BESLAN, Russia – Thousands of mourners with red carnations and roses filed into the gutted gymnasium of Beslan's School No. 1 (search) and fanned out across the town's crowded cemetery Thursday, commemorating the first anniversary of the hostage tragedy that claimed 331 lives.
Policemen lined the streets of the small town in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia (search), and mourners had to go through metal detectors to reach the schoolyard. As Russian Orthodox priests in flowing black robes chanted prayers, some mourners leaned down to place thin wax candles and stuffed animals on the remnants of the gymnasium walls.
Waves of sobs could be heard inside the gymnasium, where more than 1,100 hostages had been forced by heavily armed guerrillas to sit amid bombs rigged around the hall, enduring thirst, hunger and terror.
People walked slowly along the periphery, stopping to examine large portraits of the victims — more than half of them children — that hung on the walls, as the morning sun peeked through the shattered roof. Many covered their faces in grief; others shook raised fists at the photos, as if pleading with the dead.
The gaping holes left by the windows were stuffed with bouquets of flowers. The sound of a bell tolling was broadcast through loudspeakers, followed by mournful music.
Many went from the school to the nearby cemetery, where rows and rows of grave markers carrying children's names, dates and pictures testify to the town's loss.
"Of course, everyone — all Ossetians — will mark this mournful day, the saddest day maybe in our history. How could it be otherwise? They shot children in the back — 5 years old, 10 years old," said Sergei Zutsev, 65, whose nephew was gravely wounded.
The attack by the masked gunmen began on the first day of classes and ended after three days, when Russian forces stormed the school after explosions were heard inside.
The siege stunned Russia and prompted President Vladimir Putin (search) to make sweeping political changes. Across the country, schools started their usually festive opening day ceremonies with a moment of silence.
"Today, millions of people both here and abroad — all who know about this terrible catastrophe and who have a heart — of course remember this nightmare," Putin said, speaking at the Kuban State Agriculture University.
"Let you and I, too, refrain from saying words that are perhaps correct but superfluous, and simply be quiet for a few seconds. Let us remember the children, those who perished, who suffered at the hands of terrorists," Putin said.
Outside the school in Beslan, grief boiled over into rage when the former principal, Lidia Tsaliyeva, tried to enter. Some in the crowd shouted "Murderer!" and moved toward her menacingly. Police and security guards surrounded her and spirited her away, fearing violence from people who remain convinced that she somehow cooperated with the hostage-takers — an accusation she vehemently denies.
For some of the young victims, however, it was time to move beyond the grief and anger that has hung over the town for the past year.
"Yes, it's difficult to remember, but I can also put it out of my mind if I want," said 16-year-old Akhshar Tebiyev, who had been held hostage along with two sisters, who survived, and a cousin, who did not. "I'm definitely looking forward to school starting."
Beslan residents have accused authorities of failing to investigate the raid properly or hold officials responsible for letting it occur. On Thursday, a group of victims' relatives delivered an apparently symbolic public rebuke to the Russian government, releasing a petition signed by over 400 people requesting political asylum "in any country where human rights are respected."
"We, the parents and relatives of the victims of the terrorist act of Sept. 3 at School No. 1 in Beslan, have lost all hope for a just investigation of the reasons and the guilty parties in our tragedy, and we do not wish to live anymore in this country, where a human life means nothing," read the petition, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
Many victims' relatives have accused the government of a cover-up, insisting that the militants had help from corrupt officials to allow them to cross heavily policed territory of North Ossetia, where Beslan is located.
In an interview with foreign journalists, North Ossetian leader Taimuraz Mamsurov, whose predecessor was effectively forced out of office, said Russian special forces acted "abominably" in the final hours of the seizure, during which hundreds of hostages died. Some witnesses have said tank fire, flame-throwers and sniper's bullets killed far more people than the captors did.
"As a man, as a father, as a resident, as a leader, as an Ossetian, we all should feel guilt," he said Wednesday.
Mamsurov and Putin's envoy to southern Russia, Dmitry Kozak, met with representatives of the mothers' committee for more than an hour Thursday to discuss the investigation.
One of the mothers, Ella Kisayeva, yelled in frustration to reporters after the meeting: "This does not work for us at all. ... The fact is, our children were burned, our children were executed, and no one wants to get involved in this question."
Stanislav Kesayev, the official heading a regional legislative investigation that the government has not endorsed, said in an interview published Thursday that the rescue effort was badly flawed.
"Not to take responsibility for the fact that most of the hostages, more than 160 people, died under the collapsing roof is, to put it mildly, incomprehensible," Kesayev was quoted as saying on the Gazeta.ru Web site.