This photo was taken by Mikhail Dzarasov during a UNICEF-sponsored photo workshop. Mikhail was taken hostage in the school siege in September 2004. The three girls pictured are visiting the Rehabilitation Centre in Vladikavkaz.
By John Varoli
Journalist John Varoli recently visited a UNICEF-supported Rehabilitation Centre near Beslan, where treatment and support for children affected by the school siege of September 2004 continues.
VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia, 26 August 2005 – A bus full of Beslan first-graders pulls up in front of the North Ossetian State Children’s Rehabilitation Centre, the capital of this small republic, which is about 40 minutes drive from Beslan itself.
The children have come to the Centre today for help in coping with their memories of what happened beginning on 1 September 2004.
That was their very first day at school, which in Russia is celebrated with a great deal of pomp and circumstance. But what should have been a joyous occasion became a living nightmare. And 11 months later, these children are here to ease the fear and trauma which continue to affect them profoundly.
“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, who is overseeing the UNICEF psychosocial project at the Centre. Dr. Khabaeva is also the North Ossetian Education Ministry’s official responsible for the overall psychosocial response to Beslan.
“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.’’
At the UNICEF-supported Rehabilitation Centre in Vladikavkaz, Kostya Dzagoev attends art therapy. He draws masked people with semi-automatic rifles and others being killed by gunfire.
Many problems, many solutions
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.
Psychologists working with the project – all of them women – organize the children into groups. One group will start with art therapy, another with massage therapy, and yet another is led by a psychologist to the relaxation room, with soothing music and comfortable couches.
“This problem must be tackled in its entirety,” says Dr. Khabaeva. “All these children have exceptional needs – physical and psychological – and we must treat them as best we can.” Dr. Khabaeva says the art therapy programme is one of the more effective means of treatment.
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.
Children were affected both psychologically and physiologically by the trauma of the siege. Among the children’s most common physiological complaints are sleep disturbances, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Methods used by the Centre to address these symptoms include physiotherapy and massage, relaxation treatments, and therapeutic games.
Timur Dzhatiev pauses as he draws a monster-like figure, at the Vladikavkaz Centre. Art therapy is used to treat children suffering lingering trauma from the siege in September 2004.
Treatment still needed for most children
UNICEF has been a key partner since the Centre opened last October, providing equipment, medical supplies, furniture, and, above all, funding for the training of specialists.
Almost 700 children have been diagnosed at the Centre since October; about 200 have completed the rehabilitation course. About 110 children are considered fully rehabilitated, but psychologists qualify that figure, saying relapses do happen.
There are about 7,000 children in Beslan, all of whom would benefit from treatment. Otherwise the likelihood of psychological symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares is significant – as with all children who have experienced the horrors of war. 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.
But for now, resources are limited, and many Beslan families continue to balk at rehabilitation.
“We didn’t think it would be so difficult in the beginning,” said Dr. Layla Yakhyaeva, a psychologist at the Centre. “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.”
Another Centre in Beslan
Dr. Yakhyaeva says denial continues to scar both parents and children, especially siblings of those who died. For example, Inna, eight, lost her six-year-old brother during the siege. Her fear was so strong that at first she refused to go to the Centre.
Eventually she and her mother accepted the offer to attend. But at one point when the children were playing at the Centre, another child inadvertently mentioned that Inna’s brother was dead. “No, he’s still alive!” she exclaimed. “He’ll come home soon.”
Looking to the future, UNICEF officials recently met with the Centre’s Director, Zhanna Tsutsieva, to discuss plans to establish another branch of the Centre in Beslan itself. Ms. Tsutsieva is happy that there will be more resources for helping Beslan’s children. “Since this project began, UNICEF has always lived up to its promise,” she said. “UNICEF finishes what it begins.”
The new 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 to the Vladikavkaz Centre. Vladikavkaz is about 40 minutes away from Beslan.
The Beslan branch, set to open at the end of October 2005, will also provide outreach services, again primarily to benefit those families that refuse other forms of assistance.