Malvina Bezhaeva, 16, places flowers at the grave site of one of her best friends, Angela Kusova, at the cemetery near the town of Beslan. Malvina is one of the 13 children participating in the UNICEF-organized photo workshop.
By John Varoli
One year after the school siege in Beslan, in which 338 people died – half of them children – UNICEF is continuing to support recovery work. A rehabilitation centre in nearby Vladikavkaz is providing help for affected children, and another centre will soon open in Beslan itself. A UNICEF-sponsored photo exhibit with images taken by children, among them some former hostages, has recently opened.
Journalist John Varoli gives his impressions of the town on the anniversary of the tragedy.
BESLAN, Russian Federation, 29 August 2005 – Minutes after our United Nations jeep pulls out of the airport of Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Russian republic of North Ossetia, a vast cemetery looms in front to the right of the road. The graves of about 330 hostages – most of them children who perished in nearby Beslan after a 72-hour school siege on 3 September 2004 – stretch as far as the eye can see and leave a chilling first impression of this region.
Crews work around the clock to finish installing the magnificent and shiny marble slabs – a gift from the Kazakhstan government – to encase each grave.
Children carry flowers into the gymnasium of School No. 1 in the town of Beslan. Most of the hostages were held in this room during the siege, including some of the participants pictured here.
The cemetery’s proximity to the airport appears bewildering and macabre. Was the cemetery’s location a deliberate move to ensure that every visitor to the region is reminded of the horror inflicted on a small town?
Indeed, nearly every passing car slows down to gaze at this disturbing but spectacular garden of marble. Some stop and get out of their car to lay flowers.
Still, its prominent public location shows how the Beslan tragedy continues to reverberate a year later in the lives of locals – whether they lost a loved one or not.
Assistance for recovery
Beslan is now a word associated with unspeakable terror and horror. Modern history has no shortage of brutality, but the cold and merciless slaughter of innocents on what should have been a joyous school day was brought live into the homes of people the world over.
A toddler walks by the gutted remains of School No. 1 in the town of Beslan. This photograph was taken by Alan Aldatov, 16, a participant in a UNICEF-organized photography workshop.
A year has passed since the dread September day in Beslan. The tragedy – locals often refer to it simply with those words – left most residents mourning the loss of a child, a parent, a close friend, a neighbour, or dear relative. For many survivors, the wounds will take a very long time to heal. For some, that healing will never take place without expert assistance.
Many experts warn that when the international attention fades after the expected anniversary coverage on 1-3 September, the most difficult period will just begin. Natural grieving could give way to a feeling of victimization that would hinder the living from going forward. To prevent this, UNICEF, together with the government of North Ossetia, has been working in the months since the tragedy to provide effective rehabilitation services to children and parents at a Rehabilitation Centre in Vladikavkaz. In autumn, a branch of the Centre will open in Beslan itself.
‘We all feel the fear’
“Beslan used to be a lively place, but now the dominant colour is black,” said Aida Ailarova, a UNICEF staff member who works in North Ossetia. “The mourning has lasted all year, and people feel uncomfortable to be happy or celebrate. There hasn’t been a wedding celebration here all year.”
The steel frame is all that remains of the roof of the gymnasium of School No. 1 in the town of Beslan.
“Before, kids used to go out late, but now people are afraid,” said Beslan resident Luda Tkhostova, 16, who had many friends among the hostages, and who was a participant in the UNICEF photo workshop. “Every time we hear a loud noise, everyone becomes scared. These days fear seems to be second nature.
“We all feel the fear. I’m even afraid to talk about the events with those children who were hostages. It’s better not to speak about it with them.”
“Beslan is really tense now, especially as the first anniversary approaches,” says Amir Tagiev, a psychologist from Moscow who has spent months working with the children of Beslan, and who participated in a UNICEF photo workshop for Beslan children in July. “There are also some feelings of guilt among those who felt they should have been there to protect their lost loved ones, especially small children.”
Reaching out to mothers
Some families of children who were taken hostage have expressed their concerns about the negative impact of prolonged humanitarian aid, when what they really crave is access to effective rehabilitation services – the priority for UNICEF since last autumn.
“Most important is that we go directly to the children in Beslan and bring them to the rehabilitation centre,” said Ms. Ailarova. “But we also have outreach programmes for those mothers who don’t want to leave their homes.’’
The loss of a child or parent is a void that can never be filled, but despite the terrible tragedy, many in Beslan are going forward; life continues. There are vital lessons to be learned from the people of Beslan. They are inspiring in their strength and determination to rebuild their lives.
A visitor to Beslan today is struck by the great love and care shown among members of the community for their children. Locals say it’s always been that way, and one often hears them say, “Children are the most precious thing in the world.”