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Russian Federation. A visit to Beslan - One Year On.

© UNICEF/HQ05-51311/Pirozzi
Alan Aldatov, 16, lays flowers on the grave of his friend Alana at the cemetery. Alana was killed in the siege of School No. 1.

Rehabilitation work continues in Beslan and surrounding areas but the hugely expanded graveyard is a permanent reminder of the deep pain and anguish of those caught up in the tragedy. Journalist John Varoli gives his impressions of the town one year on as he travels to a UNICEF photography workshop for the children of Beslan.

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. It’s an ominous and disturbing welcome to any city, but more so here. The graves of about 330 hostages – most of them children who perished in nearby Beslan after a 72-hour school siege on September 3, 2004 – stretch as far as the eye can see and leave a chilling first impression of this region.

Though it’s late July, and the sweltering southern sun forces temperatures to 35 degrees Celsius, crews work around the clock to finish installing the magnificent and shiny marble slabs – a gift from the Kazakhstan government – to encase each grave.

The cemetery’s proximity to the airport appears bewildering and macabre. The Ossetian cult of the dead is usually associated with the ancient mausoleums in the mountains where people would go to die. 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. In fact, this land has always been the Beslan municipal cemetery, and when it was set aside last September no special thought was given to the main thoroughfare passing by.

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. It is an integral part of their lives and identity.

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. 

© UNICEF/HQ05-1365/Vano Vazagov
The future: two small girls enjoying the sunshine on a bench in Beslan. This photograph was taken by Vano Vazagov, 17,

One Year On

A year has passed since the dread September day in Beslan. The tragedy, as locals often call it, 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 media attention of September 1-3, the most difficult period will just begin. Natural grieving and mourning could give way to a victimised mindset that would hinder the living from going forward. To prevent this, UNICEF, together with the government of North Ossetia, has been working for the past nine months 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.

“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 is also some feelings of guilt among those who felt they should’ve been there to protect their lost loved ones, especially small children.”

The anguish is felt by all Beslan residents every day.

“Beslan used to be a lively place, but now the dominant colour is black,” said Aida Ailarova, a UNICEF official 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.”

“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 suffer, all of us who live in Beslan. 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.”

Looking to the future

Mr. Tagiev, the psychologist, is a valuable source of information about life in Beslan. While most journalists or officials come for a short period of time and only glimpse the surface, Mr. Tagiev has spent many months in Beslan and has a rare opportunity to make deeper and more lengthy observations. For instance, jealousies have crept into Beslan over the compensation money provided to families, as well as who goes where on charity-sponsored trips around the world.

Victims’ families 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 and parent is a void that can never be filled, but despite the challenges many in Beslan are going forward; life continues. Above all, there are vital lessons to be learned from the people of Beslan. They are inspiring in their strength and determination to rebuild their lives and their great wisdom in not succumbing to a desire for revenge that would only lead to more violence and suffering.

A visitor to Beslan today is struck by the great love and care shown by the entire community. Locals say it’s always been that way, and one can often hear them say, “children are the most precious thing in the world.”

For more information:

John Brittain, Communication Officer, UNICEF Russian Federation,  tel: (+ 7095) 933 8818. Cell: (+ 7095) 761 6648. email:
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UNICEF in the Russian Federation

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