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Principal locked in Beslan nightmare

BESLAN, Russia—She can't make herself go anywhere near the school now, can't bear the thought of the blood stains in the hallways, the bullet holes and the wrecked classrooms, the burned-out gymnasium where so many of her children, teachers and parents were killed.

"It was such a lovely school, so warm and alive," she said, tears dropping onto her black sweater. "Now it seems to be in pain, as if it's suffering right along with me."

Lydia Tsalieva gave 50 years of her life to School No. 1. She attended the redbrick school herself, then sent her children and grandchildren there. After college she taught the elementary grades, and for the last 25 years she served as principal.

And now, almost incredibly, some parents in Beslan are accusing Tsalieva of playing a role in the town's ongoing nightmare.

Every weekday morning for the better part of a half-century she would rise early, prepare porridge and tea for her husband, and then "simply fly to school." Being there, she said in a rare interview last week, "always felt like a holiday."

She was calling the kids to order in the schoolyard last fall—it was the morning of Sept. 1, 2004, the giddy first day of another new school year—when 32 terrorists suddenly swept in and took hostage some 1,200 children, teachers and parents.

Three days later, after a tense standoff and a still-unexplained series of explosions, 336 of them were dead, nearly half of them children. Of the school's 63 teachers, 19 perished.

Tsalieva, 72, had two grandchildren among the hostages. They both survived. Her sister, a teacher at the school, also made it out alive, although she lost an eye during the firefight between the terrorists and security forces.

Tsalieva nearly died herself when the first bomb went off in the gymnasium. It damaged her left eardrum, seared her back and tore a huge gash out of her left calf. When they pulled her from the rubble, she was naked except for the right sleeve of her best, first-day-of-school blouse.

A couple of local men—former pupils—wrapped her wounded leg in a child's sweater and carried her to a nearby garage. One of them scooped some water from a rain barrel and she drank from his cupped hands.

She was taken to Moscow for special treatment to save her leg.

"At first I resisted," she said. "I told the doctors, "Please let me stay. I have so many children to bury."

There are other things besides the horrific memories that Lydia Tsalieva is avoiding at School No. 1.

She's avoiding the graffiti that calls her a b---h, and worse. She's avoiding the hateful words scrawled on the classroom walls, the fresh and angry curses, the death threats, even the accusations that "Lida, you sold the lives of our children for money."

After the tragedy, with grief and anger so heavy in the air, some parents suggested that Tsalieva had seemed too friendly with the terrorist leader, known as The Colonel.

Tsalieva said she stayed close to The Colonel so she could plead with him to spare the kids. (She told police investigators that The Colonel looked Chechen, with reddish hair and a beard. She said the guerrillas, some of whom were women, spoke Russian among themselves. One of them also spoke the local Ossetian language.)

Before long, all sorts of wild and incredible rumors were flying through Beslan: Tsalieva ordered chicken dinners prepared for the terrorists during the siege; she ate apples and drank tea with them while the children begged for food and water; she had hired repairmen over the summer who were actually terrorists, and they hid guns and explosives in the floorboards; she took bribes from the captors and even helped mastermind the attack for maximum horror on the opening day of school.

At a town meeting of distraught parents and local officials, she tried to explain away all the rumors. But a number of parents said she was negligent at best and complicit at worst. One elderly woman came at Tsalieva as if she was going to strangle her, and she accused the principal of murdering her two little grandsons.

"I can't blame these people—they're so poor, they've lost their children and they're in such sorrow," Tsalieva said. "I have to forgive them."

But the ugly rumors, the stress and the sadness eventually got to her: She resigned as principal two weeks ago.

Parents and teachers still come by her tidy little apartment to visit, and they usually bring chocolates and cookies. The visits buoy her spirits some, but not for long.

"I do feel bitterness about how people in Beslan could think I was guilty," she said, sobbing.

"Fifty years at the same school. Oh, my. That school was father, mother, everything in the world to me. But I don't care a bit about the buildings—if only my kids could be alive again."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Beslan

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