Row After Row of Freshly Dug Graves

ReutersA man carrying a boy to safety after hostages began fleeing the school on Friday afternoon. The terrorists shot at the hostages.
BESLAN, North Ossetia -- Funeral processions snaked through Beslan as relatives buried the first victims of the school siege in rows of freshly dug graves Sunday.

All morning, backhoes worked in a field next to a cemetery on the outskirts of Beslan to dig a double row of dozens of graves for victims of the tragedy.

There were the Tetova sisters -- Alina, 12, and Ira, 13 -- buried in a common grave. At the end of a freshly dug row of graves, first grade teacher Galina Vatayeva, 52, was laid to rest by colleagues and friends. Ruslan Frayev, 36, died with his mother, Busiya, 72, but his two children made it out alive.

Cars with mourners clogged streets lined with both locals and relatives and friends who came from across North Ossetia. A light rain began to fall as procession after procession merged for the short drive to the cemetery, while a clarinet and horns played a funeral dirge.

Russian media said 22 people were buried at 20 funerals -- just the start as the death toll rose, but already overwhelming for a small city whose residents say a single funeral is often a big event, with shops and streets shutting down and many people attending and chipping in if the person being buried is from a poor family.

The funerals began in town, with crowds of mourners gathering around open coffins in the courtyards of apartment buildings. By Ossetian tradition, the women crowded close, with one shouting out wails of grief. Men arrived in even-numbered groups, standing solemnly in rows to greet family elders before brief services were held.

Hundreds of people came to say goodbye to Anzhela Varziyeva, 32, a mother caught in the raid while bringing her son Mairbek to start first grade.

Relatives said at one point during the siege, 7-year-old Mairbek offered the hostage-takers 10 rubles ($0.35) -- all the money he and his mother had with them -- and asked to be freed.

In the chaos Friday as the crisis ended, he was able to run away but was injured and remains hospitalized. Anzhela was shot in the back and killed.

"God, why did this happen?" cried Anzhela's mother, Zarima Badtiyeva, as she followed the coffin being carried through town. "No mother should outlive her children."

Aslanbek Badtiyev, 38, a cousin, railed against the corruption he said allowed the attackers to bring their arsenal of weapons and explosives into the region. A former police officer, he said bribes fuel law enforcement and anyone honest is pushed out of his job.

"Everything is more expensive because of bribes," he said, adding that police normally do not let even a box of tomatoes through the many checkpoints in this tense region without asking for money.

"How could [the attackers] bring these weapons here if they check tomatoes 20 times?"

"If [the authorities] fulfilled their duty, this wouldn't have been possible," Muradi Nartikoyev, a village elder, said during the funeral service, calling for President Vladimir Putin to seek the resignations of the entire local government.

North Ossetian Interior Minister Kazbek Dzantiyev offered his resignation Sunday, but Channel One television said it had not yet been accepted.

Amid the funerals, some Beslan residents were still searching for relatives. With some of the bodies recovered from the scene charred beyond recognition, it could take days to identify the dead.

At the cemetery, the sun briefly broke through the clouds as relatives held each other and laid flowers and wreaths on the graves in a final gesture. As they drove off, the backhoes went back to work, digging yet more graves.