Russian Federation: Beslan -- one year on. Rehabilitation for a scarred town

© UNICEF/HQ05-1328/Mikhail Dzarasov
This photograph by Mikhail Dzarasov, aged 13, a former hostage during the Beslan school siege, shows young people at the UNICEF-supported Rehabilitation Centre in nearby Vladikavkaz.

Rehabilitation for children caught up in the Beslan school siege continues at a UNICEF supported centre in Vladikavkaz, but there are still those who are too fearful to go back to school. Journalist John Varoli visits the Centre, which offers hope and the beginning of a road back towards normality for the traumatized youngsters.

August 1, exactly 11 months since Beslan’ School Number 1 was attacked, and a bus full of Beslan first-graders pulls up to the North Ossetian State Children’s Rehabilitation Centre in Vladikavkaz, the capital of this small republic.

September 1, 2004 should have been one of the most memorable days in their lives – their very first day at school. In Russia, this is one of the most important days in a child’s life, and celebrated with great pomp. Indeed, they will never forget that first day in September, and that is precisely why they have come to the Centre today: to help their troubled young minds and souls come to terms with incomprehensible suffering.

“These children are some of the most difficult cases we have here, and we attach a lot of importance to this project,” says Larissa Khabaeva, UNICEF psychosocial project coordinator and the North Ossetian Education Ministry’s official responsible for the overall psychosocial response to Beslan, who oversees the Centre. “They are utterly frightened of the very idea of school and have not gone back since that day last September. We plan to work with them over the next few weeks and get them ready so they can finally go to the first grade this September.’’

As the 30 seven-year-old children go into the Centre, they look curiously at the decorations on the wall and the large fish aquarium in the hall. For several hours each day over the next three weeks, they will be welcomed here as if it were their own home. The Centre’s specialists do everything possible to make the children feel relaxed in their new surroundings.

A group of young women, all trained psychologists, quickly break the children into smaller groups that are then sent to different rooms. I accompany the group that goes for art therapy, but another group heads for massage therapy, and yet another is led by a psychologist to the relaxation room – a wonderful place with soothing music, cool mountain air and comfortable couches.

The children in the art therapy group waste no time picking up paint brushes and splashing the paper in front of them with bright colours.

“This problem must be tackled in its entirety,” added Dr. Khabaeva, who said that the art therapy programme has been one of the more effective means of treatment. “All these children have exceptional needs – physical and psychological – and we must treat them as best we can.”

© UNICEF/HQ05-1364/Vano Vazagov
A photo by Vano Vazagov, 17, one of 13 participants in a UNICEF-organized photo workshop marking the first anniversary of the Beslan siege.

Since last October, the Centre’s caring and committed specialists, most of whom were trained with UNICEF support, have provided an array of rehabilitation services for children and parents, from medical assistance to psychological counselling.

Among the children's most common physiological complaints are trouble sleeping, headaches, nausea and vomiting. To counter these symptoms, the Vladikavkaz Centre offers qualified psychological and neurological help to repair the damage to nervous systems, employing physiotherapy such as relaxation treatments, therapeutic games and massage.

“It’s amazing that in a few months we were able to put together such a professional and caring team,” said Dr. Khabaeva. “We began from zero and didn’t know where to begin.”

“Our team has the right generational balance,” she added. “The children get help from both older and more experienced psychologists, as well as from young motivated professionals who in many ways are closer to the children psychologically, and can find better ways to contact them.”

Almost 700 children have been diagnosed at the Centre since October, though only 200 have completed the rehabilitation course. About 110 children are considered fully rehabilitated, but psychologists qualify that figure, saying relapses do happen.

“The children almost always make progress, but sometimes there is a sudden and dramatic regression,” said Layla Yakhyaeva, a psychologist at the Centre. “For instance, a few months ago there was a bomb scare at one of the Beslan schools, and the children who had been hostages were once again traumatised. And even though some of these children completed our rehabilitation course, they were calling us that very evening to discuss their fears.”

Like most children suffering from the ravages of war, flashbacks and nightmares will haunt the children of Beslan for years to come. Specialists also worry that more serious disorders, such as drug addiction and alcoholism, as well as increased incidence of family strife, lurk in the future unless timely and effective treatment is provided to all 7,000 children in Beslan. But for now, resources are limited, and many Beslan families continue to balk at rehabilitation. Many don't understand its benefits, and Dr. Khabaeva speaks of how difficult it was to track down and convince parents of the current group of first-graders to come to the centre. Ossetians are a proud people and most personal problems are solved within their extended and tight-knit families.

“We didn’t think it would be so difficult in the beginning,” said Dr. Yakhyaeva. “Most important is to gain the children’s trust because they have lost confidence that adults can protect them. The parents are often more difficult; they come here in mourning clothes and cry a lot. It’s been very difficult.”

Dr. Yakhyaeva says denial continues to scar both parents and children, especially siblings. One Beslan girl, Inna, 8, lost her six year-old brother during the siege. Pumped with news about the tragedy from TV, Inna was well informed but awfully frightened, and at first refused to go to the Centre. Eventually she and her mother accepted the offer to attend, but once during play another child inadvertently mentioned that Inna’s brother was dead. “No, he’s still alive,” she blurted out anxiously. “He’ll come home soon.”

Since the Centre opened last October, UNICEF has been a key and crucial partner, providing equipment, medical supplies, furniture and, above all, funding for the training of specialists. Looking to the future, UNICEF officials recently met with the Centre’s director, Zhanna Tsutsieva, to discuss the plans for another branch of the Centre in Beslan itself.

That branch will be small, with only six or seven rooms, but it will bring help closer to those families who use the excuse of distance as a reason not to travel the 40 minutes to the Vladikavkaz Centre. The new branch, set to open at the end of October 2005, will also provide outreach services; again primarily to those troubled families that refuse assistance. In a region where the people have lost faith in their government, UNICEF’s contribution has provided powerful psychological sustenance.

“Since this project began, UNICEF has always lived up to its promise,” said Ms. Tsutsieva. “UNICEF finishes what it begins.”

For more information:

John Brittain, Communication Officer, UNICEF Russian Federation, tel: (+ 7095) 933 8818. Cell: (+ 7095) 761 6648. email: jbrittain@unicef.org
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