BESLAN, Russia - Long before the first bombs exploded in Middle School No. 1, marking the beginning of a ferocious battle that left hundreds of schoolchildren and their parents and teachers dead, the hostages had descended to near despair.
‘‘At first I thought it was a joke,’’ said one survivor, Emma Gagiyeva, 13, who sat numbly on a couch Saturday, as the death toll from Friday’s clash ending the siege climbed relentlessly, to 350, with many children still missing. ‘‘Then they started to shoot the windows, and glass fell on the people. They were shooting above our heads and they killed a few people, and I knew it was real.’’
She and other survivors and their families began to give a coherent account of the 52 hours of killings and captivity at the hands of masked gunmen that erupted in a catastrophic chain of events on Friday, when two large explosions set off battles between the captors and Russian forces.
At least 1,200 people had been crammed into the school gymnasium, with no food and little water, and with a frightening network of bombs laced overhead.
Temperatures had become stifling, survivors and their families said Saturday, and some students were so hungry they had taken to eating the wilted bouquets they had carried to school. One boy said he was hoping for a bomb to go off, so the crisis might end.
The terrorists teased their child captives, and shot at least one man to demonstrate the penalty for breaking their rules.
Interviews with the survivors told of a moment when the first day of school became the beginning of an ordeal.
The day began with an assembly in the schoolyard, with children streaming in with parents and brothers and sisters to open the school year. It was like years past, until the moment when the newly arriving first-graders were to be introduced.
OBEDIENCE OR DEATH
It had always been a tender moment in years past. This year, people heard shouts, and saw something alarming: A line of masked gunmen advancing through the yard.
‘‘The terrorists ran in yelling, ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ ’’ said Asamaz Bekoyev, 11, who escaped with his mother and brother and lay in his bed Saturday at his grandmother’s house, being treated for cuts and minor burns.
A brief gunbattle ensued, as the terrorists overwhelmed the few police officers at the ceremony, who had been caught unaware.
With shouts and threats, the entire school assembly was herded into the gymnasium and told to sit down on the floor. The captives would soon learn that being told to sit meant just that.
Asamaz’s older brother, Azamat, 14, said one of the hostages, an Ossetian man, tried to stand but as he rose to his feet a terrorist shot him in the forehead. The man fell straight to the floor, dead. ‘‘I saw this with my eyes,’’ the boy said.
Another man tried to run out the back door to freedom, but a terrorist followed him, calmly sighted him through the rifle and shot him in the back. The man’s body was then dragged through the gymnasium by the feet, leaving a long trail of blood.
The cruel rules of the siege were now established: Obey or die.
Details followed: The hostages were allowed to speak only in Russian, so the captors could understand every word. They were told that they must remain in their places. They were told to hand in their cell phones.
‘‘They said, ‘If we hear somebody’s telephone ringing, 20 people around you will be killed,’ ’’ said Serafima Bekoyeva, 44, the mother of the two boys.
An order of business was soon under way. As hundreds of students huddled together, the terrorists gathered about 10 of the adult male hostages and enlisted them to help place bombs throughout the gym.
First they produced their makeshift bombs. Some were large plastic beer bottles packed with explosives, others rectangular, bricklike packets, wrapped tightly in brown tape, the survivors said.
The captors strung rope between the two basketball rims, and hung a line of these explosives overhead. The basketball nets themselves were tied shut, forming mesh baskets, into which more bombs were placed. Other bombs were arrayed along the floor and walls; the hostages estimated 20 in all, strung together with remarkable speed and skill.
At all times one of the terrorists held a small black box with which the bombs could be detonated.
‘‘They told us that one press of a button was enough to detonate everything,’’ Bekoyeva said.
Another group of hostages, about 10 or 15 boys, was ordered into the adjacent school building, where they served as a labor pool, stacking desks against doors and windows as a barricade for their captors’ protection from Russian gunfire or advance.
Through the gymnasium drifted two female suicide bombers, wearing running shoes and black clothes. Black scarves obscured their faces, leaving only a slit for their eyes. Each had an explosive belt. Each was armed the same way: In one hand, a button for self-detonation, and in the other, a pistol.
The terrifying waiting began.
People did whatever they could to take care of themselves, shedding clothes to cool down, and tearing apart school textbooks to use as fans. ‘‘For two days I was continually waving my arm to fan my children,’’ Bekoyeva said. ‘‘They kept asking for more.’’
The terrorists also gradually restricted access to the bathroom, first allowing five hostages at a time to use the toilets, then three. With little chance for their turn, the younger children could not hold back and relieved themselves in the crowd’s midst. ‘‘We had them urinate into bundles of cloth,’’ Emma said.
The air grew steaming hot and foul-smelling with worry, urine and sweat. Eventually, the terrorists shot out the top windows, the survivors said, so that a bit of air could move through the enclosed space.
The survivors also noted that their captors seemed to be students of past failures: They carried gas masks, apparently having learned from the fate of the terrorists who seized a theater in Moscow in 2002, and succumbed to a gas attack.
Sometimes the captors simply fired into the gym’s ceiling.
Azamat recalled one terrorist, a man with a short beard whom the others called Ali, saying, ‘‘Have you ever seen such kind terrorists?’’
Azamat and Emma said that a woman offered the captors all of the town’s money, but one of their captors said, ‘‘We don’t need money. We have come here to die.’’
As the interactions with their captors deepened, the hostages began to develop a sense of who held their fates. They estimated there were 30 terrorists. With the temperature rising, many of the gunmen removed their masks, displaying thick beards. They spoke Russian and a language the Ossetians said they did not understand, but was probably Chechen.
Then came the end, at shortly after 1 p.m. Friday. Five or so terrorists had just checked on the explosives, the survivors said, and a few minutes later, the hall shook from an unexpected blast.
The first bomb blew out the windows and filled the room with smoke and falling bits of plaster. Some hostages near the broken frames began to pour through them, scrambling over a radiator, across shards of glass, to get to the schoolyard. Dashes for freedom began.
Others who survived dived for shelter, pressing flat. Emma said Azamat fell atop her and his younger brother, trying to cover their bodies and hold them to the gymnasium’s floor. ‘‘He said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ ’’ she said.
Then came the second blast. Their small group rose through the acrid smell of the detonated explosives, and scrambled out the window, too.
Life and death seemed to have been left to the whims of the seating arrangement. In the densely packed crowd, those nearest the bombs absorbed much of the shrapnel and force, and were killed.
Those away from them, and near the now vanished windows, had a chance.
Everyone was sprinting madly, ears ringing from the blast.
Bekoyeva said she handed six or seven small children out the window, as older children scrambled past.
Then she went out herself.
DASH TO SAFETY
She and her two sons ran to a shed, took shelter in it as the bullets flew by, and then Azamat punched out the back window, and they scrambled through it. After another sprint they came to the Russian police officers and soldiers. Most of them realized they were safe, but all did not. Seeing the police, Emma was confused.
‘‘I got scared and thought they were other terrorists,’ she said. "But one embraced me and said, ‘Do not be afraid.’ "
Asamaz stopped when he reached a covered place near the police, and as the battle raged only a few yards behind them, he snatched fistfuls of grapes from the trellises and handed them out to the children with him — the first food they had had in more than two days.
Now lying in bed, he winced as Zalina Basiyeva, his aunt, put a traditional medicine on his burns.
Outside their window, people clustered in the courtyard, waiting for news. The death toll was climbing in the smoldering remains of the school across the street. Funerals were being planned, and those who had no word of their missing relatives were making trips to the macabre display at the morgue.
Everything the people of Beslan thought they knew about living, Asamaz’s aunt said, had changed. She rubbed bits of the filament of eggshell onto the boy’s blisters and burns, and said the lesson was indelible: "We never knew how happy we were."