Victims of Beslan Terror Still Search For Comfort, Wait For Answers

On the first day of school in Sept 2004, after terrorists took hundreds of children and parents hostage in Russia's Northern Caucasus region, a bloodbath ensued. Questions and scars linger.

Russian schoolboys standing where the Beslan hostage crisis took placeon Sept.1, 2004
Russian schoolboys standing where the Beslan hostage crisis took placeon Sept.1, 2004
Zaur Farniev and Lana Parastaeva

BESLAN — Along the road that once connected the North and South Caucasus stands Holy Alanskii, the only functioning convent in North Ossetia.

The original structure was first built sometime before the Russian Revolution, but had been completely abandoned in 2004 when the current nuns moved in. Now there is a stone fence and a whole complex behind it: a church, living quarters for the nuns, a house for pilgrims and a rehabilitation center.

It is the rehabilitation center that has brought us here — the only one of its kind in all of Russia, built to care for children who have been in wars or other conflicts. And it was opened in 2005 specifically for the children who were held hostage in the bloody Beslan standoff of September 2004.

In the dramatic siege, 1,100 people, including 777 children, were held hostage for three days by Chechen terrorists. In the end, the tragic toll included at least 380 people killed, partially as a result of the use of heavy artillery and tanks by the Russian military in their assault during the third day of the standoff.

After the subsequent war between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia in August 2008, children affected by those hostilities were also brought to the convent for rehabilitation. The director of the rehabilitation center says that since opening in 2005, it has helped more than 3,000 children.

But its original purpose, caring for the children who survived three terrifying days in Beslan, is still an ongoing mission here. Nuns say, even now, nine years later, the survivors of the standoff are afraid to leave their homes, wont’ talk with strangers, cry at night, cut themselves off from the world, and some have taken on aggressive behavior.

One girl named Maria, now a teenager, still comes to the rehabilitation center regularly. After the hostage crisis, she would refuse to leave her mother’s side for even a minute, and would not go to school. During Maria’s visits now to the convent, her mother still calls several times a day to ensure that her daughter feels safe.

Sister Georgia, the convent's director, says the rehabilitation center has long used modern European methods and was financed by German philanthropists until 2008. Now the center is supported by donations from church members as well as by aid from the local government — though it is currently threatened by the construction of a nearby cement factory.

A failed blitz

In Beslan, everyone notes that the former hostages still need psychological support, but refuse to go to the government for help – either from a tradition of mistrust or resignation that the government won’t actually do anything.

The prime minister of North Ossetia, Sergei Takoev, insists that the local government has worked to help the former hostages, though he acknowledges that there has not been a single request for help recently.

Over the years, a program has ensured that all former hostages and their families have housing, and that all former hostages are granted admission to a university in Russia — although activists are concerned that that program is ending too soon, since students who were in first or second grade at the time of the attack have still yet to finish their schooling.

One issue unites both survivors and the local government: the lack of investigation into the terrorist attack, and how it was handled by Russian authorities. Former hostages and their families have been waiting for years for the answer to fundamental questions: Why did so many people die? Why did a bomb go off in the gym? Why wasn’t the attempted rescue mission better organized?

These are questions dear to Sergei Takoev, who led the only investigation into the Beslan attack. He had found that the assault occurred only because the local government had dissolved the police guarding the border with Ingushetia (both Ingushetia and North Ossetia are part of Russia, but have separatist elements).

When his findings were said to be baseless, Takoev was temporarily put under house arrest. When we asked him what he thought about the chances for an independent investigation, he shrugged his shoulders. “The victims have said themselves that they want an honest investigation, not because they want someone to blame, but because they want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, and that the country establishes an effective way to react if there is another hostage situation,” he said. “But every year the hopes for answers to the victims’ questions get smaller and smaller.”

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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