School Is Symbol of Death for Haunted Children of Beslan

Relatives of the Beslan school seizure victims sit outside the court building in the city of Vladikavkaz, southern Russia.
Relatives of the Beslan school seizure victims sit outside the court building in the city of Vladikavkaz, southern Russia. (AP)

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 28, 2005

BESLAN, Russia -- On Tamerlan Satsayev's first day of school one year ago, he wore a new suit and a white shirt and carried a bouquet of flowers. Two days later, he escaped death, almost naked, in the arms of an unknown rescuer, his mother severely wounded in the debris behind him.

Tamerlan's mother, Natasha Satsayeva, 30, a former midwife, survived a month-long coma after terrorists seized Beslan School No. 1 on Sept. 1, 2004, resulting in a bloody confrontation. Shrapnel from a grenade struck Satsayeva in the head, neck and torso as she shielded Tamerlan and his two younger sisters. She suffered neurological damage and is now unable to walk; one of her legs shakes involuntarily; her left arm rests uselessly on her lap.

"Look. This is my life," she said bitterly, recalling the attack. Her 7-year-old son, silent and watchful, started, and she paused to check her harsh tone. She added softy, "I hope he can learn to live again."

A three-day siege by terrorists from the Russian republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia at the elementary school ended in an inferno of explosions, gunfire and flame, and has left a legacy of shattered lives. An explosion in the school gymnasium was followed by a series of other blasts, triggering a chaotic firefight and a raging fire that left 331 people dead, including 186 children.

The Mothers of Beslan, a local advocacy group that keeps a roll of the dead, said 22 6- and 7-year-olds, among nearly 90 first-graders, were killed in the siege. Thirty-one terrorists were also killed, according to Russian officials.

One year later, the children are preparing to go back to school, many for the first time since the siege. Tamerlan and his classmates are at the heart of Beslan's struggle to endure. The first-graders are the most vulnerable group in this small city, psychologists said, because the only school day they know is the day they and their families became hostages.

"School means death for them," said Fatima Bagayeva, a psychologist at the local hospital who has been working with the youngest survivors. "They have no other memory of school. They are living with terrible trauma and grief, but when they turn to parents or other relatives, they see that they can't cope, either."

Health professionals and educators, as well as the Health and Education ministries in North Ossetia, the Russian republic where Beslan is located, have been at odds through much of the year about how best to reintegrate surviving children into the education system.

The attack last September began just after the start of a schoolyard ceremony welcoming the youngest students, accompanied by their families. Men wearing camouflage uniforms and masks herded more than 1,000 hostages into the school gymnasium at gunpoint. The hostage-takers demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya, where the Russian military has fought two wars with separatists over the past 10 years.

Beslan still burns with anger over questions that may never be answered. How did so many well-armed terrorists move though an area with numerous police checkpoints? What triggered the first explosion, an action by one of the terrorists or, as the one surviving hostage-taker has alleged at his ongoing trial, a shot by a government sniper? Did government troops fire incendiary devices that swept through the school? Federal and local commissions have yet to report on Russia's worst terrorist act, but there is little faith here in any official findings.

"The authorities have no interest in the truth," said Zalina Guburova, whose 9-year-old son, Soslan, was shot and killed.

Arguments envelop even the opening of the new school year.

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