Beslan: Coping with the aftermath of tragedy

© UNICEF Russian Federation/2005/Leifer
John Varoli in Beslan

John Varoli, a Moscow-based freelance journalist spent a week with UNICEF in Beslan talking to local children about their hopes and fears in the aftermath of last September’s tragedy. John has written for Bloomberg News, among others.

by John Varoli

BESLAN, Russian Federation, 3 March 2005 - Six months ago, when nearly 350 children, parents and teachers were killed in Beslan on the morning of 3 September 2004 after a two-day hostage ordeal, some Russian media dubbed it ‘Russia’s September 11’.

Before the terrorists took their hostages on 1 September, few Russians had heard of Beslan, a town of 30,000 on the north edge of the Caucasus Mountains. Following the tragedy, Beslan became synonymous with unthinkable terror. Television brought the siege into our living rooms.

Beslan struck us so deeply because it was the first major terrorist act directed primarily at children. When we saw fleeing children being shot, or the bloodied survivors carried to safety, we felt their pain.

On the second day of the siege, an editor from a major American magazine asked me to cover it.

War zones are not my specialty, but the threat of a sniper’s bullet worried me less than the difficulty in interviewing relatives of dead and dying children. What do you ask a mother who has just lost a child at the hands of terrorists?

As a former relief worker with homeless children in Moscow, as well a parent with a nine-year-old son studying in a Russian school, Beslan had hit me hard.

I refused the magazine assignment. But I had the feeling that circumstances would force me to face Beslan.

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

Then at the end of February, UNICEF phoned me in St. Petersburg with the idea of writing a series of portraits of the children of Beslan, describing their ongoing treatment and rehabilitation. Instinctively I wanted to refuse. I imagined the parents’ pain and grief, and the children’s psychological scars. I wondered if I could handle interviewing them.

But after thinking carefully about the situation, I realized that the horror unleashed on that September day not only shattered the lives of the people of Beslan, it terrorized all of us around the globe. We could no longer send our children to school and feel sure they were safe. Whether we realize it or not, the scars of Beslan run deep. In a sense, we are all ‘Children of Beslan’.

The five days my photographer and I recently spent in Beslan and the Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz, confirmed that no one remained unscathed. Besides the ongoing medical problems faced by many former hostages, the deep psychological wounds afflict not only them and their loved ones, but also an entire community.

The intensity of suffering and anguish differs from person to person. We heard of cases where former hostages dealt with the situation better than some local children who only saw it on TV. Some children have sunk into a deep gloom; others have become more aggressive, and a few former hostages have coped with the tragedy by swearing that they remember nothing. But no child remained unaffected.

I want to thank the children and parents of Beslan for their kindness and wonderful hospitality, but most of all for their psychological rehabilitation of this author. After five days hearing their testimonies and visiting the site of the massacre, I have finally exorcised the demons of Beslan from my life. It doesn’t mean I will forget the event, but from now on I shall remember Beslan not as a place of terror, but as a city of courageous and extraordinary people who want to build a better future.

UNICEF was working in the North Caucasus before the Beslan tragedy, and was able to react immediately. John’s features outline our work on behalf of the children and families of Beslan.



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3 March 2005:
UNICEF Russian Federation Representative Carel de Rooy discusses the work UNICEF is doing to help the victims of Beslan.

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