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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September, 2004, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
Beslan's indestructible constitution

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC correspondent, Beslan

In the aftermath of the school siege in Beslan, North Ossetia, in which at least 330 people died, the Russian people are trying to help each other come to terms with the tragedy.

Relatives cry for the dead
Wails of mourning echoed through the streets of Beslan and beyond

I was sitting with Zara in her living room on Wednesday when I realised silent tears were streaming down her face.

She was watching a local television programme dedicated to some 200 people still missing since the siege of school number one.

Their relatives displayed photographs for the cameras hoping someone, somewhere might have news.

The grim parade seems to last an eternity.

"That little girl is my granddaughter's friend," Zara told me, "and that's another one."

Every single face that appeared on that screen was a family member or a friend.

Solidarity

Ossetian men carry one of many coffins
In the town cemetery, 120 burials were held in the same day

For the past week I have been living in a community that has had the heart torn out of it.

In this tightly-knit town - which is barely more than a village - everyone knows someone who was injured, has died, or is missing.

Those ties make the pain of this tragedy more acute. But that closeness is also helping Beslan, helping it cope with its grief... and survive.

I arrived here late on the first night of the siege to find hundreds of relatives holding a desperate vigil.

They had gathered at the local civic centre, close to the school. They huddled in groups, some clutching coffee cups; others standing in stunned silence, their eyes raw from crying.

But they were together.

Ever since that night I have been struck by the strength of this community time and again. The kind of spirit that is so rare now in the West and so typical here in the Caucasus.

Imprisoned

I met Rima just two days after she and her grandchildren fled for their lives as the school was stormed.

The gunmen threatened to shoot anyone they caught with water

Last Wednesday was the children's first day at a new school. Rima had taken her camera; she was expecting a day of celebration.

As we talked, Rima clutched her eight-year-old grandson close to her side.

Alan gazed up at his grandmother through huge, dark eyes as she stroked his hair, calling him "her little hero".

There were more than 1,000 people squashed into the school sports hall and Rima told me the heat in there was stifling.

For three days the gunmen denied the hostages food or drink. They threatened to shoot anyone they caught with water.

But on the rare occasions that Rima managed to get to the bathroom, she soaked her shirt under the tap and then returned to squeeze vital drops into the children's mouths.

She filled her shoe with water and smuggled it into the gym beneath her skirt.

She stayed awake every night, clearing space for the children to sleep in the crush.

Ashamed

Rima talked for well over an hour, often in floods of tears, but insisting she wanted to share her nightmare.

Little Alan still has not spoken a word of what he saw, but his fixed stare speaks of hidden horrors.

I have never experienced such warmth and hospitality in my life

The family are overjoyed their children are home, but in this small community in collective sorrow, there is little relief, even for the survivors.

Rima's next door neighbour, Vitali, lost his entire family in the siege.

His wife and their two children were sitting next to Rima in the gym.

Confronted with her neighbour's grief, this brave woman told me she is ashamed to be alive.

Remarkable strength

As the first families began burying their dead this week, Beslan ground to a standstill.

There are so many cars and buses filled with coffins and mourners, there was gridlock on the road to the cemetery.

Ossetians weep over the coffins of hostages killed
Townspeople wept around the coffins of children, parents, grandparents and teachers

I spoke to many here who told me they had attended more than a dozen funerals in a day for family and close friends alone.

"I wish I could have made it to more," one woman told me guiltily, "but I just couldn't manage it."

I quickly discovered that looking out for one another here means looking out for outsiders here too.

I have never experienced such warmth and hospitality in my life. Utterly unsolicited, but impossible to refuse.

This week, two women we barely knew, came to our house bearing enormous piles of food and gifts. They said they wanted us to take away positive memories of Ossetia too.

Astoundingly, they apologised that they could not do more under the circumstances.

That solidarity is giving Beslan strength through the first and worst days of its suffering.

But when the traditional 40 days of mourning draw to a close, there is a real danger that collective grief here could be transformed into collective anger.

Fighting back

President of North Ossetia Alexander Dzasokhov
The President of North Ossetia told protesters he would soon step down

"We Ossetians are a peace-loving people", Tamara told me, "but we will retaliate for this."

Another woman insisted that those who took her son from her will get what they deserve.

Talk of revenge is everywhere here.

But as I leave Beslan, there is one image, above all, that is caught in my mind and that is the scene at school number one.

The charred ruins of the sports hall are now carpeted in flowers. Families have brought favourite toys and food for the dead.

The whole scene is bathed in the soft light of tiny candles.

And, on one window ledge, I found a message scribbled on a white cloth. It reads: "Children, please forgive us."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 9 September, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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