Policemen lined the streets of the small town in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia, 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 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.