I imagine it would be difficult (but possible) for the Russian government to have killed Anna Politkovskaya. However, she certainly aroused Vladimir Putin's ire, and here, she details a story where she thinks some members of the FSB (descendants of the infamous KGB) tried to abuct or poison her. She nevertheless continued to work tirelessly for press freedom and human rights. Pray that the work she did may continue.
It is the morning of September 1. Reports from North Ossetia are hard to believe: a school in Beslan has been seized. Half an hour to pack my things as my mind works furiously on how to get to the Caucasus. And another thought: to look for the Chechen separatist leader, Aslan Maskhadov, let him come out of hiding, let him go to the hostage-takers, and then ask them to free the children.
Then followed a long evening at Vnukovo airport. Crowds of journalists were trying to get on a plane south, just as flights were being postponed. Obviously, there are some people who would like to delay our departure. I use my mobile and speak openly about the purpose of my flight: "Look for Maskhadov", "persuade Maskhadov".
We have long stopped talking over our phones openly, assuming they are tapped. But this is an emergency. Eventually a man introduces himself as an airport executive: "I'll put you on a flight to Rostov." In the minibus, the driver tells me that the Russian security services, the FSB, told him to put me on the Rostov flight. As I board, my eyes meet those of three passengers sitting in a group: malicious eyes, looking at an enemy. But I don't pay attention. This is the way most FSB people look at me.
The plane takes off. I ask for a tea. It is many hours by road from Rostov to Beslan and war has taught me that it's better not to eat. At 21:50 I drink it. At 22:00 I realise that I have to call the air stewardess as I am rapidly losing consciousness. My other memories are scrappy: the stewardess weeps and shouts: "We're landing, hold on!"
"Welcome back," said a woman bending over me in Rostov regional hospital. The nurse tells me that when they brought me in I was "almost hopeless". Then she whispers: "My dear, they tried to poison you." All the tests taken at the airport have been destroyed - on orders "from on high", say the doctors.
Meanwhile, the horror in Beslan continues. Something strange is going on there on September 2: no officials speak to the relatives of hostages, no one tells them anything. The relatives besiege journalists. They beg them to ask the authorities to give some sort of explanation. The families of the hostages are in an information vacuum. But why?
In the morning, also at Vnukovo airport, Andrei Babitsky is detained on a specious pretext. As a result, another journalist known for seeing his investigations through to the end and being outspoken in the foreign press is prevented from going to Beslan.
Word comes that Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, rejected by the authorities for advocating a settlement of the Chechen crisis, suddenly walked into negotiations with the terrorists in Beslan. He walked in alone because the people at the special services headquarters responsible for the negotiations were unable for 36 hours to agree among themselves who would go first. The militants give three babies to Aushev and then release 26 more kids and their mothers. But the media try to hush up Aushev's courageous behaviour: no negotiations, nobody has gone inside.
By September 3, the families of hostages are in a total news blackout. They are desperate; they all remember the experience of the Dubrovka theatre siege in which 129 people died when the special services released gas into the building, ending the stand-off. They remember how the government lied.
The school is surrounded by people with hunting rifles. They are ordinary people, the fathers and brothers of the hostages who have despaired of getting help from the state; they have decided to rescue their relatives themselves. This has been a constant issue during the past five years of the second war in Chechnya: people have lost all hope of getting any protection from the state and they expect nothing but extra-judicial executions from the special services. So they try to defend themselves and their loved ones. Self-defence, naturally, leads to lynching. It couldn't be otherwise. After the theatre siege in 2002, the hostages made this harrowing discovery: save yourself, because the state can only help to destroy you.
And it's the same in Beslan now. Official lies continue. The media promote official views. They call it "taking a state-friendly position", meaning a position of approval of Vladimir Putin's actions. The media don't have a critical word to say about him. The same applies to the president's personal friends, who happen to be the heads of FSB, the defence ministry and the interior ministry. In the three days of horror in Beslan, the "state-friendly media" never dared to say aloud that the special services were probably doing something wrong. They never dared to hint to the state duma and the federation council - the parliament - that they might do well to convene an emergency session to discuss Beslan.
The top news story is Putin flying into Beslan at night. We are shown Putin thanking the special services; we see President Dzasokhov, but not a word is said about Aushev. He is a disgraced former president, disgraced because he urged the authorities not to prolong the Chechen crisis, not to bring things to the point of a tragedy that the state could not handle. Putin does not mention Aushev's heroism, so the media are silent.
Saturday, September 4, the day after the terrible resolution of the Beslan hostage-taking crisis. A staggering number of casualties, the country is in shock. And there are still lots of people unaccounted for, whose existence is denied by officials. All this was the subject of a brilliant and, by present standards, very bold Saturday issue of the newspaper Izvestia, which led with the headline "The silence at the top". Official reaction was swift. Raf Shakirov, the chief editor, was fired. Izvestia belongs to the nickel baron Vladimir Potanin, and throughout the summer he was trembling in his boots because he was afraid to share the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, who has been arrested on fraud charges. He was doubtless trying to curry favour with Putin. The result is that Shakirov, a talented newspaper manager and a generally pro-establishment man, is out of the game, a latter-day dissident - and this for deviating ever so slightly from the official line.
You might think that journalists staged an action of protest in support of Shakirov. Of course not. The Russian Union of Journalists and the Media Union kept mum. Only a journalist who is loyal to the establishment is treated as "one of us". If this is journalists' approach to the cause that we serve, then it spells an end to the basic tenet that we are working so that people know what is happening and take the right decisions.
The events in Beslan have shown that the consequences of an information vacuum are disastrous. People dismiss the state that has left them in the lurch and try to act on their own, try to rescue their loved ones themselves, and to exact their own justice on the culprits. Later, Putin declared that the Beslan tragedy had nothing to do with the Chechen crisis, so the media stopped covering the topic. So Beslan is like September 11: all about al-Qaida. There is no more mention of the Chechen war, whose fifth anniversary falls this month. This is nonsense, but wasn't it the same in Soviet times when everyone knew the authorities were talking rubbish but pretended the emperor had his clothes on?
We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial - whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit.
· Anna Politkovskaya is a journalist on the Novaya Gazeta newspaper; she has won numerous awards for her reporting of the Chechnya conflict and was involved in negotiations with the gunmen who stormed the Dubrovka theatre in October 2002