Monday, December 10, 2007

Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1 by Timothy Phillips

This book is an interesting read about what happened at the siege of Beslan's school No. 1 but in the end I found it lacking. The book is broken into chapters, but they are not exactly in chronological order. The first chapter will address a part of the Siege while the next will go into the background of Chechnya or Russia and maybe tell the author's own adventures while over there and what kind of impact they had on him, the next chapter will again relate to Beslan and the one after again to the historical context, and so on and so forth.

I have to say that the author committed a few errors in his historical prose and I can't say he was 'unbiased' in presenting the plight of the Chechens. The author does talk about the various deportations of the Chechen and Ingush people as well as a variety of other ethnicities throughout the Soviet Union, what I noticed was missing was the fact that none of the other ethnicities turned to terrorism against innocent civilians, worse women and children, aside from the Chechens, why leave that out? The accounts from the parents and others who were trapped in the school were all quite interesting.

Some stories that are stuck in my mind are when the first police units arrived they had blanks for bullets, the police "armourer" had gone to the city and had taken the key to their arsenal with him. At one point when a negotiator asked the terrorists if they would allow food and water to be brought in for the children the response was that the children "had announced their own hunger strike in sympathy with the terrorists' aims." More than once the author points out the media's incorrect guesstimates when it came to how many hostages were bieng held in the School. The exact number of 354 was pronounced when the reality was that it only covered perhaps a quarter of those trapped in the school. This under counting, according to the author and some of those trapped inside the school, seemed to enrage the terrorists. When the siege began on the first day children and adults were still allowed to get water from a tap and go to the bathroom, by the second day this was rescinded as the terrorists awaited expected "VIPs" whom they demanded to see so that they could discuss their demands. Chaos and panic were evident throughout, a village less than a mile from Beslan was receiving calls where the callers claimed they had seen the local school attacked by terrorists. When the local police went to investigate it turned out that the attackers were special forces practicing for the storming of School No. 1.

What I wasn't too interested in seeing, yet saw a lot of, were wild claims with little to back them up aside from rumors and hearsay, this could be seen in regards to the Russian president Putin and a variety of other 'characters' in this situation who apparently owe their jobs to him, the terrorists and why they would grow aggravated, and a variety of other incidents which one can only guess at when wondering what the cause or causes might have been. I, personally, would simply have preferred to simply hear the outcome and not the author's ideas about how or why the outcome was come to. Without all the facts being available for scrutiny it is very hard to understand what the truth is and to separate it from the chaos of the events in question which inevitably lead to such rumors. While it might be OK for the author to present what he's heard in terms of rumors and innuendos it would be a benefit if he were to specifically state which can be proven to be true and which are simply allegations. There is also a recounting of the Nord Ost siege, which took place in Moscow a few years before Beslan, which in my opinion leaves a lot out of what happened and easily puts all the blame on Russian officials and special forces. For a more balanced view of that incident and others, including Beslan, I would recommend "Terror at Beslan" by John Giduck. Giduck's book has an abundant number of interviews with Special Forces and others who helped to rescue as many children as they could, some moving into the field of fire to distract the terrorists from the children when they were running out of the school after the two initial explosions. In this book hardly any of that is covered, if it is the author questions the accounts from the special forces side. It would have been preferable if the author actually interviewed not only survivors and locals but also some of the special forces that participated in this operation. When it comes to their side of the events all one has in this book is speculation. When I saw the following words "...the mighty Russian bear had fallen" in regards to uncensored footage being shown of this event I couldn't help myself but to think, is this what the world thought of the US on 9/11? Doubtful. A lot of blame is leveled against government forces and administration but nowhere did I find a recounting of the massive number of civilians who came out to the school armed with their own weapons and shooting indiscriminately at the terrorists throughout the siege. Yes, mistakes were made on all sides, this was a chaotic situation but that doesn't make it alright to pile all the blame on any one body. While it did take time for Alpha and other special forces to finally be able to rescue those trapped throughout the school this was because they were searching the school one classroom at a time and not running through it screaming 'Marco!' All in all I'd have to caution those reading this, if you do read it get Giduck's book as well to see the other side.

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