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Prisoners of the Caucasus

Russia's Invisible Civil War

The empty gymnasium of School No. 1 in Beslan is whipped by winds from the plains of North Ossetia, a republic in Russia's North Caucasus region. On September 1, 2004, the first day of classes, masked gunmen entered the elementary school and herded hundreds of children and their teachers onto the indoor basketball court. They held their captives for three days. In the stifling late-summer heat, some children died from dehydration. Many others were killed when a series of homemade bombs exploded, collapsing the roof and igniting a massive fire. Today, photographs of the more than 300 victims, including those of smiling girls outfitted in the ornate hair ribbons traditional on the first day of classes, line the walls of a makeshift memorial.

The Beslan siege was Russia's most heart-rending episode of carnage during the last two decades. But it was by no means unique. Two years earlier, gunmen interrupted a play at a

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