UNICEF Beslan Photo workshop: Soslan’s story

© UNICEF/HQ05-1310/ Pirozzi
Soslan Dzugaev, 13, smells a bouquet of flowers, at the cemetery near the town of Beslan. He was a participant in the UNICEF-supported photo workshop. He is also a former hostage during the Beslan siege on School No. 1.

By John Varoli

Soslan Dzugaev, 13, survived the three-day ordeal in the gymnasium at School No. 1 in Beslan. Journalist John Varoli listens to his story as Soslan takes part in a photography workshop organized by UNICEF for the children of Beslan.

BESLAN, Russian Federation, 29 August 2005 – The success of UNICEF’s Beslan photo workshop came down to the children’s enthusiasm and behaviour. And they did not disappoint, impressing the workshop organizers with their creativity, enthusiasm and ability to grasp new skills and acquire new knowledge.

There were some bumps along the way, however. Two of the boys occasionally proved disruptive, but the dedication and patience of the workshop’s leader, photographer Giacomo Pirozzi, seemed boundless.

Those two boys, Mikhail (Misha) Dzarasov and Soslan Dzugaev, both 13, are an inseparable odd couple. The tall and stout Soslan towers over the pint-sized Misha. Both endured harrowing ordeals last September in Beslan’s besieged School No. 1. They had always been good friends, but the anguish of the siege forged an even closer bond.

Perhaps their disruptive behaviour was a reaction to their enforced separation during the siege. While Misha remained in the gym with hundreds of others, Soslan’s large and towering constitution earned him the attention of the terrorists, who at first probably marked him for execution – all adult males in the school at that time were lined up and shot. Instead, they decided to use him and a few other boys as forced labour, moving heavy furniture to barricade the school. On day two of the siege, Soslan was given another task – to carry their video camera to document the terrorists’ appalling endeavour.

“I think Soslan’s situation is even more serious than Misha’s,” says Amir Tagiev, a psychologist from Moscow who has spent months working with the children of Beslan. “He isn’t a bad boy at all, but he certainly has a lot of aggression inside.”

“Don’t forget that the terrorists forced him to move heavy furniture during the siege, and when he couldn’t they shot at his feet,” adds Tagiev. “Now remember he’s only 13 years old. Those things don’t just go away, and the aggression comes out in some of his photos.”

© UNICEF/HQ-1334/ Dzugaev
Graffiti on a wall at School No.1 in the town of Beslan reads 'Wild Yard, God rest your souls'. This photograph was taken by Soslan Dzugaev. 'Wild Yard' is a colloquial name for a neighbourhood in which many of the children who were killed resided.

Soslan relives his ordeal during the siege

Such aggression can certainly be seen in the photos he takes during the children’s visit to School No. 1. After about 20 minutes, Soslan and Misha come to one schoolroom – no different from the others – but this one gets Soslan talking. He starts to recall how he was forced to move furniture against the windows in this room.

“The furniture was too heavy for us, and they started shooting at my feet to make me move faster and do the job,” he says calmly, with a slight smile appearing on his face. “I thought they were going to kill me.”

As we continue through the ruins of the school, Soslan stops and takes photos of objects and places that have little obvious significance to an outsider. One empty and destroyed room turns out to be his classroom. Walking through the bombed-out school, Soslan takes another photo of one more empty and wrecked room. This is where a female bomber blew herself up, he explained.

“It was important for them to go to the school, to be brave,” said Tagiev, the psychologist, a few days after the visit. “Those photos are great because they were made by children who were there.”

Taking Tagiev’s comments into account, it’s not surprising that when the workshop group was drawing up a list of places to photograph, Soslan suggested they go to School No. 1, while Misha suggested the visit to the cemetery.

As the visit through the ruins of the school continues, I ask Soslan how he made it out of the inferno on 3 September. At first he seems unwilling or unable to reflect back, but he slowly begins his story, struggling to recall what happened after the bombs detonated in the gym. He surrenders the details reluctantly. After the first explosions, like many of the other children, he was thrown to the ground and his eardrums were shattered.

Dazed and disoriented, and barely able to stand, he reached a gaping hole nearby that was once a window. As he stumbled into the schoolyard, bullets whizzed by and he fell to the ground. Miraculously, none had hit him, but he felt paralyzed and couldn’t get up. Suddenly, the powerful arm of a Russian soldier grabbed him and dragged him out of harm’s way.

© UNICEF/HQ-1334/ Dzugaev
This photo was voted 'Best Photograph' by the group at the photo workshop. It was taken by Soslan Dzugaev, 13, a former hostage in the Beslan siege.

Photographs reflect change

Has the photo workshop been tough on Soslan and the other children? They have relived anguished memories. Unexpectedly, however, something powerful, positive and therapeutic has happened.

“Soslan made one photo that showed his positive change, that showed his very sensitive nature deep inside,” said Mr. Tagiev. “Remember the beautiful photo with the bee on the flower. An inherently angry person would never make such a photo.”

“It’s a message of hope, full of colour and joy,” said Pirozzi, the workshop leader, commenting on Soslan’s bee on a flower photo, which the children selected as Best Photo at the end of the workshop. “They selected a beautiful image so full of life and positive emotion.”



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