BESLAN, Russia — Five weeks after the Beslan massacre, the grief is still overpowering, and for some, the urge for revenge overwhelming. Sorrow shows through the thousands of flowers piled throughout the ruins of School No. 1 and in the anguished messages of those still searching for loved ones.
"Where are you, my princess, where are you?" an unidentified relative of 12-year-old Madina Pukhaeva wrote in a plea that's tacked beside the school's front door, alongside pictures of other missing children.
In a town where seemingly every household was a victim, the sorrow may last a lifetime. But the official 40-day mourning period comes to an end Wednesday, and as that day approaches, there are fears that pent-up rage soon may cascade into ethnic violence and revenge.
Armed terrorists staged the three-day siege that ended in the deaths of 331 hostages, including at least 172 children. Many officials worry that blame could spill beyond those who perpetrated the attack, rekindling decades of hostility in the volatile Caucasus Mountains region of southern Russia.
Beslan is in North Ossetia, a predominately Christian republic that fought a brief conflict in the early 1990s with neighboring Ingushetia, a predominately Muslim republic that borders war-torn Chechnya.
Notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, in an Internet statement claiming responsibility for the attack, said nine Ingush and 11 Chechens were among the 33 terrorists who seized the school Sept. 1. The attackers, he said, included two Ossetians, two Arabs and others largely from elsewhere in Russia.
Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, said recently that North Ossetians might want to "settle old scores" when the mourning period ended. In bereaved households, many families clearly want to strike back, though against whom isn't always clear.
Zalina Guburova's 60-year-old mother was killed when terrorists set off explosives in the cavernous gym on the last day of the siege. The body of her 9-year-old son, Soslan, was found in the rubble with a gunshot wound in the head.
"There will be revenge because we will never forget the deaths," Guburova, 40, said last week, standing in her Soviet-era apartment in traditional black mourning garments. "And I would be among the first to go. My hand will not tremble."
A few of the hundreds of messages scrawled on the blue-green walls of the schoolhouse _ amid bloodstains and thousands of bullet holes _ promise retaliation. One, written as a declaration from a nearby village, asserts: "We will take our revenge." Nearby, in large red letters, another reads: "Beasts were here."
Revenge is rooted deep in Caucasian tradition, explaining the years of conflict between families, clans, tribes and republics scattered across the mountains. "In the Caucasus, blood is not easily forgotten," said Vassarion Aceyev, a local legislator who heads a newly created assistance organization for families of the victims.
Nevertheless, the desire for retaliation seems far from universal. Alan Tebuyev, 41, whose nephew and sister-in-law were killed in the siege, said further violence would dishonor the dead and fulfill the terrorists' objective of destabilizing the North Caucasus.
"That would mean new blood and new tears," he said.
Though Beslan is regaining a semblance of normality, the community is still numbed by the enormity of the tragedy. Every day, hundreds of mourners gather at the burnt-out, 106-year-old school. Many stand tearfully in the schoolyard; others stream through the roofless gymnasium, holding lighted candles and often sobbing uncontrollably.
Bouquets are placed along the base of the redbrick school and piled in the center of the gym. Scattered among the floral tributes are countless plastic water bottles as well as cookies, fruit and chocolate, left as a reminder that the hostages endured the ordeal with little water or food.
Stuffed animals are perched atop window ledges. Inside, thousands of scattered textbooks form a virtual carpet across the floor.
The mourning period is part of Russian Orthodox tradition, which holds that the soul of a loved one remains bound to earth until 40 days after death, when it ascends to heaven. Since official mourning began in Beslan, there've been no events associated with joy, such as birthday celebrations or weddings. The town's few restaurants and cafes are closed.
Many of Beslan's citizens have gone to the school repeatedly, always asking the same unanswerable question: why such evil befell their usually peaceful mountain town of 30,000.
The terrorists stormed the school on the first day of classes, herding more than 1,000 hostages into the gym and forcing many to help them wire explosives, according to witnesses. Most of the hostages were killed on the chaotic final day of the siege, on Sept. 3.
"Nothing helps me with my grief," said 32-year-old Albina Albegova, who stood near the school on an overcast day last week, clutching a red rose. Her 9-year-old daughter was killed. Another daughter was held hostage but managed to escape.
Alexander Tsagolov, a 54-year-old teacher who survived the siege, stood in the rubble of the gym, wondering why he lived when others died. "Very often, I thought it would have been easier for me if I had stayed here forever," he said. "In that case, I wouldn't feel any pain."
Tsagolov remembered how trembling children huddled close to him, asking if they would be killed. One of his worst memories of the ordeal, he said, was when terrorists executed a parent, Ruslan Betroznov, just inside the entrance of the gym to make good their threat that they would begin killing hostages unless the children remained quiet.
The victim's two children witnessed the execution, Tsagolov said. They later died in the explosion that destroyed the gym.
Boris Bogazov, a 51-year-old engineer, lost his wife, Sima, and his 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, but he said he was trying to forge ahead with a 16-year-old daughter who survived the attack. He said he had no desire for revenge.
"What happened happened. No one will be able to get our loved ones back," he said. "My oldest daughter lived and I want to be able to live for her."
(Montgomery reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)