BESLAN, Russia — For the first time in 24 hours, Zalina Dzandarova stopped feeling dead inside Friday. She had her daughter back -- covered with blood, and suffering from shock and dehydration. But alive.
A day earlier, hostage-takers had forced the 27-year-old mother of two to leave the sobbing 6-year-old behind at Middle School No. 1. Only if she abandoned Alana, they told her, could Dzandarova carry her 2-year-old son, Alan, with her to freedom.
Haunted by the choice, Dzandarova spent Thursday night imagining what was happening to Alana in the school gymnasium with about 1,000 other terrified children and parents. She blamed herself for her child's ordeal.
"I know that I will never be able to forget this," she said. "I will never be the same."
Alana told her mother that a fellow hostage, a 15-year-old boy, saved her from the gymnasium after the militants' explosives detonated and set it on fire.
"According to her, when the explosions sounded, she just hurled her arms around him and begged, 'Please don't leave me behind' " -- the same words she had uttered to her mother 24 hours earlier.
"She just held on tight to that boy. If it had not been for him, I would probably never see my girl again," Dzandarova said.
Standing late Friday outside the hospital where Alana was admitted after escaping, Dzandarova said: "I still can't believe that everything is over now, and both my kids are alive -- this is a real miracle."
More than 200 hostages -- more than half of them children -- died as the three-day school takeover by suspected Chechen rebels came to an end. Seven hundred were wounded.
"She was extremely happy to see me and be back with her family again," Dzandarova said. "We hugged each other and just felt like one single whole that was put back together again, after having been apart."
Like hundreds of families in this normally quiet town in the northern Caucasus, Dzandarova and her family spent Friday morning near the impromptu command center outside the school, waiting for news of the negotiations. When explosions prompted Russian forces to storm the building, Dzandarova and her mother walked several miles to the hospital, hoping there would be news of Alana's fate.
They peered into tents set up around the facility for the wounded, without luck.
"We finally found her at the hospital itself. She was wearing only her underpants. She was all covered in blood, but there was not a single scratch on her body. It was somebody else's blood," said Dzandarova's mother, Zamira Kudzoyeva, 64.
"She just smiled," she said. "She was just happy to see us. She told me, 'I'm not going to school anymore. There's a war at school.' "
Alana's shock and dehydration were serious enough that she was transferred to another hospital in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz, for further examination. Dzandarova moved into the hospital ward and has not left her daughter's side.
There has been much for the two of them to talk about.
Mostly, Dzandarova said, Alana wants to tell her about all the things that happened after Dzandarova left the gym -- a subject that is far too painful for Dzandarova to pursue. Who knows, she wonders, when she will be able to talk to her daughter about the choice she made?
"She talks all the time, telling me stories about her time in the gym after they let me and Alana's brother go. She tells me everything, and I have to cut her short and say: 'Alana, I do not want to be listening to all these stories over and over again. Let's forget about all this and move on.' But the next thing you know, she is talking about this again."
Now, Kudzoyeva is as worried about her daughter as her granddaughter.
"Things like that don't pass without any consequences on your health, or your mind," she said.
Dzandarova already knows that. She is changed forever. But she's focusing on her children.
"I hope my kids will get over this horrible experience, over this horrible psychological trauma, sooner or later.
"But in any case, our situation is far better than many other families who lost their children in such a horrible way," she said. "Thank God we are all alive, and Alana is with us now."
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.