Yahoo Sports reporter Martin Rogers and video producer Alan Springer traveled to Russia during July and September 2013 to get an up-close look at Sochi and its surroundings, plus focus on the bigger social issues facing these Winter Olympics. This is Part 1 of our seven-part "Behind the Sochi Curtain" series.
BESLAN, Russia – Standing in a school gym, Nadezhda Gurieva blows a kiss to a pair of photographs on the wall and wipes away a tear. The pictures, two among hundreds of innocent faces, are of her daughter and son. Vera was 12, Boris 10 when the bomb went off.
Nadezhda remembers the terrorists bursting into the school with their masks and guns and explosives and cruelty. It was Sept. 1, 2004 – the first day of school – and it was supposed to be a celebration, complete with students performing for their parents.
"[Sept. 1] is always a holiday with music, with greetings, with presents," Nadezhda says, clasping her hands tightly together and giving a small shake of her head. "It is a great event all over Russia. It had been impossible to expect the horror that took place."
Vera had worn a ball gown to school to dance the mambo with her brother. Two days later, fragments of the dress were the only way her body could be identified.
Nine years removed, the nightmare hasn't ended for Nadezhda. She still doesn't know why she survived while 334 others – including 186 children – didn't. She still hears the cries from children refused water by the terrorists, still remembers the screams of horror and confusion and utter disbelief.
And now, as Russia readies for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, every fresh news bulletin, every new security warning, every mention of danger, brings back a feeling of helplessness. For the terrorist collective that murdered her children and shattered her community – the Caucusus Emirate – is the same one that has now cast a cloud of fear over the Sochi Games.
In July, Doku Umarov, leader of the Caucusus Emirate, released a video denouncing the Sochi Olympics. Filmed in a secret location, it was reminiscent of those made by Osama Bin Laden during the early stages of the Afghanistan conflict.
"They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea," Umarov said in a widely quoted summary of his opposition to the Winter Games that start this week. "We as Mujahideen are required not to allow that, using any methods that Allah allows us."
Umarov is the successor of Shamil Basayev, the renegade leader who orchestrated the 2004 massacre in Beslan. A town of 36,000, Beslan is situated in Russia's southern tip about halfway between the Black and Caspian Seas, and some 400 miles from Sochi.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the area has been riddled with conflict and unrest, with the region's ethnic groups wanting freedom from Kremlin influence. Even the Russian Federation, with its annual military budget estimated at $64 billion, has been unable to curtail the dissidents.
For more than a decade, Basayev was on the frontlines of a guerrilla campaign to rid the region of Russian forces – an effort that sometimes included taking civilians as hostages. Beslan was one of those.
Seeking the release of political prisoners and recognition of separate states such as Chechnya and Dagestan, plus a return to traditional Islamic customs and Sharia law across the region, Basayev is believed to have orchestrated a hostage situation that lasted three days, involved more than 1,100 civilians and ended with the death of 334 people, including the 186 children.
Two years later, Basayev was killed in an explosion. Soon after Umarov took over leadership of the Caucusus Emirate and has been the face of threat since. He has admitted responsibility for a series of attacks in Russia in recent years and has put the Olympic movement on edge, especially during the last two weeks with reports that "several" female suicide bombers – Umarov's preferred tactic of destruction – had penetrated Sochi's "ring of steel" ordered by President Vladimir Putin.
Umarov is not only Russia's most wanted man but also the subject of a $5 million bounty from the U.S. government's Rewards For Justice program.
"When a leader is killed, a new generation emerges and it goes one of two ways," explained Dr. Mia Bloom, professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "Often the new generation is more extreme, and in [Umarov's] case it was."
Even before Umarov's video in July, Russia was taking deep measures to protect the Olympics from terrorism. Security experts voiced their unwavering concerns soon after Sochi was awarded hosting rights back in 2007.
As a result, everywhere you look … you are being looked at. The Russian authorities have opened their doors to the people of the world, but are certainly going to keep a close eye on them.
From the omnipresent CCTV cameras, a military presence totaling 80,000 troops, street patrols, drones, reconnaissance robots, checkpoints and even the controversial band of Cossack enforcers loyal to Putin, this is a Games that is taking no chances on security.
Nor can it afford to.
"The Olympic Games have proven to be a very big event, and obviously any such significant event may attract the attention of … terrorist groups," said Vadim Mukhanov, security expert and senior researcher at Moscow's Center for Caucasian Studies. "And publicity, PR, is a driving factor for many terrorist groups within the Caucasus region. It is obvious that the terrorist groups of North Caucasus use violence to achieve publicity and popularity. So this increases the risk."
In late December, bombings on the transport system of Volgograd, a major hub linking Moscow to Sochi, killed 34 people. On Jan. 15, Islamic militants released a video purporting to claim responsibility for the bombs. The video also included a chilling threat to launch further attacks on Winter Olympic "tourists."
The problem for Sochi's security chiefs is the area's location, namely its proximity to so many trouble hotspots. "If the Games were held somewhere else in Russia, it would be a lot easier logistically to ensure security," said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian security services expert.
A look at the map shows how close Sochi is to Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Stavropol, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, Dagestan and of course Chechnya – all regions where civil unrest is severe enough for the U.S. government to warn its citizens against travel there or else risk kidnapping or worse. The American government says its ability to assist any citizens who encounter trouble in these regions is "extremely limited."
The threat of violence has prompted several Olympic athletes, including American speedskater Tucker Fredericks and Canadian hockey star Patrice Bergeron, to ask their families to stay home.
Russia will use a combination of several different military and law enforcement groups in its attempt to keep Sochi safe. The British national newspaper The Guardian reported in October that Russia will also rely on a surveillance network that will intercept phone and data traffic as needed. The system was described by a Canadian expert as "PRISM on steroids," a reference to the controversial U.S. government covert surveillance program exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Officials of Russia's FSB security service denied the story, which included two Russian investigative journalists as primary sources.
Russian security services have also erected extensive roadblocks, according to Arnold Van Bruggen, a Dutch journalist and co-author of The Sochi Project, a five-year multimedia study on the region.
"It starts a few hundred miles out and they really tighten up the security," Van Bruggen told Yahoo Sports. "The roadblocks are extensive; they want to know who people are, what they are doing and what documentation they have."
Bud Mercer, who headed the successful security operation during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, says the most difficult task for any host city is to strike a balance between the need for a visible deterrent while maintaining a positive experience for competitors and visitors.
"Anyone can put a ring of police around a venue or lock down an athletes' village so tight that people can't move," Mercer told Yahoo Sports. "But no one wants that to be the picture of the Olympics – and by protecting one area so tightly you might be making another more vulnerable."
In Beslan, Ilona Kargieva is looking forward to watching the Sochi Olympics on television. "Through my one real eye," she jokes, heartbreakingly, as she walks around the outside of the Comintern school gym and into what was once the playground.
Now 17, Ilona has a beautiful smile and engaging nature, with a decent command of English courtesy of a sponsored trip to New York City. She was eight when the terrorists struck, and lost her eye to a piece of flying shrapnel when the bomb exploded.
"I think sometimes about my friends and I always remember what happened," she says. "I have a glass eye but I live a happy and normal life. I have been determined to do that. They took our school, they took my friends and they took my eye. But I win, because I have my life and I live how I want."
Today, Nadezhda Gurieva runs a small museum dedicated to the 334 killed at Comintern Street school. She is trapped in the nightmare of any grieving parent – not knowing how much to move on and how much to cling to the past because that is all you have.
"We all know that nobody and no place can be absolutely secure," Gurieva says. "I have been left here for some reason, probably for people not to forget the events that happened. The biggest problem is this terrorism is like a spider crawling everywhere."
She hates that the terrorists are in the spotlight again and knows fear is their greatest weapon. But she refuses to speculate about possible Olympic attacks, believing that doing so is to let the terrorists win even without a bullet fired or a bomb planted.
"If one would wait until all criminals were captured and sent to prisons … we have no chance to live to see that," she says. "The Olympics, holidays, everything should be cancelled. We [would] have to prepare a bed sheet and go to the cemetery … waiting there until they come to kill us."
To see more photos of Beslan, click on the image below:
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- Doku Umarov
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