On this day in 2004, an armed gang of Chechen separatist rebels enters a school in southern Russia and takes more than 1,000 people hostage. The rebels demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from the disputed nearby region of Chechnya. September 1 was the first day of a new school year for millions of students across Russia, a day of celebration in schools that both parents and students traditionally attend. Nearly 340 people, about half of them children, died in the ensuing three-day ordeal.
The rebels stormed the school at 9:30 a.m. on September 1, just after a ceremony celebrating the new school year had ended. They initially held more than 1,000 hostages, though some were released later that day. The hostages were crowded into the school’s gym, where they were surrounded by mines and bombs to prevent them from escaping. The rebels placed children along the room’s windows to discourage Russian authorities from storming the building and randomly shot off their guns to intimidate the hostages. Temperatures quickly rose in the overcrowded gym, forcing the hostages to strip nearly naked to stay cool. The captors refused to allow food or drink into the school; some hostages were forced to drink their own urine to keep from dehydrating in the hot building.
Finally, on the morning of September 3, the rebels allowed Russian emergency workers in to retrieve the bodies of those who had been killed in their initial assault on the school. Soon after, two bombs in the gym were accidentally detonated, one of which caused the gym’s roof to collapse. In the subsequent chaos, some hostages escaped. When the rebels began to shoot children, Russian special forces stormed the school. Over the course of the next few hours, the Russian troops secured the building, killing all but one of the 32 attackers. Rescue workers found hundreds of bodies in the debris of the burned-out former school gym. More than 700 others were wounded.
The secondary school was located in Beslan, North Ossetia, near Chechnya in the war-torn North Caucasus region of Russia. The people of North Ossetia are predominately Christian and have strong ties to Russia. Chechens, on the other hand, are mainly Muslim. Chechen separatists have demanded their freedom from Russia since soon after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and have increasingly turned to terrorist tactics to further their cause. Chechnya is important to the Russian economy because of several oil and gas pipelines that run through Chechen territory. It is estimated that at least 200,000 people have been killed in the ongoing Chechen-Russian conflict.