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Russian Federation. Beslan -- one year on. Soslan's story

© UNICEF/HQ05-1334/Soslan Dzugaev
This photo by Soslan was voted the best of the UNICEF photography workshop for children, held in Beslan in July 2005.

Soslan Dzugaev, aged 13, survived the three day ordeal in the gymnasium at School No. 1 in Beslan. Journalist John Varoli hears his story as Soslan takes part in a photographic workshop organized by UNICEF for the children of Beslan.

With much ground to be covered in less than a week, the success of UNICEF’s Beslan photo workshop came down to the children’s enthusiasm and behaviour. They did not disappoint, but rather impressed the organisers with their keen creativity, vibrant enthusiasm, and ability to grasp new skills and acquire new knowledge from those who had travelled from afar to instruct them.

There were some bumps along the way, however. Two of the boys occasionally proved disruptive, but the patience of workshop leader Giacomo Pirozzi seemed boundless. Mikhail (Misha) Dzarasov and Soslan Dzugaev, both aged 13, are an inseparable odd couple. Just look at them for starters. The tall and stout Soslan towers over the pint-sized Misha. Little surprise they’re nicknamed “Elephant” and “Mouse.”

Their chatter and antics range from playful and charming to irritating and infuriating. Still, it’s all easily forgiven. Both endured harrowing ordeals last September in Beslan’s besieged School No. 1. They had always been good friends, but the anguish of the siege forged an even closer bond. Whenever the workshop breaks up into smaller groups, Soslan and Misha suddenly become glued together and insist they must stay together.

Perhaps they’re reacting to their enforced separation during the siege. While Misha remained in the gym with hundreds of others, Soslan’s large and towering constitution earned him the attention of the terrorists who at first probably marked him for execution – all adult males in the school at that time were lined up and shot. Instead, they decided to use him and a few other boys as forced labour, moving heavy furniture to barricade the school. On Day 2, Soslan was given another task – to carry their video camera to document their appalling endeavour.

The legacy of the siege

“I think Soslan’s situation is even more serious than Misha’s,” says Amir Tagiev, a psychologist from Moscow who has spent months working with the children of Beslan. “He isn’t a bad boy at all, but he certainly has a lot of aggression inside.’’

“Don’t forget that the terrorists forced him to move heavy furniture during the siege, and when he couldn’t they shot at his feet,’’ adds Mr. Tagiev. “Now remember he’s only 13-years-old. Those things don’t just go away, and the aggression comes out in some of his photos.’’

Walking through School No. 1

Such aggression can certainly be seen in the photos he takes during the children’s visit to School No. 1. After a solemn and quiet beginning in the gym where they were hostages, the children spread out through the school. After about 20 minutes, Soslan and Misha come to one schoolroom – no different from the others – but this one gets Soslan talking. He starts to recall how he was forced to move furniture against the windows in this room.

“The furniture was too heavy for us, and they started shooting at my feet to make me move faster and do the job,” he says calmly, with a slight smile appearing on his face. “I thought they were going to kill me.”

As we continue through the ruins of the school, Soslan stops and takes photos of objects and places that have little significance to an outsider. One empty and destroyed room turns out to be his classroom. After staring silently at its walls riddled with bullet holes, he moves on quietly until he comes to a hatch that leads to the attic. Soslan takes a photo. I see no point in such a shot, but later he explains that when he was carrying the video camera on Day 2 he spied terrorists manning positions in this attic.

Walking through the bombed out school, Soslan takes another photo of one more empty and wrecked room. This is where a female bomber blew herself up, he explained.

“It was important for them to go to the school, to be brave,” said Mr. Tagiev a few days after the visit. “Those photos are great because they were made by children who were there.”

Taking Mr. Tagiev’s comments into account, perhaps it’s not surprising that when the workshop group was drawing up a list of places to photograph, Soslan suggested they go to School No. 1, while Misha suggested the visit to the cemetery.

As our visit through the school ruins continues, I ask Soslan how he made it out of the inferno on September 3. At first he seems not anxious to remember, but he begins his story, struggling to recall what happened after the bombs detonated in the gym. He surrenders the details reluctantly. After the first explosions, like many of the other children, he was thrown to the ground and his eardrums were shattered.

Dazed and disoriented, barely able to stand, he miraculously reached a nearby gaping hole that was once a window. As he stumbled into the schoolyard, bullets whizzed by and he fell to the ground. Miraculously, none had hit him, but he felt paralyzed and couldn’t get up. Suddenly, the powerful arm of a Russian soldier grabbed him and dragged him out of harm’s way.

The impact of the workshop

Has the photo workshop been tough on Soslan, as well as on the other children? They have relived anguished memories. Unexpectedly, however, something powerful, positive and therapeutic has happened. After visits to the ruins of the school, to the hundreds of graves, and to the playgrounds of Beslan today, Soslan, Misha and all the others have discovered a new – or possibly very old – vision of life.

“Soslan made one photo that showed his positive change, that showed his very sensitive nature deep inside,” said Mr. Tagiev. “Remember the beautiful photo with the bee on the flower. An inherently angry person would never make such a photo.”

“It’s a message of hope, full of colour and joy,’’ said Giacomo, commenting on Soslan’s bee on a flower photo, which the children selected as Best Photo at the end of the workshop. “They selected a beautiful image so full of life and positive emotion.”

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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