In this town of 30,000, kids ride bikes, play computer games, and as summer turns to fall, they prepare to go back to school. In Russia, the first day of school is a celebration.
It's called "The Day of Knowledge," and it takes place on Sept. 1. On that day, parents come with their children, and balloons and gifts are brought for the teachers.
"That's, like, a big deal in Russia, and everyone is just waiting for this moment, when school starts," says Dariya Fadeeva, 16, a high school senior in Beslan. "It's also a big holiday for kids going to school for the first time."
Dariya lived in the United States as an exchange student for a year in Euless, Texas, just outside Dallas. While she was in Texas, she missed her 12-year-old sister, Alia.
"She was so energizing. She liked to write, she used to write poems, and she even made a little book," says Dariya. "She edited it herself. She made little drawings for her poems."
Sept. 1, 2004, was a hot and sunny day, as Dariya helped her little sister, Alia, get ready for her first day of sixth grade. What was the last image she had of her sister that morning? "I told her I would see her after, and I remember her walking down the stairs."
Alia was heading to Beslan's School No. 1, which includes first through 11th grade – with nearly 900 students.
"We prepare for the Day of Knowledge thoroughly, because first graders are coming to school for the first time, and they will remember this day forever," says Elena Kosumova, one of the school's most beloved teachers.
Elena was in charge of the opening day ceremonies, and her 9-year-old son, Timor, was starting the third grade.
It was the first time that first-grader Alana Zandarova, 6, had ever set foot inside a school. "Alana really wanted to go to school," recalls Alana's mother, Zalina, who brought her 2-year-old son, Alan, along to celebrate his big sister's first day of school. "I wanted to hold her back until the next year. She's too little; she's only 6 years old. But she said, 'No, no, I'm going.'"
"My wife and I were very anxious, and my hands were shaking with joy because my little girl is going off to school," says Sergei Urmanov, an electrical engineer whose daughter, Zalina, was excited as she headed to the ceremony.
Sergei was waiting just outside the school with his camera. "My daughter was coming out of school with her best friend," he says. "They were carrying a poster that said, 'First time to first grade,' and they had balloons in their hands, and I took their picture."
While children gathered with their proud parents, a large truck pulled up to the entrance of Beslan School No. 1. It was approximately 9:20 in the morning.
Heavily armed men and women with machine guns, assault rifles, hand grenades and at least half a dozen bombs and detonators, quickly entered the school through the door. Another group of terrorists ran along the side of the building, into a courtyard.
Within seconds, all hell broke loose.
"It was chaotic shooting. They were shooting in the air. When we were running toward the gym, they were shooting in the ground," says Elena. "I can't say that they were shooting at people because I didn't see it. There was terrible panic all around. The shooting was intense."
Alana, Zalina's daughter, was scared and confused. "When it all started, she asked me, 'Mom, is this how it usually is on Sept. 1?' It was very scary," says Zalina. "And then I saw the terrorist's faces and I thought, 'No one will leave here alive.'"
A number of older students, who were waiting outside, ran when the shooting began, and managed to escape. However, the younger students couldn't get away.
Dariya says she heard a popping sound. Minutes later, she found her mother on the street.
"They pushed me inside the school. And they started chasing the children toward the entrance," says Sergei. "I was trying to help children escape by breaking windows and pushing them outside. They forced us into the gym. My friend was with me. We were separated and couldn't find our daughter."
More than 1,200 people – children, parents and teachers – were herded into the school's gym. Dariya and her mother started running toward the school, and were lost in a crowd of tears.
It was a hot day last September in Beslan when terrorists struck the school, taking more than 1,200 people hostage.
Elena told 48 Hours that one father was killed immediately, shot right in "front of all the people in the gym, including his two sons."
Russian investigators believe 32 terrorists were in the school, including two women who wore belts loaded with explosives.
"In the basketball hoop, there were three bombs taped up, and one up on the backboard, with wires leading to two more," says Sergei, who was in the gym with his wife and daughter, Zalina. "There were wires going to the pedal on the floor. One of the terrorists always had a foot on it – detonation would occur if he took his foot off."
At first, the terrorists allowed their captives some water, and use of the bathroom. But there was no food. And as the hours wore on, the terrorists cut off all water and bathroom privileges.
Outside, the entire town descended on the school. "We just stay here to wait what's going to happen, and when they're going to let the kids out, because everyone here hoped that they would let the kids out," says Dariya.
A government official said there were 354 hostages on their list. But there were in fact more than 1,200 hostages in the school.
Terrorists began shooting at soldiers who had surrounded the school, and often just fired into the ceiling of the gym, frightening their captives.
Did the terrorists tell those held captive why they had taken them hostage? "Yes," says Elena. "They were telling us that they were fed up with the war in Chechnya."
Chechnya is a neighboring republic that has been in a war for independence from Russia for years. Tens of thousands of Chechens, including many children, have been killed.
"One of the terrorists said that a Russian plane flown from our airfield had killed his entire family," says Elena. "Now, he wanted to kill and didn't care that it was women and children."
What was going through their minds? "Only one thing: Let it all end soon," says Zalina, who thought she and her two children would be killed. "When my children fell asleep, I would think, 'Let it happen to them before they wake.' "
As the hours passed into the second day, the hostages were struggling to survive. Elena huddled with her son, Timor.
"When the children and adults couldn't stand it any longer without water, some started drinking urine. … When I thought I was ready to drink it too, I told my son, 'I could drink yours.' He didn't believe me," recalls Elena. "I began drinking, from a bottle he had used, covering my nose with my hand. He was looking at me and then said, 'Mom, leave the last sip for me.'"
It was also difficult for loved ones waiting outside the school. "I couldn't eat. And my mom couldn't eat. While this was happening, no one could possibly eat," says Dariya. "They were thinking, no one who was waiting here for their kids could possibly eat because they know their kids don't have anything to eat – anything."
Nearly 30 hours into the siege, survivors say the terrorists were popping pills to stay awake, and they were starting to crack.
"The second day was really terrible. They argued all the time," says Lydia Tsaliyeva, the principal of Beslan School No. 1 – and a hostage. "The children were going crazy. The heat was unbearable. I pleaded with them, 'Please let them drink, please.'"
The Russian government had little to say about who these terrorists were, except that there were 32 of them. But an investigation by 48 Hours uncovered a remarkable discovery.
After the siege ended, some teenagers found a damaged cassette amid the rubble of the school. They wound the tape onto a new cassette and played it on a VCR. What those teenagers saw – and what 48 Hours obtained – is exclusive video shot by the terrorists themselves inside school during the second day of the crisis.
A bearded man appears in the video. He is considered to be the commander of the terrorists. Survivors told 48 Hours that he was called "The Colonel." His real name is Ruslan Khuchbarov, and he's from Chechyna.
The video also shows a former Russian general and now politician, Ruslan Aushev, who was the only person to meet face to face with the terrorists. "I was met by two masked terrorists who took me inside the school," he says.
Aushev first asked Khuchbarov to take him to see the hostages. "I saw this gym where the people were stuffed like herring in a barrel," he says. "It was a picture of people who knew they are about to die."
The school's principal was brought in to speak with Khuchbarov and Aushev. The terrorist leader told Aushev he was willing to negotiate for the release of the hostages. "There were seven or eight demands," says Aushev. "The main one was to stop the war in Chechnya."
The terrorists wanted Russian President Vladimir Putin to announce the withdrawal of all troops from Chechnya. It wasn't a realistic demand, but Aushev thought the government could agree – and later change its mind.
"I have four children, and I imagined if my children were among the hostages, everything should have been done to save these children," says Aushev.
Inside, Aushev was trying to save anyone he could. But before anyone would be released, Khuchbarov took Aushev on a tour of the school. At least 10 other terrorists could be seen.
Aushev is then led to a bloody classroom on the second floor where he says they "showed me 21 dead bodies that were thrown out the second floor window. These people were killed during the initial takeover of the school."
Among the dead are teachers, school employees and fathers. Why does Aushev think the terrorists showed him the bodies? "In short, they were very serious," he says.
Zalina was in the gym with her two children, Alana and Alan, and struggled to keep them calm. She had no idea that Aushev had negotiated the release of babies and their mothers. "At first, when they allowed us to take the children out, we were overjoyed, and Alana was too," recalls Zalina. "But at the entrance to the gym, another terrorist took Alana away from me and told me to go away. I said, 'I won't leave, I have a child here.'"
Zalina was forced to choose. Take 2-year-old Alan out to safety and leave Alana, 6, behind. Or stay and risk losing both her children. With Khuchbarov and Aushev watching, the mothers painfully walked out the door. Each of these mothers were leaving an older child behind. One child could be heard crying out, "I want to go with mama."
What did Zalina see in her daughter's eyes as she prepared to leave? "Fear, uncertain fear, not knowing what to do," she says.
Was she able to tell Alana that she loved her before she left? "Yes," says Zalina. "She said she loved me, too."
One by one, the mothers left the building. "To leave a child behind, it's beyond words," says Zalina. "One has to live through this."
Eleven mothers carried out 14 babies. At the last moment, a terrorist handed another baby to Aushev. The boy's mother couldn't leave her older child behind.
Elena will never forget, or forgive, those terrorists: "They are not human. And there is no place for them on this earth."
Nearly 50 hours had now passed since Dariya's 12-year-old sister, Alia, and hundreds of other children had been taken hostage.
Dariya didn't know it, but her sister was huddled with Elena, and her son, Timor. "I had the feeling, as I was lying there, that there is no way out of this, that the whole crowd should get up as one and rush the bombs – and it will be all over," says Elena.
Terrorists repeatedly fired at troops who had surrounded the schools. Zalina, who had been forced to leave her daughter Alana behind, heard every shot. "It would be easier for me to be inside the school," she says.
Sergei was in the gym with his wife, his only daughter, his sister and two nieces. "The younger niece was a diabetic in constant need of insulin," says Sergei. "On the second day, she was close to a coma and couldn't talk."
The crisis is now in critical condition. Hundreds of school children are suffering from severe dehydration. Thousands of townspeople are demanding action, including more than 100 men dressed in camouflage who have brought their own weapons from home.
The end of this horrific standoff begins with an explosion in the afternoon – 52 hours into the siege. "There was just like a big noise, and we didn't know what it was," says Dariya.
Survivors believe the explosion was accidental, and that the bomb inside the basketball hoop went off. "When the explosion broke out, I saw my wife bleeding from her neck and mouth, and she fell over us, covering us," says Sergei. "My daughter didn't have a scratch on her."
"There was just a chorus of screams. I could see lots of dead bodies," recalls photographer Dimitri Beliakov, who was just 50 yards away from the school. He was positioned on the fourth floor of a building with a Spetznaz team, members of the Russian Special Forces.
"I saw two large dead women lying at an angle. I tucked my daughter under them and lay on top of her, shielding her from subsequent explosions," says Sergei.
"After the explosion, there was a pile of dead children's bodies, and then complete silence," says Elena, who couldn't locate her son. "All the children looked the same."
Only 12 seconds passed since that first explosion.
"I got up. I lifted my daughter, stepped over guts, legs, body parts," says Sergei. "And I went through the mess. All those wounded, I couldn't help them. God forgive me."
Meanwhile, people panicked outside the streets of Beslan. "So many people just started running," says Dariya. "And mothers started screaming, thinking that just all the kids are dead."
In an apartment, Beliakov shot a picture of the blown-out gym with a telephoto lens. "I never saw such a thing in my life," he says.
Moments after the two explosions, an enormous gun battle erupted. Special Forces snipers started picking off the terrorists. "They just opened fire," says Beliakov. "They started firing at school."
"After the second explosion, I saw a lot of children climbing over the windowsill. That gave me the idea to escape through the window," says Elena, who escaped from the school amid the chaos and confusion. "I saw some garages. There were other women there with children. I saw a woman fall down by the garages."
"The first people I saw were two men from our town. They were armed," adds Elena. "One told me to run over to him. He helped me cross back to safety."
The battle went on for hours. "That was just so long," recalls Dariya. "I remember myself praying, that moment. And I remember all this noise. Everywhere."
During the shooting, Beliakov photographed a young girl who had been blown out of the gym. Disoriented, she first crawled, and then climbed back inside. "She should run away, she should just go," says Beliakov. "Instead, she just crawled back. In a few minutes, the roof collapsed. And then I thought, 'This will be it for the girl.' "
It took nearly 10 hours before all the shooting stopped. Hundreds of wounded children were being rushed to hospitals. There weren't enough ambulances.
Now began the agonizing search to see who lived, or died.
Dariya Fadeeva didn't know if her little sister, Alia, had somehow survived the carnage. Then, her cell phone rang. "I heard her voice," says Dariya. "'Oh God.' That was just like she's calling me from heaven."
Alia had severe shrapnel wounds to her legs and back.
Zalina Zandrovna searched through hospitals for her daughter, Alana, but was unable to find her. But she soon discovered, from a relative, that her daughter was alive. "I entered her ward and saw her lying on the bed," says Zalina. "She gave me a smile."
Alana had escaped with some burns, and she told her mother it was one of the terrorists who had saved her – the only terrorist who survived.
Teacher Elena Kosumova's son, Timor, also survived. He was seen sprinting toward freedom in a photo taken by Beliakov. Although his physical wounds have healed, emotionally he is still on the mend. "He played only with toy guns, playing war, for one whole month," says Elena.
Beliakov found the girl who was blown out of the gym after a five-day search. She is 7-year-old Aida Sidakova. "I found myself very, very happy," says Beliakov. "I just took her arm, her little arm and I just kissed it. I was very, very happy."
As the shooting raged on, Sergei Urmanov ran for safety, carrying his daughter, Zalina. "As I was carrying her, I fell several times. My daughter asked me, 'Daddy, why are you falling all the time,'" recalls Sergei. "But as long as we were together, she didn't worry about anything. She trusted in me 100 percent. She knew that as long as I'm here, all would be fine."
But after an explosion, Sergei and his daughter were separated. Zalina was shot, and died. Sergei also lost his two nieces, his sister and his wife.
At the remains of the school, family members and townspeople have memorialized the suffering by leaving bottles of water, hoping somehow to quench the victims' thirst.
There were more than 1,200 hostages. Officials say 330 died – 176 of them children. More than 500 others were wounded, and 24 children are now orphans.
Dariya's sister, Alia, has been recovering in a Moscow hospital since September. 48 Hours helped reunite the two sisters. But like all the people of Beslan, the girls are struggling to go on with their lives.
"She says she's doing fine, but my mom says she's having headaches and she gets really weak," says Dariya. "I'm thinking, she doesn't know how many of her friends are dead."
Sept. 1 used to be a joyous day for Dariya. What will it be now? "That's probably never going to be a holiday ever again," she says.
Will Beslan ever be the same? "Never," says Dariya. "Never."