Sometimes it is the gift of children to keep their parents strong. Elena Kasumova felt her hope dying as she huddled last Friday with her son Timur, 9, in the sweltering gym of Beslan school No. 1. The hostage nightmare was into its third day: many children had stripped to their underwear, some fainted from thirst, and others drank their urine. The 16 guerrillas Kasumova could see, mostly Chechens in their 20s, were by now tired and tense. The ceiling beams were draped with bombs. Some were hanging so low that the taller women banged their heads on them as they went to the toilet. From the bombs came tangled wires snaking through the tight rows of children and connected to two spring-loaded detonator pedals held down by the feet of two guerrillas. If either man allowed his foot to stray, the hostages were told, the room would explode. "Bear this in mind," one of the guerrillas said, referring to the Russian commandos who surrounded the building. "They are planning a storm. We will defend you to the last bullet and then blow ourselves up. We have nothing to lose. We came here to die."
So it fell to Timur to encourage his mother as best he could. He massaged her feet and kissed her. He told her stories about all the water and juice they would drink when it was finally over. "He was so good to me," says Kasumova, a department head at the school, of her son, who, like the other children, became a soldier that day.
Just after 1 p.m. the explosions came. "A wave of burning hot air hit me," Kasumova says. "I saw two severed legs lying next to me." Through the smoke, she saw children climbing out a window. She and Timur clambered through the opening and ran. "The guerrillas opened fire on us, and I saw one child go down and then another."
Russian special forces returned the rebel fire, joined by armed locals--frantic fathers and uncles who, one general said, "got in the way." The first explosions were followed by more, until the roof of the gymnasium collapsed. Half-naked children, some burned or bleeding, streamed out of the school as helicopters directed fire at the building. Some terrorists escaped, according to police, after swapping their camouflage uniforms for warm-up suits. In the mayhem, one young woman who made it to safety, shocked and disheveled, wailed, "They are killing us all!"
By the time it was over, more than 300 hostages had died, and more may lie buried in the rubble. The massacre was the most ghastly episode in a terrorist spree that has shattered public confidence in the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had built an image as a leader whose uncompromising toughness could bring security to Russians. For more than a decade, the Kremlin has waged a brutal war to prevent the secession of the republic of Chechnya. But it has done little to defuse the lethal determination of Chechen terrorists, who Moscow says have links to Islamic fundamentalist groups, including al-Qaeda.