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Beslan: Cry of the Bear Cubs

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Beslan: Cry of the Bear Cubs

Greg Ferency

SWATdigest

 

He (God) kept the best the most beautiful ones the best children

12 year old girl Beslan hostage survivor

 

The Day of Knowledge is an important day in Russia. This is the first day of school and they take it much more seriously than their American counterparts. It is a day of celebration and festivities. The first day of school in Russia always is on September 1st and young Beslan students dressed in their best on that faithful morning. They came with gifts and flowers for the teachers. They also came with joy and excitement.

The city of Beslan (population 40,000) was celebrating the first day of school like the rest of Russia. Beslan School #1 had drawn approximately 3000 people due to the fact that it handled grades 1-11.

            At Beslan School #1 a party of sorts was held outside the school. Teachers, students, parents and relatives met, hugged, sang and welcomed each other on school grounds. The students then lined up according to grade, a perfect formation and an advantage for those who were about to come. At approximately 9:00am, the rage of terror struck, approximately three dozen Chechen and Islamic extremists pulled up in two large trucks and jumped out. This was the catalyst for several others hidden among the crowd to jump into action. In total approximately forty nine heavily armed terrorists charged and took the lives of a massive amount of innocent people over a period of sixty two hours.

            They executed a plan of action, which involved wrangling the adults and students into the school building. They fired their weapons in the air and on the ground in an effort to maximize panic and submission to their demands. It was incredibly effective. Speed was vital to them and they had planned and done their job well. At first some of the victims thought the original shots being fired was a military drill or police chasing bandits. One teenage student thought this exact scenario until she saw a bearded man yell at her Why are you standing here? You are all being taken hostage! A police officer and security guard engaged the attackers with minimal effect. They didnt have much of chance and were quickly cut down. However, it is just possible their actions allowed an amount of potential victims to get away. No matter how small or large that unknown number was it was significant.

            What can now be considered hostages were herded into the school with threats of death to themselves and more importantly to their children. Families were split up in the chaos and many children were left on their own to deal with this frightening event. The hostages were effectively driven into, what could be loosely called by American standards, a gym in school. The siege had begun.

            In a matter of minutes the terrorists had taken approximately 1,132 innocent souls. Almost immediately the citizens of Beslan gathered around the school forming a human fence around the hostages and terrorists. The hostage takers consisted of Chechen and Islamic extremists, this included two Fiancés of Allah. The Fiancés of Allah are women who are under the age of twenty-five and had a male member of their family killed in the Chechen War. The women strapped explosives to their bodies to be used as mobile human bombs.

 

The group eventually divided themselves in three command and control elements:

 

Control group supervised and controlled the hostages.

Security group protected the group from barricaded positions within the school. Leader group gave orders and controlled limited negotiations.

 

After the hostages were forced into the gym mothers attempted to calm their children by telling them that they were in a movie, a military exercise or it was just a game. Even with the terrorists attempts to control everyone it was obviously chaotic inside the gym. The terrorists were constantly threatening the children that they would be shot if they continued crying. A forty six year old man who attempted to calm the other hostages down was executed in front of everyone in the gym. His body was then drug out of the gym leaving an ominous blood trail.  This was an obvious submissive tactic to let the hostages know that they had no problem killing their prey.

The group then began wiring explosive devices amongst the hostages. The bombs were placed around and above the sitting hostages, including a basketball goal that would later play a catastrophic role in the events of this incident. Most of the bombs were primitive but deadly. They were embedded with nails and other objects to act as shrapnel to increase their effectiveness. The terrorists claimed to have wired one of the bombs to a foot controlled dead mans switch. It appeared in the form of a pedal. This was one of two dead man switches that they claimed to have and the foot pedal can be seen in video footage the terrorists sent out to the Russian authorities to let them know that it existed.  A terrorist would keep his foot on the pedal. If he was shot or lifted his foot off the pedal for any reason the bomb(s) would detonate. Russian authorities now believe that the dead mans switch was a fake. But, whether it was or not was irrelevant to the hostages at the time. Hence, it was effective.

Early on the first day the hostages were told to give up their cell phones along with any cameras, including video cameras. They were told that if anyone hid a cell phone and were caught they and others around them would be shot. In the end a pile of these devices were on the floor. The terrorists found a video camera that a father had brought to video his child going to school. They used it for their own and videotaped the hostages along with themselves. The videotape was later found by a group of boys going through the carnage of the school after the event was over. The videotape can be seen in several documentaries about the Beslan event and can viewed on some video web sites. It offers some limited insight into conditions of the hostages on the first two days of the siege as well as the mindset of the terrorist holding them. In this video a bomb can be seen hung so low that anyone walking under it would have hit their head on it. It was obviously slung this way for maximum killing effect.

Fear and death were not over yet for day one of the siege. Up to sixteen men and boys were taken to the second floor (room 206) of the school and lined up against the wall of one of the classrooms. They were then executed outright. Their bodies were then tossed out a window onto the ground below. It is probable that the terrorists viewed these men as a possible threat and wanted to get rid of them quickly. These men were probably large in stature, appeared to be healthy and most likely posed a liability. It made no difference if the threat perception was real or not. Several other men were forced to assist them in the fortification of the school. They were forced to assist in barricading the windows and door from the outside. After their efforts were complete they were shot dead and left where they lay. This brutal group had something else in store for the young attractive female hostages. They were singled out and one by one taken to another room of the school where they were sexually assaulted over the entire course of this event. This included the barrels of assault weapons and other forbidding objects. 

As day one progressed and the hostages suffering continued Russia began its response to the school. The 58th Infantry Division arrived at Beslan. This division is a standard military entity made up of mostly young conscripts. They were in no way prepared to handle this situation. What they found was a melee of armed angry civilians that had surrounded the school by the thousands. Many of the men were armed with their own weapons and were threatening to storm the school. The Russian authorities did not help matters any by announcing that there were only 354 hostages in the school. The crowd knew the number was much higher and this number incensed them, as well as the terrorists in the school when the number reached them. This down playing of the numbers did not help the authorities in any way. All it did was escalate suspicion of them by the Beslan civilians and caused the anger of the terrorists to pour over onto the hostages in the school.

Russia sent numerous other military and government Special Forces to Beslan. These groups are known as Spetsnaz units. The word Spetsnaz comes by combining the words Special Purpose Forces. Although several responded, the two primary units assigned to the school were Alpha and Vympel. These units responded from Chechnya and Moscow. Alpha can be best compared to Americas Delta Force or CAG, as they are now known. Vympel is Russias formal terrorist type unit. They conduct the missions that are very specialized and unpleasant. They are also trained to go behind enemy lines and cause havoc. Both are top notch units and trained well in what they do. Again, upon their arrival they found a scene that was chaotic at best both behind the walls of the school and streets outside of it. During this time snipers began taking up positions around the school.

In regards to negotiations with the terrorists they were limited at best. The terrorists had a bloody end planned for this incident and talking to them was not going to divert them.

Civilians continued to gather around the school. Over the course of the siege and up to its catastrophic end the civilians stayed at the school. Many refused food or to sleep in solidarity with the hostages inside the school. For logistical reasons this helps nothing and might be construed as a bad idea no matter how noble. If an event like this ever occurs in the United States we can assume that the end will also be bloody to say the least. First responders, especially law enforcement, may very well be decimated with officers wounded and killed. Other first responder agencies will also be pulled to their furthest brink. The one element that has potential to remain strong is the community. People may need places to stay. Children victims may need blankets and someone to hold on to until the proper entity can assist them. Food may need distributed. In other words the community may be called in some low level, but important factor when the final bullet is fired. Hence, they will need to be strong, rested, fed and ready to assist if that is asked of them.

It is amazing how the civilians were able to intermingle with the security forces around the school. Males with rifles with some fueled with vodka continued to place themselves in positions to fire at the school. They exchanged verbal insults and gestures with the terrorists inside the school. The Russian authorities may have feared that if they attempted to disarm the civilians of their weapons they would be involved in a firefight with the very same people whose children were being held hostage inside the school.

As the morning of September 2nd came to Beslan little had changed for the hostages. Parents continued to try to comfort their children as well as keep the calm. Those with medical conditions started to feel the effects of the lack of their medication, food and water.

One politician was allowed inside the school for negotiations on the second day of the siege. He was Ruslan Aushev. Aushev was a former Russian general who later became the President of Ingushetia. Ingushetia lies between Chechnya and North Ossetia (where Beslan is located). Chechnya and Ingushetia are predominately Muslim while North Ossetia is mostly Christian. The Inguish, including Aushev, are very sympathetic to Chechnya and its bid for independence. A number of the terrorists that took over the school had Inguish origins.

Aushev was allowed inside the school. The video footage that the terrorists took with their new camera shows him attempting to get the terrorists to release some of the hostages. The school principal can also be seen pleading for the children. The terrorist to whom they were speaking with agrees to release some of the nursing babies. When they were released mothers were forced to make decisions no parent should never have to do. They were forced to leave with their babies but leave older children behind. As they left the school Aushev left with them carrying a baby that a mother gave up to stay behind with her older child. Aushev followed the released mothers out of the school with the child and he was never able to return to the school.

This was not a kind act by the terrorist. It was at best a standard stalling tactic. As in, see we are releasing hostages.  Babies do not know terrorism or any other act of violence. They only know they are hot, hungry, thirsty and not having a good time. As we all know this usually translates into crying. These particular babies were driving the terrorists crazy. However, they probably knew enough to know that if they started executing babies outright this would be the one thing to cause a riot of sorts among the mothers inside. Hence, this was probably a strategic move on their part as much as anything else.

Interviews with the former hostages stated that many started losing hope of a peaceful resolution as day two went on. The terrorists also became more hostile and unpredictable towards them. Many of the hostages had gone without food or water since the siege began the day before. They started drinking their own urine and eating pedals off the flowers that they had brought for the teachers to celebrate the Day of Knowledge. Everything bad from day one transferred over to day two. Hostages continued to be sorted out for various forms of harassment and abuse. This continued as day two grew into day three of the siege of Beslan School #1.

The hostages continued to obviously deteriorate as the morning September 3rd  arrived. Many hostages and civilians outside the school later reported that there was something in air on September 3rd. They knew something was going to happen on this day. Parents stated that the children inside the school no longer responded to the terrorists threats and the gunfire that usually followed. They were exhausted, dehydrated and numb to all stimuli around them. One mother even said that some of the mothers pondered doing something to spark an end to this horror. The mental stability of the hostages and even the terrorist (even they began arguing with each other) appeared be to breaking down. 

At approx 1:05pm that something did happen. One of the bombs hanging from a basketball goal fell and detonated. It was followed by another explosion several seconds later. This set off a trigger of events that proved catastrophic for all. The explosions obviously killed many people immediately. They obviously injured many parents, teachers and children alike. Some survivors described a deafening silence and zero visibility from the debris of the explosions. As time progressed hostages began jumping out the gyms windows in an effort to make a dash for escape and life. The terrorist realized what was happening and started firing into the fleeing victims. One teenage female hostage stated that she was finally able to fall asleep. She was awakened by the explosions and was surrounded by dead bodies. She escaped out of a hole blown into the gym wall with a friend. Several minutes after the second explosion the roof of the gym caught fire and collapsed. This took even more innocent lives. One child survivor stated that he saw other children melting alive.

Confusion was apparent on both sides. The Russian military thought the terrorists set the bombs off on purpose. The terrorist thought the Russians had started their assault on the school. Just prior to the explosions going off the terrorists had agreed to allow the Russian authorities to remove the bodies of the men killed on day one of the attack and thrown out the window. As the men were doing this the explosions occurred. This may very well have seeded the terrorists belief that the assault was planned on the Russian side and the body removal was an attempt to place soldiers in a strategic position. These brave rescuers assigned to remove the bodies were fired upon one was killed.

Alpha and Vympel units waited for the go command to enter the school. The problem was that none of the higher ups could or would give the order. Finally the units began the entry after not being able to stand by any longer as their Russian children were being slaughtered. Patch made elements of both units began their rescue attempt. A large portion of Alpha was 18 miles to the south in the city of Vladikavkaz practicing a prepared assault on a school that was similar to Beslan School #1. Vympel would bear much of the brunt of the initial rescue attempt.

Obviously, the Spetsnaz units were placed in a position that forced them to engage. Some with in rescue teams used their own bodies as shields as they attempted to protect the fleeing hostages that were pouring out of the gym. The Alpha and Vympel teams made entry through windows and mouse holes they blew into the walls of the school with explosive breaches. One Vympel element attempted to enter the school through the main entrance, but it was heavily barricaded and wired with explosives. A tank round finally gave them a way inside.

The armed civilians also started firing their weapons at the school. Others surged forward toward the school with the Spetsnaz teams. Some helped hostages through the windows and rushed them to safety. Others can be seen in photos helping with fire hoses showering water into the gym. The civilians were playing a role in the incident from start to finish. for good, bad or worse.  At this point crowd control was literally non-existent.

Six year old Aida Sidokova was blown out the window of the gym after the initial bombs went off. There is a series a photos taken by a photographer that documents part of her story. The photographer was imbedded with a Russian sniper team positioned outside the school. The photos start off by showing Aida and another woman lying on the ground outside the gym in the courtyard. The woman and Aida then start to raise up. The woman flees the area. Aida, dressed in only her underwear with her skinny legs covered in blood, is then photographed climbing back into the gym through the same windows she was blown out of... her attempt to re-enter the gym was successful. The very last photo shows the roof collapsing and the gym engulfed in flames.

Many of the surviving hostages in the gym were forced into the kitchen and cafeteria area of the school. Once there they were forced to stand in front of the windows acting as human shields to protect the terrorists from incoming bullets. The terrorists told them to scream to the military (and in all probability civilians) to stop the assault on the school. 

As Vympel and Alpha teams made their way into the school engaging their targets the hostages continued to stream out of the school. In the end it took ten hours for the Russians to retake the school with the last remaining terrorists were killed on the north side of the southern wing of the school. Alpha and Vympel blasted the barricaded hostiles with RPG and RPOs, basically blowing that section of the school apart. Beslan School #1 was finally back in Russian control. Hostages continued to stream out of the school during all this in an attempt to escape the carnage. As you view and study the photos of the event several things become evident.

You will notice that most of the children are either naked or in their underwear. This was due to the fact that the gym acted as a greenhouse of sorts with the windows and all the people stuffed inside. The heat inside the gym became unbearable. You will also notice that most of the hostage make up were women and younger children. This may be due to the fact that many of the older, hence stronger / faster kids, were able to flee the school grounds when the assault was initiated. The younger children had no recourse other than to follow the terrorists directions. Note: the lower number of older students was also determined because the older students found such festivities not cool, as the event was designed for the younger children. There were also a fairly significant number of men to women hostage ratio. This may be due to the fact that fathers tend to avoid this type of activity and many may have been working at the local businesses and factories.

You will also notice that many of the victims (especially the children) were being carried by other civilians. This was due to them being injured, exhausted, malnourished / dehydrated and panicked. Despite their actions throughout the incident it could be safe to say that some of the civilian males saved the lives of hostages by assisting them to safety.

Make shift aid stations were set up in secure areas around the school. Most of the escaping hostages begged for water from their rescuers and first responders. The Russian authorities planned poorly for the medical treatment side and there were limited numbers of medical assets around the school. For some victims the Golden Hour was ticking away. Many of the victims wandered the aid areas looking for family members children looking for parents parents looking for children brother looking for sister and so on. The anguish of Beslan was to continue as families received the news of dead loved ones some of this came immediately as they identified bodies other news came later as DNA results became apparent in later months.

By 11:00pm the Russian military had taken the battered school back from the Chechens and their extremist allies. Imagine a ten-hour battle in and around an American school. The North Hollywood bank shootout in 1997 between two bank robbers and LAPD lasted less than an hour. And even though the North Hollywood bank actors were heavily body armored they were shooting from minimal use of cover and concealment with a vehicle being their only real option. Imagine dozens of motivated individuals with brick and mortar as cover.

Eleven Vympel and Alpha soldiers were killed re-taking the school. Other Spetsnaz units lost ten other brave men another sixty-three were wounded. Compare these casualties to any American police department. Stories of heroism on the part of these Russian units should be acknowledged this may be our American police officers if a similar event happens here. One of the individual incidents that I am aware of involved a Vympel officer grabbing a terrorist in the gym. The officer saw that the man was about to throw a grenade into a crowd of hostages who had survived the initial explosions. The officer tackled the terrorist and held him in a bear type hug until the grenade exploded and killed them both. Another Vympel officer was shot in the neck while trying to cover the fleeing hostages from sniper fire coming from the second floor of the school. He literally bled to death while never giving up or retreating from his position that was completely exposed in the school courtyard. These are just two brief examples and I bet there are hundreds of stories just like these. These acts not only included heroism (true heroism) on the part of the Spetsnaz units, but these are also stories of unbelievable brave acts on the parts of the teachers, parents and even the older students who sacrificed their lives to save others.

 One of the Chechens made it out of the school. He was found hiding under a truck by the Russians. His name was Norpasha Kulayev and he was sentenced to life in prison in the summer of 2005.

 

During this 53 hour incident the most recent numbers I have seen are as follows:

1,132 hostages

334 dead

186 children dead

700+ wounded

 

Old Soviet habits die hard in the Russian military and political machine. Nobody would take charge of the school scene. Command and control was poor. Lower level officers and officials had no chain of command to turn to.  Shooters for the Spetsnaz teams around the school couldnt get anyone in a position of authority to give the order to move in on the school after the bombs went off. After waiting so long they decided to go in on their own.

Wounded children and adults were spread out all over southern and western Russia (including Moscow) for medical treatment. It took weeks, even months, for some families to find out that their relatives had survived. It should be noted that Moscow is 1000 miles from Beslan. One female survivor who was a teenager reported that it took her awhile to realize that she was now safe while in the hospital. In her mind she perceived the doctors and nurses as being terrorist who continued to want to harm her.

            Entire generations were destroyed in the Beslan incident especially younger generations where all the younger siblings were killed. Some children survived but one or both of their parents did not. Pictures were put up on the walls of Beslan streets of unclaimed child survivors.

 During the Cold War America depended on the Russians / Soviets loving their children as much as we did. The heroism of the shooters who re-took the school compiled with the grief of the people of Beslan and Russia itself. proved that they do. Russian citizens left bottles of water and other beverages at the school as a symbolic attempt to quench the thirst of the dead, dying and injured. They also left stuffed dolls and animals in acknowledgment of the child victims the youngest of the dead being two years old. This continues to be what can now be considered a tradition at the cemetery where the dead are buried. Toys and drinks are left at the gravesites of the victims slaughtered at the school. 

            Victims of the siege reported that the hostage takers were injecting something into themselves during the incident. Heroin is a major drug in that area of the world. However, the descriptions of the terrorists behavior after the injections are much more consistent with some type of amphetamine based stimulant. The victims reported that they became much more hyper and aggressive and physical / sexual abuse increased towards the hostages after the drug ingestion. We should take note of this as what would be normally be conceived as a recreational drug is now being used as a strategic option against us. If this behavior is observed in future incidents we should not assume that we are dealing with drug addicted thugs but a crack team of assailants who have an agenda and strategy already set in motion. The drugs are simply an effective part of the original plan. 

            Some have attempted to state that the Russian military units started the assault on September 3rd thus causing the bombs to detonate. This doesnt make sense for several reasons. The main Spetsnaz units had only 133 operators around the school that were on duty at the time that bombs went off. Another 133 operators were off duty on a two minute stand-by. By American police standards this seems like a lot, but their planned assault called for at least twice that many to be at the school. In an exchange of E mails I learned of an important fact from the photographer embedded with a sniper team. He stated that he did not notice anything in Spetsnaz behavior to indicate a planned assault at the time the bombs went off in the school.

             The Russians correctly estimated that there were around fifty terrorists in the school. They also knew that it would take 10 to 1 superiority ratio for each entrenched terrorist to be taken out plus another 50% of ready reserve to back up the initial assault team. Obviously, if you do the math the numbers needed did not match what an experienced military, like the Russians had at Beslan, would need for a planned assault / rescue.  Also, dont forget that most of the primary unit (Alpha) assigned for this type of mission was miles away practicing for the planned assault if it came to that. There were other military units at Beslan with Alpha and Vympel. But they rarely train with or draw assets from them. Also, as we already discussed it actually took an extended period of time for the Vympel and the remaining Alpha troops to go into the school because the government officials balked at giving the order.

             The Russians were caught flat-footed. They had no formal assault plan yet and after the bombs went off any type of plan that they might have been trying to formulate converted into just save as many kids as you can. .. period. The results are what we have in the history of what occurred at Beslan School #1.

            It has been noted that the floorboards of the library had been torn up. Some have assessed that because of this weapons were hidden under the library floor months prior to assault in September. In all practicality a more obvious answer would be that the terrorists were looking for tunnels being dug underneath the school by Russian forces for a planned assault and entry point into the school. The Russians had done this at the Dubrovka Theatre (the play that was being put on was called Nord Ost, which this incident is commonly known as) play in October 2002. The terrorists at Beslan probably learned from this an were looking for the tunnels, which did not exist, at the school. 

            The only thing that has come out of the Beslan School siege is death, depression, despair and lessons. As police officers in the United States and around the world we were powerless to do anything for the victims while this incident was in motion. However, we can learn from the lessons that can be taken away from this tragedy. If we dont we may suffer the consequences in a manner that is much more than anything we have dealt with in the past on our soil. These lessons were not free they came with a price the cry of the bear cubs in September 2004.

 

Note: Aida Sidakova survived her ordeal at Beslan School #1. She was later asked why she climbed back into the gym. She stated she wanted to be with her mother who was still inside.

 

References and must see resources:

Terror at Beslan John Giduck ( www.terroratbeslan.com )

---thanks for the help on this, John

Children of Beslan HBO documentary

Three Days in September Showtime documentary

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
Greg Ferency has been employed with the Terre Haute Police Dept since 1991. He has been assigned to the Drug Task Force for the past nine years. He is the owner of Narc Ops Consulting Group LLC and the Senior Editor of SWATdigest.com. He can be reached at gregferency@swatdigest.com   

 

           

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