|© UNICEF Russian Federation/2005/Leifer|
|Rustam Kabaloyev, 11, at the UNICEF-supported Vladikavkaz Rehabilitation Centre|
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 – The school siege in Beslan, 1-3 September 2004, lasted a little more than 50 hours. During the siege, nearly 1,300 children and adults sat in a gym rigged with explosives at Beslan's School No. 1. Heavily armed terrorists threatened to execute them if they spoke, cried, moved suddenly, or disobeyed any order. Hungry, thirsty, and terrified, their lives could have been extinguished at any moment.
Eleven-year-old Rustam Kabaloyev sat under one of the powerful homemade bombs, which was strapped to the basketball board about three metres above his head. For two days, Rustam faced a situation that no child should ever have to face.
Six months later, we sit in the living room of Rustam’s neighbours in Beslan. We are joined by four other families whose relatives were held hostage. Rustam understands why we’re meeting, and his sullen look indicates that he’s not terribly enthusiastic about meeting me.
I had been warned that armies of journalists have marched through Beslan over the past six months, and many children are tired of the attention. The children chosen for this meeting – so I was told by a local psychologist – had made strides in their rehabilitation and were ready to speak about their ordeal. I can only imagine that if Rustam is ready to speak, the children who were not at the meeting must be far worse off.
I begin our conversation with small talk about life, video games, and travel abroad. Rustam relaxes and lightens up, relieved that he may not have to discuss his horrible memories after all.
During the siege
“Huh, what did you say?’’ asks Rustam politely, much the same way an old man with hearing trouble might ask.
“That’s his bad ear,’’ says his mother from across the room, saying his ear drum was smashed by the blast. “Speak louder.’’
I soon disappoint Rustam, however, when I unexpectedly ask what exactly he remembers that fateful day. Rustam suddenly falls silent, squirms in his seat, looks at the ceiling, and does not open his mouth.
Realizing he can’t continue, I cross the room to join his mother, Albina Sakiyeva. Visibly relieved by my exit, Rustam begins to chat and play with his friend, also a former hostage, Sasha Chedzemov.
“You have to understand their situation,’’ says Albina, her voice suddenly choking and her face becoming flushed. “The worst thing for me was knowing that my son sat there for two days and was convinced he was going to die and never see his mother again.’’
At these words, Rustam stops horsing around with Sasha, and begins to eavesdrop on our conversation.
“He sat there and stared at the door [during the siege], thinking if only somehow he could slip through, and run away....’’ said Albina.
“We’re not religious and I’ve never taught him to pray, but somehow for the first time in his life, Rustam began to pray for God to save him.’’
The first bomb shattered Rustam’s eardrums. His vision failed and he thought he was dying.
“Suddenly he came to and saw the door had been blown up by the blast. He got up and bolted for the door,’’ his mother said.
Albina relates many other details – so many that one might think she was present in the gym with her son. In a way, I am sure she was.