwise, the school is little changed. A temporary structure covers the blackened timbers of the sports hall’s roof, which was blown off by the explosions that ended the siege. Scattered schoolbooks and belongings still carpet the classrooms.

Feofan, the Russian Orthodox bishop of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, who heads the Christian majority of the North Ossetia region, proposed that a church be built over the site. There is an old Christian tradition of building shrines over the blood of martyrs, he said.

A meeting of local residents backed the idea two years ago and a committee of monks and survivors was set up to oversee the collection of funds, but that just proved to be the start of an argument that seems certain to run and run.

“The church should be built on the territory of the school, but not on the site of the sports hall,” said Susanna Dudiyeva, head of the Beslan Mothers committee, in an interview with IWPR.

Dudiyeva, who lost her son in the tragedy, has long led the bereaved relatives’ efforts to find out how the disaster happened. She, like many residents, blames the government for failing to prevent the carnage that ended the siege and wants a fully independent investigation.

“We will preserve the school to reproach and shame the authorities,” she said. “Those, who will come to power in future, should know what cowardice, arbitrariness and irresponsibility from the government may lead to.”

She said the sports hall should be preserved so investigators could continue efforts to discover what caused the first fateful explosion that blew out the wall of the sports hall, killed many of the hostages and started the battle that ended the siege.

Other siege survivors said the remains of the school had already attained a semi-religious meaning of their own without the need to build a church or monument.

“This is our history — the history of the people of Ossetia,” said Zalina Guburova. “This is our ‘wailing wall’. The heroes of Ossetia should not be forgotten.”

And some residents object to the church plan on religious grounds. Beslan has a large Muslim community and Muslim children and adults were among the victims. The town itself is close to North Ossetia’s border with Ingushetia, a neighbouring Muslim region where the group of hostage-takers prepared for the raid.

“It’s wrong to give preference to building an Orthodox church in the place of the sports hall, because there was no precedence of religion in the Beslan tragedy,” said Emma Tagayeva, who heads the Voice of Beslan organisation for bereaved relatives and who is Muslim.

“The terrorists were not religious people, they were monsters, and supporting the idea of building an Orthodox church on the site of the sports hall means making Muslims and representatives of other religions who were affected by the tragedy feel guilty.”

Local anti-Muslim sentiment can be strong because of the Muslim faith of the kidnappers and previous ethnic tension between Ingush and Ossetians. When Ravil Gainutdin, head of the Council of Muftis of Russia and one of the most prominent of Russia’s 20 million Muslims, visited the school in March, he wondered aloud why the school was marked with a cross but not with a crescent.

Dudiyeva criticised him for the comments, saying Russia’s Muslims were not doing enough to rein in the religious extremists who have so often attacked civilians during the long Chechen war.

“These children were killed in the name of Allah, and the killers came from the neighbouring Muslim republics – Ingushetia and Chechnya. However, we have never heard spiritual leaders of these republics condemn them. I respect all religions, but Islam won’t be able to win back respect and acknowledgment until the council of Muftis declares an all-out war on Wahhabism (hard-line Islam),” she told him at the time.

For Zaur Aziyev, another local resident who is also a Muslim, a non-denominational monument to the victims would be the best solution to the problem. But there are almost as many suggestions for that as there are residents. Some want just one of the walls preserved. Others want a dome put over the whole school. Some hostages want the whole site cleared once and for all.

“This is a very difficult issue,” said Elbrus Pliyev, advisor to the head of Beslan’s administration in an interview with IWPR. “It’s not up to the administration to make a decision here. It is for the Mothers of Beslan and the Voice of Beslan to decide. But as a resident of Beslan – not as a representative of the authorities, but as an ordinary man, I want a church to be built instead of the school.”

Gainutdin suggested a mosque could be constructed alongside the church, providing all local residents with a place to pray since Beslan’s one mosque is boarded up. But even that would not satisfy everyone.

“It would be right to preserve the sports hall and have symbols of all religions put up around it,” said Aneta Gadieva, a member of the Mothers of Beslan group.

“Then this sacred place will unite all people, irrespective of what their religion is.”

Elizaveta Valieva is editor of the Ossetia.ru website.