By ANDREW OSBORN
August 25, 2008; Page A6
The Wall Street Journal
As Ella Kesayeva watched television footage of tanks from Russia’s 58th Army rumbling into Georgia recently, it stirred powerful memories.
Almost exactly four years ago, the blunt-spoken mother of one watched as tanks from the same units fired directly into a school here in Beslan, ending a disastrous standoff with hostage-takers espousing independence for Chechnya. That siege — the worst terrorist episode in Russian history — resulted in 334 deaths, including two of Ms. Kesayeva’s nephews and her brother-in-law.
|Andrew Osborn/ The Wall Street Journal|
The bloodshed transformed Ms. Kesayeva from a beer-garden proprietor into one of the most outspoken critics of Russia’s government. She wants the Kremlin to admit it botched the siege, fully disclose what occurred and punish "incompetent" officials.
The pounding of the school was "a concrete crime," she says, insisting that hostages were still inside, an assertion the Kremlin rejects.
Ms. Kesayeva’s activist group, The Voice of Beslan, has called Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "an accomplice" in the hostages’ deaths. To get attention, the group has staged hunger strikes, blocked roads and filed multiple lawsuits against investigators and judges. "We have a right to ask questions about why they didn’t save our children," says Ms. Kesayeva.
The Kremlin’s steadily tightening grip over politics and public discourse in Russia in recent years has left less room for independent groups like Ms. Kesayeva’s. Controlled by the pro-Kremlin party, Russia’s Parliament has amended laws to make criticism of government officials illegal and complicate registration of groups without official backing. Major broadcast media are rigidly controlled by the Kremlin and freeze out critics.
For Ms. Kesayeva, watching events in neighboring Georgia unfold is a bad case of déjà vu. She sees disturbing parallels between Russia’s handling of Beslan and its small victorious war against Georgia. As in Beslan, she says the Kremlin has released misinformation to bolster its cause, establishing an official narrative that it is "unpatriotic" to question.
While convinced that the Georgian government bears much of the blame for the conflict, she says the Russian government could have avoided bloodshed had it acted more decisively earlier, by unambiguously spelling out its readiness to defend South Ossetia for example. First in Beslan, and now in Georgia, she believes that Moscow has shown its true credo: the pursuit of raw power. The fate of ordinary people comes second, she laments.
|A wounded boy is carried in Beslan in 2004, when Russian commandos stormed a school where hundreds of hostages were held by Chechen rebels.|
"In Beslan, Russian politicians used the blood of children to strengthen power internally," she says, referring to the rollback of electoral rights that immediately followed. "Now they want to strengthen their power externally."
Ms. Kesayeva’s campaign hasn’t been smooth. She has faced criminal charges, including accusations that she assaulted court officials and yanked the hair of a female opponent. Her criticism of Mr. Putin triggered an investigation into the group’s allegedly "extremist" behavior, and Kremlin-friendly media have launched personal attacks against her, suggesting she is profiting from her campaign.
Last year, in a twist straight out of a Russian novel, Ms. Kesayeva was suddenly ousted from The Voice of Beslan in a bizarre vote by people who said later that their signatures had been misused. The coup was engineered by Marina Melikova, a soft-spoken kindergarten teacher whom Ms. Kesayeva claims is a Kremlin agent.
Ms. Melikova, who lost a niece in the Beslan attack, denies that she is acting on behalf of the Kremlin. "It’s not that I want people to forget," she says. "But I want to stress the positive" — helping people move on psychologically, especially children, she says. She says she supports "stability," echoing a favorite Kremlin slogan. Ms. Kesayeva and her supporters have become too political, she adds.
Covered live on global television, the Beslan attack stunned Russia and the world. With official propaganda focused on Russia’s oil-fired return to prosperity and power, the Kremlin swiftly moved to change the subject. A parliamentary probe dragged on for years before releasing its findings with little publicity. The law-enforcement investigation limps on to this day. Trials were limited to one surviving terrorist and a few low-level policemen accused of incompetence.
Before the siege, Ms. Kesayeva and her teenage daughter lived with her sister’s family in a modest red-brick house opposite a gas station less than five minutes from Beslan’s School No. 1. It was a tight-knit family; the two sisters ran a small beer café out of their yard.
On Sept. 1, 2004, two truckloads of armed terrorists seized the school demanding that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya. They held over 1,100 hostages for three days without food and water. Three hundred and thirty four hostages — more than half of them children — died in a chaotic and violent denouement, key episodes of which remain contested to this day.
Bulldozers moved in the next day, clearing debris that included body parts. The day after that, the school was opened to the public, who traipsed through its bloody rubble. Critics said vital evidence was destroyed. The cleanup was so sloppy that locals found spent grenade-launcher tubes on rooftops days later. Months later, a local man found clumps of hair and body parts on a garbage heap.
Ms. Kesayeva’s daughter survived the ordeal, but her two nephews and brother-in-law did not. In the immediate aftermath, Ms. Kesayeva and her widowed sister, Emma, joined Mothers of Beslan, a victims’ group. As details emerged of the way in which the authorities handled the siege, the group became increasingly critical of the Kremlin.
When then-President Putin agreed to meet the group’s members on the tragedy’s first anniversary, divisions surfaced. Ms. Kesayeva, among others, refused to attend. "He was guilty for the death of our children," she says.
Weeks later, the group split over the involvement of some members with a faith-healer who claimed he could resurrect Beslan’s dead children. Ms. Kesayeva said it was a Kremlin ruse to discredit the group.
In October 2005, she left to form a new group, The Voice of Beslan. The splinter group found an office in a dilapidated former driving school opposite the shattered remains of School No. 1. Ms. Kesayeva and her sister assumed leadership roles jointly.
By then, the trial of the only terrorist the authorities said had survived was in full swing. It became a public platform to air accusations against the authorities. Victims initially threw shoes at the defendant — who was later sentenced to life in prison — but some came to sympathize with him, won over by his readiness to talk about what happened.
New members flocked to The Voice of Beslan, but Ms. Kesayeva says she was too busy to screen them. Tensions soon flared over a declaration by the group that said Mr. Putin wasn’t worthy to stand for a third presidential term. Ms. Kesayeva called a meeting that voted to expel six members, including Ms. Melikova, the kindergarten teacher who would later unseat her.
One evening a few days later, Ms. Kesayeva’s sister, Emma, found herself alone in the office when the former members turned up with some of their relatives. She had the office key attached to a string wrapped around one of her fingers, but she says the unwelcome guests managed to wrest it from her and turn her out. They then occupied the office for three days, during which Ms. Kesayeva says photographs and videos linked to the investigation disappeared. In a quiet moment when the office was empty, Ms. Kesayeva changed the locks. But by then the landlord had lost patience and terminated the lease.
Around that time, Ms. Kesayeva says she received an anonymous phone call. "Isn’t it time for you to stop?" a male voice asked before hanging up.
Ms. Melikova struck back in March last year. She called a meeting in the town’s glass-front cultural center at which she says members voted to expel Ms. Kesayeva and make her the group’s leader instead. Her account of the meeting is disputed. In interviews, three people present say their signatures signified only that they attended and not, as Ms. Melikova says, that they voted for her. Ms. Kesayeva says Ms. Melikova falsified the meeting’s minutes, a charge she denies.
As the struggle escalated, Ms. Kesayeva continued her campaign work. In June 2007, she and her supporters lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, filing 43 kilograms of evidence. The Voice of Beslan charged the Russian government with violating the Beslan victims’ rights to life and with frustrating the right to an objective investigation. The case has yet to be examined.
In August last year, Ms. Kesayeva suffered a setback: A local court sided with Ms. Melikova and handed her the group’s leadership, pushing Ms. Kesayeva and her supporters out. Since then, a furious Ms. Kesayeva has unsuccessfully appealed in various local courts. However, she lost the final appeal in February. What happened that day is the subject of much conjecture. Distraught, Ms. Kesayeva says she and two supporters banged tables in the local courtroom and protested loudly. Other witnesses say a minor scuffle ensued during which Ms. Kesayeva’s supporters tried unsuccessfully to strike the judge, who was quickly ushered away. Ms. Melikova accuses Ms. Kesayeva of pulling her hair and of landing a painful blow to her head. Days later, Ms. Kesayeva and two others found themselves facing criminal charges for assault. They have since been dropped for lack of evidence.
Ms. Kesayeva’s legal problems aren’t over. Early this year, a regional prosecutor charged the group with extremism, citing a 2005 letter it wrote calling Mr. Putin "an accomplice" in the Beslan attack. The Kremlin has expanded the definition of extremism to cover slander of a public official. The case is pending.
In her first conversation with Western media, Ms. Melikova says she felt it was her duty to rein in a group she believes had become too radical.
"We need to unite and not throw dirt at our country," she says in her cramped kindergarten office where she keeps press cuttings about Beslan. Ms. Melikova says that under her leadership, the registered Voice of Beslan group will focus on the social rehabilitation of victims and cease all lobbying and investigative work.
She calls Ms. Kesayeva a "Trojan horse" for the enfeebled anti-Kremlin opposition.
When asked how many members the group has, she cites just two names.
There are now two Voice of Beslan groups: The officially registered one run by Ms. Melikova and the one run by Ms. Kesayeva, which can no longer represent itself as a government-approved organization. Today, Ms. Kesayeva works from what used to be her dead nephews’ bedroom. The children’s computer is used for campaign work, while the shelves that once held their school books and clothes are stacked with case files.
A giant patterned rug hangs on the wall. In the space beneath it, group members sit and sip tea, sometimes bursting into tears when recalling their dead children. This is where they come most mornings to write letters, draft appeals, and discuss strategy. Some then go to the town cemetery to place flowers on their dead children’s graves. Ms. Kesayeva says the group, which continues to exist informally, has about 30 active members and 200 supporters. She says the court cases and harassment have slowed her work.
Some residents in Beslan, where emotions lie just beneath the surface, feel uncomfortable with her crusade and think it’s time to focus on the future, not the town’s dark past. They say that Ms. Kesayeva doesn’t represent their views, which echo the Kremlin’s line on the tragedy.
Sitting in her yard leafing through the latest legal correspondence, Ms Kesayeva says she’s determined to carry on. She says that recent events in Tskhinvali, the beleaguered capital of South Ossetia, suggest that the Kremlin remains obsessed with boosting its power, at all costs.
"Russian citizens were worth nothing here in the school," she says. "And it’s the same in Tskhinvali."