Officials Statements On Beslan: A Study In Obfuscation

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 35

One of the most striking features of the Beslan atrocity and its aftermath has been the unwillingness of Russia’s top leadership to state clearly and candidly what it knows, or even what it thinks it knows. Though officials have repeatedly made with an air of great certitude statements that later turned out to be untrue—or could be seen to be manifestly untrue even while those officials were making them—most often these statements have come from mid-echelon officials, not from the very top. Vladimir Putin’s public stance has shown a combination of fanaticism and evasiveness. Hence the importance of the detailed oral report to Putin by Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, broadcast in full by the state-controlled electronic media on September 8.

As Vremya novostei observed on September 9, this report thus became “the first official account from the authorities about the entire sequence of events which took place in Beslan over September 1-3. Previously, official data about the terrorist attack had been conveyed only in bits and pieces by Valery Andreyev, head of the FSB’s directorate for North Ossetia, and by Sergei Fridinsky, deputy prosecutor general for the Southern Federal District; much of the information published by the news media had come from the security agencies only in unofficial form.”

Ustinov said that the terrorists were “constantly threatening…that everyone there was going to die in any case and that there was just one goal—to carry out this terrorist act.” He made no mention of earlier reports that the terrorists stated specific demands on the Russia’s and Ossetia’s authorities: the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of rebel guerrillas captured during the June raid on Ingushetia. He also did not mention the September 2 episode in which the former president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, entered the school to talk with the terrorists and succeeded in persuading them to release about 30 hostages. Aushev was said in previous reports to have persuaded the terrorists to record their demands on a video to be presented to Putin; according to Aushev himself, the demands were relayed immediately.

By totally omitting these points—not even raising them for discussion—Ustinov apparently was trying to get Russians to believe that there was no reason even to try to negotiate with the hostage-takers. It would seem that he wanted to spare his boss Putin—along with the current presidents of Ossetia and Ingushetia—any blame for not having made the kind of good-faith negotiating attempt that Ruslan Aushev made. Had he done so, who knows how many more lives might have been spared?

One should note that as president of Ingushetia in the late 1990s, Aushev spoke out vigorously against both of Moscow’s invasions of Chechnya and also went out of his way to open his territory to Chechen refugees. Both of these policies have since been reversed by his successor Murat Zyazikov, who has been totally faithful to the Kremlin line. Ustinov’s lack of interest in giving Aushev the credit he deserves as the only prominent political leader who managed to achieve something positive amid last week’s atrocities—saving some two dozen lives—is unfortunately not surprising.

Contrary to the impression encouraged by Ustinov and others that the terrorists failed to make concrete demands, several ex-hostages remember that there was indeed a clear list of demands. One ex-hostage, who requested anonymity, told in an interview published on September 9 that her captors “demanded to see [North Ossetian President Aleksandr] Dzasokhov, [prominent pediatrician Leonid] Roshal, [Kremlin aide Aslambek] Aslakhanov, and Zyazikov. They demanded release from prison of those who conducted the [June 2004] terrorist attack on Nazran [in Ingushetia]—they said that these people were their close comrades. They also said that they would not release one person until Putin withdrew the troops from Chechnya and submitted his resignation, that they wanted independence for Chechnya.”

Evidence continues to accumulate that the authorities’ failure to negotiate made a serious difference in the terrorists’ treatment of their captives. “On the second day,” one ex-hostage told, “they became sharply more vicious, they began to say that our leaders did not care about us and did not want to negotiate with them. They asked for Dzasokhov and he did not come. After that they began to say that our government did not need us and that everyone had forgotten about us.” on September 10 quoted another ex-hostage as saying that “even the children were beginning to ask, Why doesn’t Dzasokhov come?…They [the terrorists] took our school principal and had her make phone calls, but Lidiya Aleksandrovna [i.e. Lidiya Aleksandrovna Tsalieva, the school’s 70-year-old principal] said later that they could not get through to anyone.”

The Russian government’s previous disinformation about the number of hostages has of course proved impossible to sustain, and Ustinov’s report provided a figure more in tune with reality: He said that the number exceeded 1200. But he continued to cling to an implausibly low estimate of deaths—some 326. From the unofficial calculations of local residents, it would seem that the true figure is higher, and perhaps much higher. Suspicions continue to circulate that officials have deliberately undercounted the number of bodies in the morgue; the official figure is significantly lower than the number of corpses seen by local residents to have been removed from the school’s ruins. The number of people still missing also raises questions.

Izvestiya reported on September 10 that an organized search for missing hostages begun only the previous day. Up to then it had been considered that all the missing were people whose corpses had been recovered, but not yet identified by name. But on September 9 it became clear that “the number of people who were not to be found either among the living or among the dead was significantly greater than the number of unidentified bodies or body parts. According to the data of investigators, some 93 dead people remained unidentified—while the list compiled by relatives at the House of Culture in Beslan, which is where the relatives of the missing are meeting, includes about 150 people.” Thus the difference as of late last week amounted to some 57 people.

According to the September 8 issue of Komsomolskaya pravda, the faculty of the Beslan school included 59 teachers. As of that date, 13 of these were known to have died, and six were still missing. If those figures are accurate, and if those missing all turn out to be dead, it will mean that about one-third of all the teachers died.

Even Ustinov’s revised figure of 1200 people in the building may be too low. For younger children in Russia the first day of school is a major family event, somewhat like graduation day in American schools. Pupils arrive with their parents, grandparents, and other relatives including pre-school siblings. According to Komsomolskaya pravda, there were almost 900 children registered in the school—so if one adds the faculty and other employees, that brings the total present to almost 1,000 even without the special first-day visitors. (On the other hand, a good-faith count would subtract the number who managed to escape during the first chaotic minutes of the siege.)

A third-grade teacher told Novaya gazeta in an interview published on September 10 that the building contained an unusually large number of children of pre-school age, even for the first day of the school year. “On that day,” said the teacher, “the pre-school nurseries [located elsewhere] were not open because they were not receiving natural gas, so parents brought them [i.e. their pre-school children] along to our school.” Horrifyingly, pre-school children were especially vulnerable because it would have been harder for them to jump out of the gymnasium’s windows after the explosions.

If an atrocity like this had happened anywhere in the West, one can be sure that the media would publish a complete list, name by name, of every single person in the building along with his or her fate. It would be a welcome, and healing, change from Russia’s current hyper-secretiveness to see a reliable list for Beslan.

Ustinov’s report stated reassuringly that not one of the Beslan terrorists had escaped alive—that every one of them had been killed except for the one taken alive and shown on television last week. He said that 30 bodies of terrorists had been recovered and that one terrorist’s corpse had been blown up so that only fragments remained; thus the total number of terrorists was 32, of which he said 8 had been identified by name. An article in Moskovski komsomolets on September 9 expressed deep skepticism about those figures, observing that they were inconsistent with information provided by other government sources. “The Spetsnaz commandos say that some of the terrorists may have escaped,” the newspaper wrote. “Investigators do not exclude that among the unidentified remains may be fragments of the bodies of several additional terrorists. There is also the question of the number of those now under arrest. In addition to Kulaev [the name which the authorities gave for the man whom they showed on television as the one captured terrorist], it has been said that there was a wounded guerrilla, and a woman. Plus, the bodies which had been blown up should have been at least two in number: Ustinov himself said that the ‘Colonel’ [the code name for one of the terrorists, thought by some to be the band’s leader] had blown up two terrorist women. So what became of the second one’s corpse?”

That is not the only suggestion that some of the terrorists may have escaped. In an interview with reported on September 9, an ex-hostage said that after the September 3 explosions some of the terrorist shaved their beards so as to hide among the fleeing children. Another eyewitness, retired deputy of the regional parliament Kazbek Torchinov, described for Novaya gazeta in an interview reported on September 10 what he saw from the window of his apartment: “I spent all three days in my apartment house opposite the school. I saw everything.” According to Torchinov, on the morning of September 1 he saw a masked man wearing military camouflage come running out of the school to meet a truck which was pulling up near its gate. “Out of the truck came pouring still more men in camouflage and masks, all of them armed. Together with the first man, I counted 27 of them.” Asked to comment on the official estimate that the total number of guerrillas was 32, Torchinov answered “I’m quite convinced that there were more than that. While they were jumping out of the vehicle, at the same time guerrillas were chasing people from all sides of the school to its entrance. They were shooting along the whole perimeter. On the other side of the school, in the courtyards, there were at least 10 [more] men.” reported on September 9, citing unnamed Spetsnaz commandos who had taken part in the assault on the school, that the commandos “succeeded in taking four guerrillas alive, including one women. According to their information, two of the bandits succeeded in escaping…” Lev Dzugaev, an aide to North Ossetia president Aleksandr Dzasokhov, said publicly on September 3 that three terrorists had been captured alive. Lieutenant-General Viktor Sobolev, commander of the 58th Army, agreed—and added that several had escaped. A Moskovski komsomolets article published on September 11 and apparently based on confidential FSB sources stated that originally there were four women terrorists but that the male guerrillas killed two of them during the siege because they were upset about capturing children: they had apparently been told before the operation that it was to be directed against a military target.

According to Ustinov’s report, the terrorists arrived in three vehicles. This contradicts previous news reports, which variously have said that there were two or perhaps only one vehicle. The fewer the vehicles, the harder it is to believe that the terrorists brought with them all the arms, explosives and other equipment which they needed to seize and hold the school for three days—and the more likely it is that they planted some of these items in advance. Previous reports have quoted ex-hostages as saying that the terrorists were seen retrieving explosives from hiding places in the school building, where they apparently had been placed during summer repair work. If true, those reports would seem to raise questions about bribery of government officials that the Putin administration may want to avoid. (North Ossetia’s FSB boss Valery Andreyev had said that these reports were plausible, reported on September 9. Moskovski komsomolets reported that same say that several ex-hostages had confirmed reports of pre-positioned weapons as established fact. The newspaper noted that since the Beslan tragedy, the Moscow city authorities have launched a crash plan to inspect all the schools in the capital which underwent repairs during the summer.) Ustinov’s report to Putin did not discuss the contradiction, but simply presented the three-vehicle version as if it were undisputed, established fact.

On the other hand, Novaya gazeta on September 10 quoted a third-grade teacher who said that on September 1 she had noticed “about four vehicles with suspicious-looking bearded men” parked next to school. What is puzzling about these various estimates is that in principle it should not be hard to pin them down; the vehicles presumably did not simply disappear after the shooting began on September 1. But the authorities apparently have not shown any of the vehicles to the public—yet another example of their excessive secrecy.

The September 9 Moskovski komsomolets article also noted Ustinov’s evasion of the likely role of police corruption in the Beslan horror. It noted media reports “that the bandits bought off members of the traffic police, and that a certain police officer practically escorted the bandits to the school. Why did the Prosecutor General neither confirm nor deny these reports?”

Another Ustinov evasion: He said nothing about the reports, widely circulated earlier, that the hostage-takers included Arabs. But in a telephone interview reported by the New York Times on September 8, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov finally admitted that no Arabs had yet been found among the slain terrorists’ bodies. The “Arab version”—so valuable to Putin’s campaign to link his war on Chechnya with the west’s war on al-Qaida—is looking more and more implausible, but the Putin administration has yet to disavow it.

It now seems most likely that the terrorist band consisted entirely, or almost entirely, of Chechens and Ingush. For example, on September 9 published an interview with an anonymous woman ex-hostage, who said: “I cannot precisely say what was the ethnicity of all these people, but the voices which I heard definitely head accents from the Caucasus. I can distinguish the specific accent of the Chechens and the Ingush, because they speak Russian in their own, very unusual way. What I cannot say precisely is whether these people were all Chechens, or all Ingush, or a combination of the two.” The reporter asked this ex-hostage whether her captors included people from other ethnic groups, such as Arabs or Africans. “Those I was able to see were only people with Caucasian features,” she said. [Note that in Russian usage the term “Caucasian” refers to the ethnic groups of the Caucasus mountains, not to Europeans or white people in general.]

Physics teacher Olga Vlaskina told in an interview published on September 10 that except for one man who seemed to be a foreigner—or at least not a native speaker of Russian—the terrorists all spoke with Chechen-Ingush accents.

The Russian authorities claim to have captured one and only one of the terrorists alive: a Chechen named Nur-Pashi Kulaev. Based on past experience, one must be highly skeptical of this claim. Only once has a truly independent court conducted a detailed review and evaluation of the Russian security agencies’ investigation techniques in connection with the Chechen wars: that was the court presided over by British judge Timothy Workman, who last year considered Moscow’s petition for the extradition of separatist Chechen diplomat Akhmad Zakaev. Judge Workman found that the Russian authorities fabricated evidence in the case by torturing a prisoner into submitting false testimony against Zakaev. The prisoner may even have been arrested on trumped-up charges specifically for that purpose. (See Chechnya Weekly, July 31, 2003 and November 19, 2003.) One cannot exclude the possibility that Kulaev was also tortured, or perhaps that he was not even one of the hostage-takers; or perhaps that other hostage-takers were also captured alive but failed to co-operate and died under torture, or were beaten into a condition such that it would not have been suitable to display them on television.

Nur-Pashi Kulaev’s public statements, and the Russian authorities’ statements about him, look even more dubious in light of the contradictory reports about his older brother, Khan-Pasha Kulaev. The latter was also a participant in the Beslan atrocity, according to the authorities, who said that investigators specifically identified this veteran guerrilla among those slain on September 3. But as Nezavisimaya gazeta reported on September 8, the FSB captured Khan-Pasha Kulaev some four years ago—as was announced on August 29, 2001 by the Interfax news agency. Asked by the Moscow daily to comment, Gennady Gudkov of the State Duma’s Security Committee said that the most likely explanation was that Khan-Pasha Kulaev died in prison and that another terrorist was using his identification documents. “It’s just too incredible to think that this man was deliberately released,” said Gudkov. He apparently did not comment on the possibility that Khan-Pasha was murdered while in prison and that his corpse was then planted in the school’s ruins. on September 8 noted a difference between Nur-Pashi Kulaev’s first and second “interviews.” During the first, “he admitted that he did not know the ethnicities of his fellow hirelings—but yesterday he said that the band included Uzbeks, Arabs, and several Chechens like himself.” In what must be presumed a harshly ironic understatement, wrote that “why Kulaev’s recollections changed is not clear.”