BY LAST night Zalina Tsabolova had given up hope. With no news after a day of searching she went home, sat out on her balcony and resigned herself to the fact she will not see her 10-year-old son Marat alive again.
Below her, hundreds of other parents were still scouring hospitals desperate for news of their children. But Tsabolova knows in her heart her son is dead.
"Marat used to daydream," she said. "He used to dream of becoming president. We had such a clever little boy, he played chess so well. Why was he killed by the terrorists? What on earth kind of a victory is this for them and their cause? "
Crowds of bewildered relatives were yesterday at hospitals and morgues seeking news of their loved ones caught up in the Russian school siege, as the shock of Friday’s bloodbath turned to despair.
Outside overflowing hospitals, pale and exhausted relatives gathered looking for children, parents and teachers caught up in the siege, searching lists of the survivors inside.
Many still did not know whether their children were dead or alive as the overstretched staff were too busy performing emergency surgery on casualties to issue the names of all those being treated.
The main doors of one hospital were plastered with the names of some victims and 15 colour photographs of wounded children in hospital beds, too young to explain who they were.
Instead, they appeared on the lists with brief descriptions, such as "unconscious girl" and "boy who cannot speak".
At the main hospital in the nearby city of Vladikavkaz, one of several dealing with gunshot wounds and burns among victims, the head doctor, Uruzmag Dzhanyev, said 250 children were being treated.
"Many children [survivors] will be invalids. Some do not have eyes," he said.
Six badly wounded children, including a two-year-old, were flown to Moscow for treatment, but for the others the rudimentary local facilities were the only aid on offer for their wounds.
And for those relatives with no news, the next port of call was the morgue where they queued to see whether their loved ones lay amid the lines of bodies outside. Dozens of stretchers were placed on the ground with corpses on them, their skin the colour of powdered milk.
Most were children or women, naked bodies covered with black tarpaulin or plastic sheets.
Relatives accompanied by nurses picked their way past rows of stretchers, holding handkerchiefs or gauze masks to their faces against the stench.
Hardly a family in the small Russian town of Beslan has been left untouched by Friday’s slaughter.
Grief, anger and uncertainty mingled in the town of 30,000 after the bloodiest hostage crisis in decades ended on Friday with half-naked and wounded children dodging bullets as they fled and security forces stormed the school building.
There were tears of relief yesterday as some parents were reunited with children who had been held hostage for 52 hours. While some mothers who had kept a vigil outside the school since the crisis broke out on Wednesday clasped their young children and wept, others held only photographs of their loved ones as they searched for them amid the dead and the injured.
One man showed hospital nurses a photograph of a young boy dressed in a suit. Another elderly man held a photograph of his grown-up daughter.
Zelim Dzeliyev held up photos of his neighbour’s children, four girls, all lost. His friend Albert, also missing, was pictured on holiday with his wife on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
"My daughter escaped but my son, no one knows what happened to him. We have checked the hospitals, we have asked everyone, but we have no news," said one woman. "The bodies must be so burnt that we may never recognise them."
With hundreds still being treated for burns and gunshot wounds, anxious relatives also milled at the town’s cinema, where officials were due to provide details of the dead and injured.
One man, Alan, looking for news of his sister, said: "Everyone in this town has lost someone. What they say on television is a lie. There could be 600 dead."
His eyes were red from lack of sleep and he blinked repeatedly to stop tears as he walked through the crowds.
Ruslan, a young man, was searching for his wife: "I’ve been searching all day and I can’t find her. Where are our people? No one tells us anything. No one is protecting us," he said.
"We run here, we run there, like we’re out of our minds, trying to find out anything we can about them," said Tsiada Biazrova, 47, whose neighbours’ children had yet to be found.
Zafira Kuduzeba, a grandmother, was yesterday searching for three members of her family, her daughters Larissa and Madina, and her six-year old grandson, Zaurdek.
She wept as she remembered how much her grandson was looking forward to going to school before the end of the summer break.
She said: "Three of my family went to the school on Wednesday. Now I cannot find any of them. They have completely disappeared? I am at a loss. What are we going to do with those Chechens? And where, where have my children gone to?"
As the realisation of the scale of the damage that had been done to their small community set in, threats of revenge were also emerging.
"Fathers will bury their children, and after 40 days (the Orthodox Christian mourning period) they will take up weapons and seek revenge," said Alan Kargiyev, a 20-year-old university student.
Some of the terrified schoolchildren who had gone to school last Wednesday for the first day of the new session yesterday spoke of their ordeal. However, it is likely it will take them years to recover from the trauma.
Six-year-old Marina Khudanova, went to school with her brother Beg. His whereabouts are unknown. His family are searching for him.
She said: "I tried to be as brave as I could. In the gym I could see them hanging up big bombs from the wall and on the railing. They told us that if we tried to leave, then the bombs would be detonated. I don’t want to go back to school. I never want to go back to school ever again. I want to stay here in the house with my Mummy. I don’t want to sleep. I just want to sit here and think."
Jana, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, said the heat in the gymnasium had been unbearable.
She said: "They burst into the school and brought us all together in the gym. They made us all sit there. It was so hot. Many of the children were crying. We were so many and it became hot and sticky in there. They kept telling us to stay away from the cables they were rigging up to the bombs.
"They shouted at us and told us all to stay clear or we would all be blown up. I just sat there and made myself determined to get out of there and get home somehow and see my mother again.
"They told us that they were Chechens and that they wanted the Russian troops to get out their country. As soon as the troops pulled out, they said, we could go free."
Then the bombs started to explode. Parts of the ceiling collapsed. "Shooting started, I rolled myself up on the floor, my face was to my knees and my hands over my head."
When she looked up again there were three soldiers above her who were giving her cover as they placed her on a stretcher.
"I closed my eyes and lay as still as I could as they ran out with me on the stretcher. I was lucky, so lucky. The next time I opened my eyes I was outside the gym, I was safe, and I saw my mother’s face before me."
In the aftermath at Middle School No 1, emergency workers waded through piles of smouldering rubble searching for more casualties. Most of the windows in the sports hall were shattered and its roof had been blown off almost entirely. Its walls were pocked with bullet holes.
Some 25 bodies were also laid out in the yard on Saturday morning, most in body bags.
As the details of the hostage crisis became clear yesterday, it emerged a number of hostages had been shot dead during its early hours and their bodies dumped out of a window.
Most of the dead had been in the school’s gymnasium. They were killed either by explosions that brought down the roof, mined by the hostage-takers, or by the chaotic fire and the battles between soldiers and captors that followed.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had promised on national television to do everything to keep the hostages from harm, flew to Beslan before dawn on Saturday, as smoke was still rising from the shattered school.
However, he rejected any blame for the bloody outcome.
He also ordered the region’s borders to be closed while officials searched for everyone connected with the attack. Beslan and the surrounding region of North Ossetia have been sealed off in follow-up operations by security forces.
"Even alongside the most cruel attacks of the past, this terrorist act occupies a special place because it was aimed at children," he said during a meeting with regional officials, which was broadcast on Russian television.
Putin warned against letting the atrocity, the latest in a series of terror attacks in Russia, stir up tensions in the multi-ethnic North Caucasus region. "One of the goals of the terrorists was to sow ethnic enmity and blow up the North Caucasus," he said. "Anyone who gives in to such a provocation will be viewed by us as abetting terrorism."
As he visited the hospital in Beslan, he met several of the victims, stopping to stroke the head of one injured child and the arm of the school principal.
Putin’s harsh tone in his quick visit to Beslan suggested he had no plan to relax his determination to crush mainly Muslim Chechnya’s rebellion and keep it within Russia, using tactics long criticised by human rights activists.
However, anger among the relatives mounted over his silence during the siege and the fact that his lightning visit was made early on Saturday under cover of darkness.
"Why didn’t he come earlier? Why did he come in the middle of the night?" said Irina Volgokova, 33, whose close friend and the friend’s daughter were missing.
"He is the head of our country. He should answer for this before the people."
"His visit was a publicity stunt," said Zoya, who could not find her niece. "They should have done everything so that not even one child died. But they didn’t."
In an attempt to fend off concerns that the government side had provoked the bloodshed, Putin stressed that security officials had not planned to storm the school.
However, he appeared angry as he criticised officials who sought to commend the security forces. "As far as the special forces are concerned, this is a separate story. We will talk about it later," he said.
But Moscow also lashed out against accusations the storming of the school could have been averted, describing as "blasphemous" a request by the European Union for an explanation to the bloody end to the hostage seizure.
Russia has accused many European governments of hypocrisy for stating their commitment to fight terrorism while criticising Russia’s war in Chechnya, which Moscow claims is a front in the fight against international terrorism.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinsky said 35 militants had been involved in the hostage seizure, and all had been killed.
Investigators are looking into whether they had smuggled the explosives and weapons into the school and hidden them during a renovation over the summer.
Meanwhile international condemnation for the attack and sympathy for the victims poured into Russia. Many Western countries conveyed their condolences to President Putin. In addition, Pope John Paul II condemned the attack as a "vile and ruthless aggression on defenceless children and families" and offered his "heartfelt affection to the Russian people in this hour of dismay and anguish".
In Russia, some analysts were speculating that Putin will assess foreign and domestic reaction before committing himself to stronger action. Political analyst Leonid Sedov said that in absence of broad public criticism, the president may feel little pressure to change course on his policy towards Chechnya.
"Domestic public opinion is not a significant factor," Sedov said. "After all, it’s Ossetian children who were killed and xenophobia is very high in our country. Perhaps if they had blown up the State Duma then the government might think about changing policy."