Vika, 13, and Olya, 7, are trying to heal in a hospital near Beslan. They don't feel lucky, but they are. They didn't get killed when Chechen terrorists held them and 1,200 others in their school gym for three days, or when one of the terrorists' bombs went off inside, or even when, as the girls fled in panic, the terrorists started shooting. Three hundred twenty-five people are confirmed dead so far, more than half of them children. But with many still missing, the death toll could reach 500. Olya, formerly the star of her class, isn't talking or eating much. Vika shifts abruptly between calm and anger, and speaks dispassionately about death. Her father, Taymuraz, sitting at her bedside, names one of her classmates. "Dead," she asserts confidently. "He was too far inside the hall. He couldn't have got out alive." She's right.
Russia is trying to heal, too, and its people are showing the same mix of numbed pain and fury as Vika. Vladimir Putin worked hard last week to maintain an air of authority and strength, but faced the most intense pressure of his presidency. As normally docile Moscow newspapers charged the Kremlin with a campaign of lies about the siege, he finally agreed to a parliamentary inquiry. He furiously blamed Islamic terrorists for the atrocity, refusing to acknowledge that his hard-line Chechnya policies might have helped stoke the terror that has killed more than 2,000 Russians since he came to power. Government-organized demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and a score of other Russian cities condemned the slaughter and demanded an overhaul of the security apparatus, and in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, 3,000 angry protesters gathered outside President Alexander Dzasokhov's office, calling for his resignation and for revenge against the ethnic Ingush, some of whom are believed to have been among the terrorists.
As Russia and the world try to come to grips with what happened, many questions remain, both about the government's conduct during the siege and about Putin's policies in Chechnya. Here's a look at some of the crucial questions surrounding the massacre at Beslan's School No. 1.
DID THE KREMLIN LIE ABOUT THE CRISIS?
When the siege started on Sept. 1, Russian authorities first said there were 120 hostages, then 354. Locals knew the number was far higher. The Kremlin also asserted that the terrorists had made no demands, when in fact they gave a letter to former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev demanding that Putin declare a cease-fire in Chechnya and withdraw Russian troops. Several sources told TIME the letter bore the name (but not the signature) of Shamil Basayev, the Chechen extremist who masterminded the Moscow theater siege. But Putin blamed the attack on global jihad, ignoring the nationalist roots of the crisis. In an interview with Western journalists, including TIME, he claimed that nine of the hostage takers were from the "Arab world" and one from Muslim Africa a charge that has not been proved and which his officials have quietly dropped.
The misinformation about the number of hostages and the terrorists' demands seems a classic case of Soviet-style news management. By linking the terrorists to al-Qaeda, Putin wants to join George W. Bush's global war on terror and deprive the Chechen cause of international legitimacy. Of course, by doing what they did in Beslan, the Chechen extremists have damaged their cause more than Putin ever could.
WHAT UNLEASHED THE FINAL STORM?
Given the Kremlin's disinformation campaign, its assertion that a terrorist bomb triggered the brutal showdown has been greeted with some skepticism. But the evidence is strong that the final battle was started by accident, possibly when a bomb hanging off a basketball hoop came unstuck and fell to the floor. Observers agree that after the first blast, armed locals started firing while children clambered out of the burning building. As chaos ensued, some witnesses say terrorists shot fleeing hostages in the back; other accounts claim the children were cut down in the cross-fire.