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Russian Federation: Beslan -- six months on

© UNICEF/SWZK00249/Giacomo Pirozzi
Beslan: Louise, a siege survivor, looks at tributes in the destroyed gymnasium

By John Varoli


Six months ago, early in the morning on September 1, around 35 heavily armed terrorists stopped their truck on the street near the rail tracks that run parallel to Beslan’s School Number One. Bolting quickly across the open space, they easily surprised the children and parents assembled outside for the first day of the school year.

The terrorists shot about a dozen local men and forced an estimated 1,300 hostages – students, teachers, parents and other relatives – into the school’s gymnasium, where they were held without food or water for two days.

On September 3, in circumstances that are still not clear, an explosion in the gymnasium roared through the gym and sparked a chaotic gun battle. Some of the terrorists turned their guns on the stunned hostages, shooting those who tried to flee through broken windows and doors.

A few hours later when the smoke cleared, about 330 hostages, half of them children, had been slain and nearly 700 people were injured. About 300 of these had life-threatening injuries --- gunshot wounds, as well as second and third degree burns. The local hospital was soon overwhelmed, so many victims were sent to the North Ossetian Children’s Clinical Hospital in the regional capital, Vladikavkaz, a 30-minute drive from Beslan.

The doctors at that hospital, considered the best in the North Caucasus region and who have treated many children victimized by the Chechen war, struggled valiantly to handle the increasing number of wounded.

“This was a major turning point in the history of terrorism; never had anyone targeted so many children at one time,'' said Dr. Uruzmag Dzhunayev, chief doctor at the Vladikavkaz Children’s Hospital, adding that in one hour over 200 wounded children were brought to his hospital, with that figure reaching 270 by the end of the day.

“And while every life lost is a tragedy, I think we can feel a sense of accomplishment that only four died among all those severely injured children”, he added.

UNICEF responds

The children of Beslan had endured more than two days without food and water; they were in a state of shock and consumed by smoke inhalation. Most had severe contusions, bullet and shrapnel wounds, as well as injuries from the collapsing gym ceiling.

Few hospitals anywhere in the world could have fully prepared for such a tragedy, and while the dedication and ability of the Ossetian doctors and nurses saved many lives, the mounting complications of the wounded quickly exhausted medical supplies.

UNICEF, along with other organisations, stepped in quickly to provide badly needed support. On September 3, when the scale of the tragedy became apparent, UNICEF staff in Vladikavkaz rushed into action, gathering medical supplies for local hospitals. 

Over the next few days and weeks, UNICEF provided bandages, syringes, medicines, mattresses, sheets, blankets, as well vital equipment, such as an artificial lung, that the hospital had previously been unable to purchase.

“I don't know what we would have done without such support.’’ Dr Dzhunayev

“Many children were bleeding profusely; the mattresses were soaked in blood, and just couldn’t be cleaned,’’ remembered Dr. Dzhunayev with great unease, adding that his doctors performed 110 operations that first day.  “All these things had to be thrown away and replaced immediately.’’

Russia’s training of surgeons still owes a great debt to the experiences of World War II, and so they are well trained to perform in extreme circumstances – to diagnose quickly, determine the severity of the gun shot wound, and take the proper measures. Without outside help, however, the situation would have been grim.

“While our doctors and hospital are well qualified and did an excellent job, things would have been difficult without the supplies provided by UNICEF,’’ said Dr. Dzhunayev, as he sat in his spacious office. “I don't know what we would have done without such support.’’



© UNICEF/Russian Federation/2005/Leifer
Children at the Vladikavkaz Rehabilitation Centre

Dealing with the aftermath

While UNICEF focused on the life-threatening medical traumas, staff were well aware that this would be only the beginning, and that the mental and emotional scars must also be addressed.

“The worst problem faced by the surviving children now is psychological trauma,’’ said Dr. Dzhunayev emphatically. “This trauma lasts the longest, and rehabilitation will take a long time, at least a year.''

Part of that task means getting the children back to school, and UNICEF has provided vital aid to all schools in Beslan, including new furniture, textbooks, computers, toys, games, chalk boards and other much needed equipment. The aim was to make schools as welcoming and attractive as possible.

“UNICEF is our good friend, and we are always happy to see them,’’ said Irina Azemova, director of Beslan’s School No. 6, where School No. 1 now holds classes. “They always ask what we need, and have already given us a lot of equipment  -- TVs, music stereos, tables, chairs, and textbooks for all kids in all classes.''

While UNICEF’s organized assistance programme give the poorly financed schools in Beslan new opportunities, there is a danger that the large amount of aid and gifts pouring in from around the globe might foster unexpected problems.

Anzhela Tsomatrova, who lost her daughter, Sabina Dzhakhova, 7, at the school siege, said there are limits to the positive role humanitarian aid can play, and calls upon donors to act wisely. She cautions against spoiling the children, and worries about the jealousy now rearing its head among local families.

Other mothers are concerned the children are spending too much time on foreign travel, often arranged at the generous invitation of European and North American countries. At any given moment, about 250 Beslan children are on the road, and officials said such trips might continue for the next three years.

“I feel there is chaos in Beslan now because children are not getting an education since they travel so much,’’ said an unabashedly outspoken Albina Sakiyeva, whose son, Rustam Kabaloyev, 11, survived the siege by fleeing the school. “Maybe these trips help them to recover psychologically, but it also creates an atmosphere of permissiveness; that they are free to do what they want.''

Some educators counter with the argument that after surviving such brutality the children deserve some spoiling. The most important issue at hand is to give the children back their health, both physical and psychological. When the Russian government completes construction on two state-of-the-art schools for Beslan in late August, children will be able to focus on their education in earnest.

Looking to the future

Now UNICEF is looking to the future to make sure that something good comes out of this tragedy.

The children of Beslan are at the heart of an ambitious new UNICEF project to bring Peace Education to schools across the troubled Russian Republics of North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan.

Every child in Beslan will benefit – from those caught up in the siege at School Number One to those from the wider community affected by this tragedy. But the scheme will go even further, reaching 200,000 children and 1,000 teachers across the region.

The project will start with those who make the decisions: Ministers of Education and Social Welfare in the different republics. They will get support to draw up plans of action for peace education in their republics and working groups will be created in each republic to put those plans into action.

Trainers will be trained to work with teachers and pupil volunteers, showing them how to use principles such as tolerance and human rights in the classroom and in their daily lives. There will be a whole range of events to bring children together across the region’s many ethnic and cultural divides: youth festivals, peace camps, art exhibitions and contests and youth exchange tours between different parts of the region. And there will be TV and newspaper awareness-raising campaigns on peace and tolerance.

Peace education may seem less tangible than school books or medicines, but it is absolutely essential. It is UNICEF’s way to try to ensure that, six months on, communities pull together, instead of apart.

John Varoli, an American, has lived in Russia since 1992. He worked with street children in Moscow for four years before beginning a career as a write and journalist. Now based in St. Petersburge, he writes for Bloomberg News, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Art Newspaper, and many other publications.

For more information:

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, Communication Officer, UNICEF Russian Federation: (+7 095) 933 88 22/18




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