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Beslan’s conspiracy theories

Fifteen years on, the siege of School No. 1 is shrouded in the conspiracy theories that often arise from mass trauma.

September 10, 2019 - Felix Light - Articles and Commentary

Memorial in the remnants of school No. 1 in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia. Photo: Felix Light

For fifteen years there have been no classes, but Alexander still comes to school most days.

Two or three times a week this frail old man shuffles around the burnt out gymnasium of Beslan’s School No. 1, lighting candles, laying flowers and staring into the faces of the 367 perished parents, teachers and children who adorn the broken-down brickwork.

‘Who’s to blame here?!’ He bursts out, breaking the silence.

‘It’s them. Officials. The ones who took bribes to let them butcher all those kids. And now they send their money overseas. To London, New York and God knows where!’

Taking my hand, he yanks me through a low-hanging, blown-out window into the locked-up old school building.

‘Here!’ he shouts, pointing at a closed door. ‘Here’s where they hid the weapons. The terrorists who were hiding here before the attack. The ones who escaped. They deny it ever happened. But they would. They took their money. Bought and paid for.’

He reaches to open the door. It’s locked.

‘You see!’, he cries. He smiles with grim, savage vindication.

Beslan is an unremarkable little town of 35,000 people splayed out on the plains beneath the Caucasus mountains that achieved worldwide infamy on September 1st 2004. When several dozen armed Islamist terrorists from neighbouring Ingushetia and Chechnya seized School No. 1 and corralled over 1100 hostages inside, few local families were unaffected. Almost everyone knew someone inside.

The school’s capture developed into a three-day standoff that played out in front of the townspeople who gathered outside. The confrontation ended only when Russian special forces pulled off a blundering charge into the school that left 334 hostages dead in front of their friends and relatives outside.

Left to reckon with the deaths of hundreds of teachers, children and parents, many Beslan locals turned to conspiracy theories to explain their collective catastrophe.

This is by no means uncommon. “Nearly any given terrorist attack”, says University of Winchester psychologist and conspiracy theory expert Mike Wood, “will provoke conspiracy theories … the nature of terrorism itself might contribute to this: there is a sense of randomness and uncertainty about these attacks, and that kind of environment is very likely to provoke conspiracy theories.”

What is extraordinary about Beslan conspiracy theories is their endurance. Fifteen years after the event, they continue to survive and thrive. Even today, according to a survey carried out by Russia’s independent Levada Centre pollster, 42 per cent of Russians hold the security forces at least partially responsible for the Beslan tragedy. Among locals, the figure is likely higher.

Like their international counterparts, Beslan conspiracy theories hinge on allegations of a government cover up. They range from those who directly accuse the authorities, both federal and local, of colluding with the hostage takers to allow them to capture the school, to those who take issue with the details of the official explanation of the siege. They question the number and identities of the hostage takers and the reasons behind the appalling loss of life.

“No one in Beslan believes that there were only 32 terrorists”, says Ella, a fifty-year-old worker in the Beslan coroners’ office, whose nephew, then 12, was wounded inside School No. 1. “There were more. At least 50. Not just Ingush and Chechens, but two Arabs, as well. Even a black Moroccan.”

“The rest escaped. They just got out of the school at the end and ran off.”

Officially, the Russian government maintains that there were 32 hostage-takers in the school, of which 31 were killed and another captured. Most were Russian citizens, natives of Ingushetia and Chechnya, predominantly Muslim regions adjoining mostly-Christian North Ossetia.

Unofficially, many locals consider that number a gross understatement, based only a rough count of bodies recovered from the school wreckage, and contrived to conceal the authorities’ failure in allowing the remaining terrorists to escape.

This may be one of the most broadly accepted theories, but it is far from the only one. Others claim that additional terrorists had hidden in the school prior to the attack; some claim that the local authorities had hired Ingush workmen for summer holiday repair work, allowing them to conceal weapons inside the school; few even argue that School No. 1’s headmistress was in cahoots with the terrorists before and during the siege.

There is no evidence to support any of these theories.

Hallway in the former school in Beslan. Photo: Felix Light

Nonetheless, the endurance of Beslan conspiracy theories cannot be dismissed as the delusions of a paranoid fringe.

Conspiracy theories tend to gain credibility among groups who feel isolated and betrayed, unable to explain or control their lives. North Ossetia, the region in which Beslan is located, is fertile ground for a lush ecosystem of conspiracy theories.

The Ossetians, a mostly Christian nation, have for centuries stood out in the heavily Islamic North Caucasus. In contrast to the Muslim Ingush and Chechens, the Ossetians welcomed Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming the Russians’ local favourites and attracting their neighbours’ scorn.

After the Soviet collapse, this enmity exploded into two simultaneous ethnic conflicts: one over lands disputed with the neighbouring Ingush and another with the Georgians over South Ossetia.

The result is a siege mentality, obsessed with outside ethnic threats. In Vladikavkaz, barely thirty minutes from Beslan by car, billboards pay homage to the ‘undefeated’ and ‘heroic’ Ossetian surrounded by mortal enemies.

However, despite their affinity for Russian rule, Ossetians are not fully accepted by Russia. Their Caucasian accents and non-Slavic features make Ossetians a target for the same harassment and racism that many Caucasians, regardless of nationality, experience at the hands of Russian authorities.

“No matter how successful you are,” a successful Moscow professional of Ossetian background, tells me over dinner in Vladikavkaz one night, “you’re still an outsider, a Caucasian.”

In Beslan, feelings of resentment and isolation are never far from the surface. “I just want to remind the government that we are Russians, too. They owe us”, says Marina Pak, one of the leaders of the Beslan Mothers’ Committee, a group representing Beslan relatives and victims. “Moscow promised all kinds of help after the attack. Hardly anything ever came of it.”

In fact, fifteen years on it is the Russian government’s own actions during the siege that are to blame for keep the conspiracy theories alive.

“I am ashamed”, Marina Pak tells me. “I am a patriot. I love this country. But I am ashamed of how our government has treated us.”

For fifteen years, the Mothers’ Committee has been campaigning for fresh investigations into the facts of the siege.

For many locals, including the Committee, the scale of the state’s failure to prevent the siege simply defies belief. For them, the fact that several dozen armed heavily militants were able to reach Beslan from their bases in Ingushetia, unhindered by the massive Russian forces deployed against the Islamist insurgency, defies all likelihood. The Russian state’s failure was so unlikely that it can only be explained by rank incompetence or high-level conspiracy.

Once the siege began, the authorities did everything possible to further undermine public trust. Within hours of the school’s capture, they announced to waiting press that the terrorists had imprisoned between two and four hundred hostages in the gym. A few hours later, the figure was announced to be precisely 354.

In fact, there were 1128 captives inside the school building.

Throughout, the Russian government’s reaction was, said the BBC at the time, “a catalogue of how not to handle reporting of a crisis”.

Worst of all was the siege’s resolution. On September 3rd, after three days of confrontation, two mysterious explosions in the gymnasium where the hostages were still being held heralded the beginning of the end.

It is estimated that 200 captives, around half of those who died, were killed in the blasts. The security forces blamed the terrorists for detonating their own bombs from inside the building; the Mothers’ Committee, with the support of many locals, accused the security forces of opening fire on the packed gymnasium with tanks and grenade launchers. Predictably, official inquiries by the North Ossetian government and Russian parliament in Moscow backed the special forces’ version.

For many years, the question of the blasts has remained yet another Beslan conspiracy theory. However, in April 2017, the European Court of Human Rights, judging a case brought by the Mothers’ Committee, ruled that the Russian security forces violated the hostages’ right to life by using “powerful weapons such as tank cannon, grenade launchers and flame-throwers”.

Worse still, the court ruled that the Russian authorities “had been in possession of sufficiently specific information of a planned terrorist attack in the area, linked to an educational institution”.

The effect of the ruling on the official Beslan narrative was devastating: the authorities were humiliated and even the most outlandish conspiracy theories vindicated. The cover-up theory, in effect, was shown to be true. Russian forces had failed to prevent the siege and then killed hundreds of hostages in the process of ending it. Moreover, they had tried to cover it up. With the stroke of a pen, what had once been a fringe conspiracy theory was transformed into international legal fact.

In front of the former Beslan school. Photo: Felix Light

Outside North Ossetia, Beslan is remembered as Russia’s 9/11: the most horrific in a long line of Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks emanating from the Chechen conflict.

Within this small republic, the attack is remembered quite instead as a binding, collective national trauma: North Ossetia’s very own 9/11. It is a conspiracy with a very clear and defined set of villains.

“The full responsibility for this rests on their heads”, says Azamat Pliev, a Vladikavkaz resident who is in Beslan to pay respects on the attack’s anniversary. “The Ingush have always hated us. We never got on before ’92 and haven’t since. They still want our land.”

Such views are not uncommon in North Ossetia. Of all Beslan conspiracy theories, the allegation that it was an Ingush ethnic assault on Ossetia resonates most strongly. As a narrative, it is deeply appealing to a republic awash in anti-Ingush sentiment that portrays their neighbours as violent, backwards barbarians.

The conflict between the Ossetians and the Ingush, an Islamic people closely related to the Chechens, has its origins in Stalin’s deportation of the two Islamic nations from the Caucasus in 1944. Returning from exile in Kazakhstan in 1957, the Ingush arrived in ancestral lands now settled by Ossetians.

Eventually, resentment exploded into 1992’s short, vicious conflict, when the Ingush attempted to reclaim the Prigorodniy district, near Vladikavkaz. Beslan, the conspiracy theory goes, was only the latest instalment in this conflict: a would-be genocidal attempt by the Ingush to escalate the stand-off between the two peoples.

Moreover, like many other conspiracy theories swirling around this small town, it owes its popularity to a grain of truth within; although the Beslan attack was masterminded by Shamil Basayev, the leader of the radical Islamist wing of the Chechen separatist movement, the bulk of the hostage takers were Ingush, a fact lost on very few Ossetians.

More than anything, however, the idea that the entire Ingush nation is collectively responsible for Beslan’s tragedy goes some way to explaining the catastrophic failings that allowed it to happen. Only, as the conspiratorial logic goes, if the attackers received help from Ingush society and officialdom, could they have successfully caused the bloody carnage in Beslan that day.

Today, the ethnic stand-off is anything but resolved. Barely twenty miles from Beslan, the Ingushetia-North Ossetia border cuts across the sun-drenched Caucasian plain. Though both sides are, technically speaking, Russia, it is a frontier more militarised than many national borders, patrolled by armed police and marked by checkpoints. In an effort to keep the two sides apart, the Russian army has moved in, building a string of bases and barracks along the frontier.

Matching the physical barrier is a cultural chasm. Cross-border links are almost non-existent and mutual ethnic hated is instinctive. Ossetians fear and despise the Ingush and their claims to Ossetian territory; the Ingush resent the Ossetians for dispossessing them of their land and homes. Since 2004, divisions have only hardened.

In many ways, Beslan’s tragedy was a perfect storm. Security service incompetence, government secrecy and a smouldering ethnic conflict combined to produce a terrorist attack almost unparalleled in horror, only to then shroud it in the fog of conspiracy theory.

Fifteen years on, Beslan is slowly recovering from the siege. However, as long as key questions remain unanswered and ethnic hatred unresolved, this is a town condemned to debate the harrowing events of September 2004.

Felix Light is a Moscow-based writer on politics and culture in the former Soviet Union. He tweets at @felix_light.

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