1 September 2004 – Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia – Imagine that it is the first day of a new school year. You are likely either very excited, or very unhappy to see summer end. Either way, you have arrived at school and are playing on the playground with other children while waiting for the bell to ring, when you and several classmates notice some masked men coming onto the schoolyard from across the railroad tracks. It seems funny at first, but then you hear the teachers yelling at everyone to “Run!” But where? Suddenly there are what seems like a hundred masked men with guns, telling everyone to get into the building, else they would be shot! Then you are rounded up, along with all the other children, teachers, staff and parents bringing their children for that all-important first day of school, and marched into the school’s gymnasium. Scary, yes?
Such began what would become known as the Beslan school siege, a siege that lasted 3 days, involved some 1,200 hostages and ended in the deaths of 334 people, 186 of them children. Another 700 were left injured. The hostage-takers were Chechens protesting Russian occupation of Chechnya. On the 3rd day, a Friday 03 September, bombs went off in the gymnasium and Russian security forces stormed the school, engaging in a gun battle that would ultimately result in even more injuries and deaths. It is not my purpose here to recount the story, which is long and complex. However I will place a few links to a timeline and story at the end of this post for any who are interested.
Twelve years later there are still unanswered questions:
- Who initiated the storming of the school building and the subsequent bloodbath between the terrorists, government forces and local vigilantes?
- Did some of the terrorists escape? According to the official version of events, there were 32 of them, and all but one were killed. The only one captured, Nur-Pashi Kulayev, was sentenced to life imprisonment, but both the hostages and the organizer of the attack, then-leader of the Chechen rebel movement Shamil Basayev, claimed that some of the attackers had escaped.
Many blamed Putin for the handling of the hostage situation. Additionally, as a result of the crisis, Putin used that tragedy, whether justifiably or not, to increase the power of his office, similar to what Erdogan is doing in Turkey as a result of the failed coup in July. And now to the point of my story …
Thursday marked the 12-year anniversary of the Beslan siege, and a three-day memorial was planned to mark the occasion. Given that there are unanswered questions and that Putin’s government has been something less than transparent in the years since 2004, it is not surprising that there would be protests. The protestors were mostly parents who lost children in the siege. My fellow U.S. citizens will think the Beslan protest was extremely peaceable compared to those we are familiar with, but … 5 women were arrested. Why? Because they were wearing t-shirts that read “Putin is the executioner of Beslan”. Yes, folks that was their crime, a crime for which they are subject to 15 days in jail and applicable fines. They were not screaming or yelling, they were not throwing rotten tomatoes, they merely wore t-shirts that offended President Putin. Four of the women lost children in the siege and one also lost her husband. The fifth woman’s daughter survived the ordeal, in which hostages were held in the sweltering school for nearly 60 hours.
Two journalists were also detained by police for attempting to cover the protest, but were released a few hours later. The journalists said police prevented them from filming the protesters, blocking the camera’s view and then forcibly taking them into custody.
To those of us who live in countries with a much greater degree of freedom to protest, freedom to speak our minds even when we are wrong, freedom of our press to cover stories as they see fit, let this be a lesson: Guard those freedoms at all costs! Look at Turkey, look at Russia … look at how thin-skinned, narcissistic demagogues keep the peace.
On a somewhat related note, speaking of protests, I would like to give a ‘hats off’ salute to Vice-President Joe Biden for his handling of a protestor at a Cleveland, Ohio event where he was speaking on behalf of Hillary Clinton. The heckler in the audience was screaming repeatedly “My friends died, my American friends,” and “My friend died.” He was angry about U.S. policy in Syria and Biden’s call for the Kurds to withdraw from captured ISIS territory. Trying to drown out his outburst, Clinton supporters were chanting “Hillary, Hillary, Hillary”, and as you can imagine, Biden was not able to speak above the din. Finally, he said to the protestor, “Will you listen? So did my son, OK?” It is reported that everybody got so silent that you could have heard a pin drop. Then Biden told the heckler that he would be happy to speak with him in private after the rally. Reportedly that conversation did take place, though no details are available. Joe Biden is a man of class and dignity and he handled that so beautifully. Ask yourself what Trump would have done.
Links to stories about the Beslan school siege in 2004. All links will open in separate tab: