Alina Sakieva, 18, grieves, seated in the gymnasium of School No. 1 in the town of Beslan. She is one of 13 children participating in a UNICEF-organized photography workshop.
By John Varoli
Alana Alikova, 17, lost her mother, while Alina Sakieva, 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.
BESLAN, Russian Federation, 29 August 2005 – UNICEF photography workshop participants Alina Sakieva, 18, and Alana Alikova, 17, are very different, but they share a common challenge – trying to come to terms with the events of last September’s school siege.
Alina, who was taken hostage, 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 taken hostage by 15 minutes on 1 September 2004. Her mother, a history teacher at the school, was not so fortunate; she was killed on 3 September.
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 1 September, the hostage-takers were already shooting into the air and rounding up the children and parents. Stunned and confused, Alana ran from the school and found safety, dashing right past one gunman.
Alina Sakieva, 18, photographs the gutted interior of School No. 1 in the town of Beslan.
Alana’s mother, however, was trapped at the school; she stayed in her classroom with the children to the very end. Alana carries herself very well, and betrays no hint of the pain she must harbour inside.
“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 standing near an inscription in Ossetian – the local language - on the wall, which she tells me reads “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 get myself to believe that she’s no longer with us, and sometimes I come home believing she’ll be there waiting for me, ready to hug me. But then suddenly I realise that this will never happen again, and that I will never pronounce the word ‘mama’ again in my life.”
Alina breaks her silence
Until the school visit, Alina had been prone to emotional outbursts and had even been physically affected by any talk of the siege. She had to leave the room several times during the workshop.
“Alina does need help,” said Amir Tagiev, a 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 speak about her ordeal even briefly, as well as her persistent refusal of all offers for psychological rehabilitation over the past 11 months. 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 attend. Though she agrees in the end, they are prepared for the worst.
This photograph was taken by Alana Alikova and Alina Sakieva. Two sisters, Amina and Liza Alikov sit in their home in the town of Beslan. Both girls survived the siege at School No. 1, but their mother was killed.
As she walks around the school, however, she 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.
At the very beginning of the siege she’d tried to run away and hide with some other children in a small building on the school grounds. They were soon discovered, however, and rounded up and herded into the packed gym. For the next few days, she stared up at a powerful bomb suspended a few metres above her head. When it unexpectedly detonated on 3 September, 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 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.”
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 shown signs of becoming a happy teenager for the first time. If at the start of the seminar she often looked away when speaking, now she stands up straight, smiles and looks people 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…that we’re keeping our heads up high; higher than those who committed this horrible crime,” said Alina.