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Eye Witnesses to Evil

updated 09/20/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/20/2004 01:00AM

In Russia the first day of school is a joyous event, with festivities attended by parents and children. That's how Sept. 1 began at School No. 1 in the southern Russian town of Beslan. But at 9 that morning, 32 heavily armed terrorists–most of them believed to be from the neighboring province of Chechnya, where militants have waged a fierce guerrilla war for years to gain independence from Russia–stormed the grounds and seized more than 1,000 hostages. The ensuing standoff with government security forces lasted 62 hours before ending in horrific chaos. In all, 335 of the hostages were killed; at least 160 of the dead were children. Even four days after the siege ended, there were still nearly 200 people missing in the burned-out rubble of the school. Below, parents and students who were held in the school describe what happened during their ordeal.

Larissa Dzhushok, 34, is a doctor who walked her only child, Albina, 12, to the school that day.

It was a bright, sunny morning, and we left home early. We bought a bouquet of red carnations for Albina's teacher along the way. When the children got to the playground, they started lining up, and then I saw a man running at us with a machine gun. I realized something was wrong and instinctively reached out for Albina's hand, but she wasn't there. I turned around and saw children were being rounded up by a group of people dressed in black and dragged into the school. I was terrified for my child, raced to her and grabbed her, and then they started pushing us all into the school–the parents and passers-by too. I held tightly onto Albina while the terrorists, who were all around us, herded us along the corridor toward the gym, waving their machine guns in the air and shouting, "Move faster!" One of the men tried to calm us down, saying, "Don't worry, everything will be okay." The terrorists shot him down on the spot.

Kazbek Zaragasov, 15, was at the school with his 10-year-old sister Agunda when the attackers appeared.

Everybody thought it wasn't real at first, like it was some kind of exercise. Then people started running. My heart was beating so fast, I ran away too. But suddenly I remembered that my little sister was in the crowd with all the rest of the kids, and I had to go back. How would she be without me? I knew she would be scared.

Kazbek Dzrasov, 35, who had arrived with his mother, Ella, 62, and sons Zaurbek, 12, and Aslan, 10, recalls that the attackers quickly set a tone of brutality with their captives to discourage any thoughts of resistance.

They started shooting and steering people around. I got bashed in the back with a gun butt a couple of times. They drove everyone inside to the gym, then they separated the men from the rest of the hostages. There was much noise, people crying and weeping. They tried to calm down the crowd. They called up one of us, a guy of around 40, made him sit and told him, "You, quiet the children, otherwise we'll shoot you!" But you know, children are children, they just couldn't be controlled. After a minute, when the man failed, they shot him in the throat and threw him out in the corridor. They shouted at the crowd, "Here's a lesson for you that we're not joking!"

Herded into the gym with the rest of the hostages, Inna Arkova, 15, was desperate to find her sister Natasha, 10.

They started putting bombs everywhere. There were at least 10 bombs of all different kinds attached to the ceiling and the basketball hoops and the floor. They put some under the windows too. It was horrible, because the wires went right by my feet.

Agunda Zaragasova, 10, found comfort by pressing herself up against her older brother, who had returned for her. He told me everything would be okay and kissed me.

Kazbek Zaragasov: I kept telling Agunda they'd let us go soon. "When they do, we'll go into town and get food and drink in a store," I told her. That was on the first day. By the next day I didn't know what to tell her except that everything would be okay. Even though my throat was dry the whole time, it felt like it would crack, I didn't regret my decision to come back, not once.

On the second day, in the stifling heat of the packed gym, the mood of the captors grew even uglier.

Natasha Arkova: On the first day they let us go to the bathroom and gave us water. I saw my older sister at the other end of the gymnasium when it was her turn to go. An old woman told me to go to the bathroom too, so that I could be with her. We sat together the rest of the time. I was crying all the time, and she told me everything would be okay and held me on her lap. I took off my clothes, because it was so hot and there was no water. On the second day we weren't allowed to get up anymore. They took our clothes and soaked them in water and threw them into the crowd, but only the people at the front of the gym could get any water.

Larissa Dzhushok: One 3-year-old boy was desperately thirsty. On the first day the older children were taken out to a toilet, but they didn't want to bother with the little kids and just brought them bottles and jars to pee in. This little boy started drinking the urine out of the bottle they brought him. His grandma shouted, "What are you doing? What are you drinking?" But later the other children did the same.

Oksana Dzamparova, 36, who is four months pregnant, was in the gym with her husband, Aslan, and children Alibek, 12, and Linda, 7.

It was so unbearably hot and cramped, and the stench was nauseating. One time when the terrorists left the gym, one boy, about 15 years old, climbed up onto the window ledge to breathe. But just as he got up there, the door opened, and one of them came back in. He had a short beard. He saw the boy and started screaming, "I'm going to kill you!" But before he could, the boy tumbled back down into the gym and vanished into the crowd.

Kazbek Dzrasov: The only food we had was leaves of flowers that are normally used to decorate the rooms, potted plants inside the building. We gathered leaves and took them to the children, so that they could at least chew something. The captors teased us: "Sheep! Look what you eat!" Despite all that, there were no hysterics among people. On the contrary, as the time went by, the women got bolder and demanded water.

Natasha Arkova: I dreamed of my mommy and daddy. I pictured myself coming home and drinking lots of water.

On the third day events spun out of control.

Kazbek Dzrasov: The children looked pitiful. A child would suck a rag, but it wasn't enough. On the third day most children were lying around listless. On that last morning the terrorists became extremely nervous. They started to beat people, including children, and shouted at each other. They moved us from the perimeter of the gym to the middle, and the explosives were moved from the middle to the perimeter. They were also quarreling among themselves. When I had just turned my head away from them, there was a huge explosion.

Natasha Arkova: One of the bombs was taped to the basketball hoop, but it was too heavy and it fell. That's when the first explosion happened. It blasted out all of the windows in the gymnasium, and I couldn't hear anything after that. Inna told me to get up and to get out of a window.

Inna Arkova: There was smoke everywhere and it was hard to breathe. Half of the roof had collapsed. My friend Kristina had been sitting with us. Then she moved to a place right under the bomb 20 minutes before it exploded, and everything fell on her, and she died. I think the bomb killed a third of the people in the gym.

During the confusion, Inna and her sister Natasha managed to get out and were rescued by soldiers.

Larissa Dzhushok: I don't know what blew up, but it was the beginning of a nightmare. I was so petrified with fear that I lost consciousness. When I came to a few moments later, I was in shock, but everyone was running, and three terrorists were standing in the door, shooting. Then came the second explosion. I knelt down to Albina, who was unconscious and wounded, then grabbed her and dragged her along with me. Then I saw the soldiers jumping in through the windows. I knew one of them–Alan–he lives a few doors down from us. I shouted out to him, and he turned round but didn't immediately recognize me. After a moment's hesitation, he saw who it was and helped me carry Albina out.

Oksana Dzamparova: I was badly burned as I tried to push Linda out of the window. Now she's here with me, and she hasn't really regained consciousness apart from last night, when she woke up and started shouting out for water, like she was dying of thirst. She was obviously having a nightmare from those days in the gym. But the doctors say she should be all right, and my baby is safe–I didn't have a miscarriage. My son Alibek is fine and waiting for us at home, but my husband, Aslan, is still missing.

Agunda Zaragasova: The blast picked me up and threw me into the air. I fell down on something soft outside, got up and started walking away. Even though there were bullets and people everywhere, I couldn't run–my feet hurt and I was dazed. A soldier picked me up and carried me away, and they gave me water and a blanket.

Kazbek Zaragasov: When I saw Agunda at the hospital, I knew it was all over. We could finally go home.

Timur Aliev, Simon Ostrovsky and Valery Dzutsev in Beslan and Juliet Butler in London

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