A group of mothers and other relatives of victims of the Beslan school hostage tragedy flew to Moscow on Friday for a long-anticipated meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
"He can't comprehend what we've been through. He's a father. I want to tell him what we've been through," Susanna Dudiyeva, the head of the Beslan Mothers' Committee who lost her 13-year-old son in the school seizure a year ago, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The Mothers' Committee has long demanded a meeting with the president to air its members' protest over the government's handling of the tragedy, both the botched rescue operation and the subsequent investigation, which they mistrust.
But when the invitation for a Kremlin meeting finally came through late last week, many were stunned and angry that the president had chosen the first anniversary of the siege for what they suspected was more a political gesture than an attempt to hear their grievances.
Eight women held an all-night vigil Thursday night, the first night of the three-day mourning in the gutted gymnasium where rebels had herded more than 1,100 hostages on the first day of school last year. More than 330 victims died, most in the firestorm of explosions and gunfire that brought the crisis to a bloody end two days later. Another group spent the night in the cemetery, where the rows and rows of graves tell of Beslan's loss.
Mourners filed through the school on Friday morning, lighting and placing thin wax candles along the walls hung with victims' portraits. In the middle of the hall, where gaping holes in the roof let through the morning sun, was a makeshift shrine of red and white carnations, bottles of water, symbolizing the terrible thirst of the hostages, whom their captors refused any water and stuffed animals.
"My blood! They stole my blood from me," one grieving mother shrieked as others tried to console her.
The assault by masked, heavily armed guerrillas stunned Russia and prompted 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 Thursday, speaking at the Kuban State Agriculture University.
Putin was roundly condemned in Beslan for flying into the town the day after the hostage crisis came to an end and holding a televised meeting with officials, but avoiding encounters with the victims' relatives.
Friday's meeting was to be off-limits to media, the Kremlin said.