Yesterday the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the Russian Government in a case brought by survivors of the massacre of students and faculty at School Number 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia. On September 1, 2004, Chechen militants seized the school, fortified it with explosives and held more than a thousand people, including 777 children, hostage for three days. They terrorized their captives, executing several, and withholding water from those who remained. On September 3, Russian security forces blasted a hole through the wall of the gymnasium and bombarded the building using tanks, flamethrowers and grenade launchers. Fire spread throughout the school eventually causing the roof of the gym to collapse. 330 people were killed and hundreds wounded. The vast majority were children and their teachers.
The European Court’s ruling marks the end of a thirteen-year quest by the “Mothers of Beslan” to hold the Russian Government accountable for having ignored the warning signs that a terrorist attack was imminent, for failing to alert school officials to the possible threat, for using excessive lethal force that resulted in such a staggering loss of innocent life, and for failing to conduct a proper investigation of the attack, the siege and its aftermath. The 406 claimants will share a modest monetary settlement of 2.9 million Euros, with some people receiving 5,000 Euros and others 20,000. But the goal of the litigation was not compensation, but to hold the authorities accountable. Emma Tagaeva, who lost two sons and her husband in the attack explains her position from beside their graves: “Having felt this pain, I can’t let anyone else suffer the same way. We have to make sure something like this is never repeated.”
This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of another school massacre, the Virginia Tech Shootings, of April 16, 2007. Until last June, when a gunman killed fifty people at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, our local massacre had the dubious distinction of being the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. History. The gunman killed thirty-two students and faculty before taking his own life, mowing most of them down in classrooms where they taught or studied hydrology, German or French. Everyone I know here lost someone that day. And it’s safe to say that no one in the Virginia Tech / Blacksburg community escaped unscathed. Everyone was damaged and everything changed. We learned a lot about resilience.
The buds on the tulip magnolias and today’s summer-like temperatures put the bitter wind and snow of that cruel April morning in soothingly remote perspective. But then and now Beslan reminds me how much worse it could have been, how vulnerable and precious the classroom is, and how the light of courage, dignity, and compassion can fill some of the void left by unfathomable loss.
A survivor’s tribute to her 28 classmates who died in the Beslan Massacre: