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Russian Federation. Beslan -- One Year On: Alina and Alana

© UNICEF/HQ05-1300/Pirozzi
Alina mourns her mother in the gymnasium of School No. 1

Alana Alikova, aged 17, lost her mother, and Alina Sakieva, aged 18, suffered three days of terror in the gymnasium of School No. 1 in Beslan. Journalist John Varoli hears their stories and finds a remarkable change in their mental well being during a UNICEF photography workshop for the children of Beslan.

While less than half of the 13 children who attended the UNICEF photography workshop for Beslan’s children were former School No. 1 hostages, all remain scarred by the loss of friends, neighbours, and loved ones. Alina Sakieva, 18, and Alana Alikova, 17, are very different girls, but one year later they share a common challenge – trying to come to terms with the events of last September. When I first meet Alina, a former hostage, she comes across as a tough, no-nonsense tomboy, who is not shy to say what’s on her mind – as long as she is not asked about the siege.

Alana, a more fragile and delicate girl, missed being a hostage by 15 minutes on September 1 2004. Her mother, a history teacher at the school was killed on September 3. She is thoughtful and chooses her words carefully when speaking.

While Alina doesn’t want to speak about those days at all, Alana is more forthcoming and recounts how when she approached the school on September 1, the hostage takers were already shooting into the air and rounding up the children and parents. Stunned and confused, Alana bolted and found safety, even dashing right past one gunman.

Her mother was not so fortunate, and stayed with her classroom children to the very end. Alana carries herself very well, and gives no hint of the pain inside. Later she explains that she owes such steadfastness to her mother’s upbringing.

“Mama told me that I must always behave properly, honourably, and with self-control,” Alana recalled.

As with the other children in the UNICEF photo workshop, the most powerful moment for Alina and Alana is the visit to School No. 1. While the children have scattered in several directions, I catch up with Alana. She is near an Ossetian inscription on the wall, which she tells me means, “The Kingdom of God,” a sort of wish to the dearly departed. Somewhere not far from this room, Alana lost her mother.

"It's very difficult without mama," admits Alana. "Sometimes I just can't pull myself to believe that she's no longer with us, and sometimes I come home believing that she'll be there waiting for me, ready to hug me. But then suddenly I realises that this will never happen again, and that I will never pronounce that word 'mama' again in my life."

Until the school visit, Alina had been prone to emotional outbursts and had even been physically disturbed by any talk of the siege, complaining that she felt sick or that the room was stuffy and it was difficult to breath. She had to leave the room a few times during the workshop.

“Alina does need help,” said Amir Tagiev, the Moscow psychologist who has spent months with the Beslan children. “She has a serious situation but pretends that everything is okay, and denies that she needs help.”

Alina’s denial was clear in her refusal to even briefly speak about her ordeal, as well as her persistent refusal over the past 11 months of all offers for psychological rehabilitation. Aware of this, the visit to the ruins of School No. 1 gives the photo workshop leaders much reason for worry, and she is told she doesn’t have to go. Though she agrees, they are prepared for the worst.

© UNICEF/HQ05-1303/Pirozzi
Alana photographs a ruined hallway at School No. 1

A therapeutic journey

As she walks around the school, however, Alina softens and a more sensitive and vulnerable side of her appears. The memories suddenly start to flow and it’s hard for them to stop.

In the very beginning of the siege she tried to run away and hide with some other children in a small building on the school grounds. They were soon discovered, however, rounded up and herded into the packed gym. For the next few days, she stared up at a powerful bomb hung a few metres above her head. When it unexpectedly detonated on September 3, the blast threw her across the room. Moments later, a second explosion sent her flying in yet another direction. Then flames began to cover her body.

“As I felt myself burning, I saw children fleeing and somehow I got up and did the same,” she says with uncharacteristic calm.

It’s hard to exaggerate how the photo workshop transformed Alina into a new person. Not only was she now willing to re-live those frightful days, she was willing to confront her inner torment, finally telling UNICEF officials at the end of the workshop, “I think I’m ready now for rehabilitation.”

“If, in the beginning she had a very negative attitude, now she has really come around and opened up,” said Mr. Tagiev. “She’s now a different person. If she felt horrible when we first came to the school, today she looked at the photos of the school simply as works of art.”

“I liked the workshop very much, but honestly in the beginning didn’t think it would be so interesting,” Alina said at the end of the week. “It really absorbed me, distracted me, transported me as to another world.”

 “When I was photographing the school, I always had this picture in my mind of the way it looked before,” she continued. “I had a lot of flashbacks. For instance, when I made a photo of the corridor, I looked at it as though nothing had ever happened, as if there was no damage. I just couldn’t believe that this was our school.”

The day after the visit to School No. 1, the group of 13 visits the North Ossetia Children’s Rehabilitation Centre in nearby Vladikavkaz. It makes an equally powerful impact on Alina, and helps cement her new acceptance of rehabilitation.

“I like the fact that the children support each other at the rehabilitation centre, and that the staff does everything to help the children,” Alina said. “Even if you can never forget what happened, the centre tries to alleviate the pain. Well, you shouldn’t forget it, but you have to come to terms with it, to live with it calmly. A lot of people still haven’t been able to do this, haven’t been able to let go.”

By the end of the workshop, Alina has for the first time shown signs of becoming a happy teen. She’s no longer the brooding and morose young girl I first met. If in the beginning of the seminar she often looked away when speaking to you – perhaps afraid to allow a glimpse into her suffering soul – now she stands up straight, smiles and looks you confidently in the eye.

“It’s important to show the world that we’re still hanging in there, and that life is continuing in Beslan,” said Alina. “…That we’re keeping our heads up high; higher than those who committed this horrible crime.”

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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