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Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK

Russia mourns

A man challenges a soldier BBC Moscow producer Zoya Trunova describes the trauma and dangers of covering the Beslan school siege.

I heard the radio announcement about pupils at a school in Beslan being taken hostage just a few minutes after I'd left my daughter at her school in Moscow to celebrate the start of a new school year.

It was to be the beginning of the most logistically, physically and mentally challenging story that I, or any of the rest of the team in Beslan, had ever covered

All of us in the bureau were already exhausted. The hostage-taking came hard on the heels of a sleepless night covering a suicide bomb in Moscow and just days after a tough week reporting on the downing of two Russian airliners.

Voracious appetite

We all knew that the difficulty of getting Russian visas meant it would be a long time before we could expect any reinforcements.

A team of what would, eventually, be just nine people in Beslan would have to feed the BBC's voracious 24-hour appetite on radio and television - a task which would usually be achieved by many more people.

As my colleagues and I were despatched on the next flight to the region, a man called Kazbek came up to us on the plane.

He said: "I've got two children and my mother-in-law inside the school, and I know all the borders are closed. Can I drive with you - then there is a chance the authorities will let me through."

From that moment, none of us could feel distant from what was happening in Beslan.

A hostage taker and children inside the school When we arrived there, we managed to find a house close to the school where we could set up base.

The family were willing to give us space to sleep and room to set up the satellite phone to file for radio, a TV edit pack and the videophone.

For the first two days of the hostage-taking, we were besieged by desperate parents and relatives.

The authorities weren't telling them anything and they wanted any information we had about what was happening inside the school building.

It was the violent conclusion and its aftermath which made this story different from many others that the members of the BBC team had covered in the past.

" We were caught right in the middle of a town's pain, seeing parents' hopes disintegrate as the firing continued around us for more than three hours. "

When the first massive explosion and the heavy exchanges of gunfire happened, we filmed as parents collapsed with their heads in their hands, crying as they realised what was likely to be happening to their children.

Usually, as journalists, we arrive after the event; this time we had to watch people's distress as it was unfolding.

Flak jackets

We were caught right in the middle of a town's pain, seeing parents' hopes disintegrate as the firing continued around us for more than three hours.

Jonathan Charles and his cameraman/editor hurried back to our base to edit the first TV report for the One O'Clock News. An hour later, they were preparing to dash to the TV feed point when shooting began close to the house.

They ran 200 metres under fire to the feed point; I'd got there a couple of minutes earlier to discover that it, too, was in the midst of the crossfire.

We all crouched around the feed machine, in the open air, wearing our flak jackets and helmets with bullets whizzing past.

Whilst we were feeding, our soundman had set up the videophone for lives in to News24, BBC World and a BBC One special programme.

People mourn with candles Just a few yards away, Sarah Rainsford was filing report after report for radio while Artyom Liss was filing in English and Russian by telephone.

Jonathan Charles was live on air when, again, shooting erupted just outside the house.

In front of millions of viewers, he was forced to duck down and abandon the broadcast.

In one surreal moment, a live was interrupted by a cow which belonged to the house deciding the field in which it was grazing was no longer safe. It passed behind the correspondent as it tried to enter the relative safety of the courtyard where we were transmitting.

The good news is that Kazbek, who we had met on the way down, was reunited with his children. They survived.

Unfortunately, his neighbour wasn't so lucky. Vitaly lost his whole family - not just a son and a daughter, but his wife as well.

He invited us to film the funeral because he said he wanted the world to know about Beslan's suffering.




RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
Clickable guide to the school siege
Russian government (in Russian)
North Ossetian presidency (in Russian)
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