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Saturday, September 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:17 A.M.

Captors' cruelty terrified hostages

By Mike Eckel
The Associated Press

SERGEY PONOMAREV / AP
Bodies of children killed in a school hostage-taking lie on the ground outside the school in Beslan, Russia, where hundreds of people died yesterday.
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BESLAN, Russia — Holding up the corpse of a man just shot dead in front of hundreds of hostages at a Russian school, the hostage-taker — his pockets stuffed with ammunition and grenades — warned: "If a child utters even a sound, we'll kill another one."

Hours after escaping alive, a woman who had been taken hostage Wednesday with her 7-year-old son and her mother in School No. 1 spoke yesterday of three days of unspeakable horror — of children so wired with fear they couldn't sleep, of captors coolly threatening to kill hostages one by one, of a gymnasium so cramped there was hardly room to move.

"We were in complete fear," said Alla Gadieyeva, 24, who spoke yesterday as she lay in exhaustion on a stretcher outside a hospital. "People were praying all the time, and those that didn't know how to pray — we taught them."

Gadieyeva and her mother were in the school courtyard Wednesday seeing off Gadieyeva's son, Zaur, on his first day of school when they heard sounds like "balloons popping."

She thought the noise was part of school festivities. But then five masked gunmen burst into the courtyard, shooting in the air and ordering people to get inside the building. Children, parents and teachers — Gadieyeva estimated there were about 1,000 in all — were corralled into a corner on the ground floor and then herded into the gymnasium.

The gymnasium was quickly transformed into an arsenal of explosives — bombs dangling from the ceiling, set on the floor, strung up on walls. She said they seemed to be homemade, primitive packages containing bolts and nails.

MUSA SADULAYEV / AP
A mother and daughter who survived the hostage ordeal comfort each other outside the school after the 52-hour siege.
Gadieyeva said the hostage-takers were clear in their intentions.

"[The Russians] killed our children, so we have nothing left to lose," she quoted one as saying. "We will either win, or you will die here."

"They're not human beings," Gadieyeva said. "What they did to us, I can't understand."

Gadieyeva said children whimpered in fear, and all around there was screaming and crying. The hostages were forced to crouch, their hands folded over their heads.

For the rebels, the first order of business was confiscating cellphones. They smashed the phones, then delivered a warning: "If we find any mobile phones, we will shoot 20 people all around you."

On the first day, people got a tiny bit of water to drink, but no food. After that, Gadieyeva said, nothing. When she asked the rebels for water for her mother, they laughed at her.

As Gadieyeva spoke under a grove of spruce trees, she had not yet been reunited with her mother or son, although authorities confirmed to her that they were alive.

When children started to faint from thirst, the adults urged them to urinate. It was so they could drink their own urine, Gadieyeva said.

Some children said the guerrillas terrorized them, but did not hurt them physically. When some of the children cried too loudly, the guerrillas fired their weapons into the air or out a window to silence them. "They intimidated us," fourth-grader Sosik Parastayev said. "They pointed their guns at us. But they didn't beat us."

Another child said the students were victimized, too.

One boy, 10-year-old Stanislav Tsarakhov, said another child was so thirsty he approached one of the hostage-takers who was holding an assault rifle with a bayonet attached. When the boy asked for water, Stanislav said, the hostage-taker attacked him with the bayonet. "I don't know if he died."

But survivors agreed the guerrillas were uniformly harsh with the adult hostages. Chermen Bugulov, 8, said one man was killed the first day of the siege. "One guy was screaming and they shot him in the stomach," Chermen said.

Conditions in the gym grew increasingly grim. On the third day, some children resorted to drinking urine.

"This morning we didn't get anything to eat," said Arkady Zangiyev, 9. "We got piss instead of water."

Most of the children had stripped off as much clothing as they could, often down to underwear for the boys, as they tried to survive the stultifying heat. Outside, the temperature reached 86 degrees, and the conditions inside grew more hot and stuffy.

"The kids were crying all the time, almost all of them," said Serafima Bekoyeva, a 44-year-old kindergarten teacher who was held hostage with her two sons. "Because they were hungry. And how would you react if you were held by people who were waving their guns in your face and shouting at you, 'Shut up, you pigs.' ... They kept demanding that the kids stop crying, but how can you keep your kids quiet in such a situation? So they would start firing their guns in the air."

Yesterday, early in the afternoon, explosions erupted without warning, both inside and outside of the gym, Gadieyeva said. In the chaos, she couldn't figure out how they were set off. Gunfire followed.

As the battle intensified, the hostage-takers became more agitated.

"We'll shoot until our guns stop," one announced to the hostages. "And when our guns stop, we'll blow up the building."

Gadieyeva escaped, she said, when a group of hostages finally made a rush for a set of doors in the gymnasium.

Gadieyeva said that given the ruthlessness of the hostage-takers and the growing exhaustion of the hostages, there was little choice but for Russian forces to act.

"If [Russian soldiers] didn't [storm] the building, in a few hours time, people were already at the stage of unconsciousness and would have died anyway," she said.

Material from The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Christian Science Monitor is included in this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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