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School Is Symbol of Death for Haunted Children of Beslan
A Year After Siege, Russians Still Grapple With Dark Memories

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.

"Beslan is a very sick place," said Elena Morozova, a Moscow psychologist who has worked in the city for the last year. "These children need continued special attention and, without it, I don't think they will make it. We are looking at a lost generation."

With support from the Russian Health Ministry, Morozova sought to create special classes this September for last year's first-graders and gradually return them to regular school over the next couple of years in a program of combined play, counseling and academics.

But the Education Ministry rejected the plan, and is sending the children to one of Beslan's two new schools. The affected students will restart first grade in those state-of-the-art facilities, financed as a donation from the city of Moscow to replace the 19th-century, red-brick School No. 1, now a debris-strewn shell.

"We do not want to isolate stressed children, because we believe their psychological condition is very adaptable," said Larisa Khabayeva, coordinator of rehabilitation and social projects for the victims of Beslan at the Education Ministry in North Ossetia. "Our recommendation is that the children go back to normal school, and in the ideal situation, they won't have any problems."

Emilia Adyrkhayeva has already tried to go back. In March, the 7-year-old went to a combined kindergarten and elementary school, where, as at all schools in Beslan, local men now stand guard with automatic weapons. No one had prepared her for that. "She became very hysterical," said her father, Alan Adyrkhayev, a 41-year-old physician who quit practicing after the siege.

Several other first-graders left the same school after a daytime thunderstorm, according to the director, Yeza Tsgoyeva. "They were hiding under the desks," Tsgoyeva said. "They're still all very emotional. If you raise your voice accidentally, they get upset. Some of them get hysterical. I wonder if our authorities understand how deep the problems are."

When the explosions and shooting began Sept. 3, Adyrkhayev's wife, Irina, a nurse, fled the gymnasium to the school canteen with Emilia and their other daughter, Milana, 5. From there, in the middle of a firefight, Milana somehow escaped. Irina was killed. Russian special forces found Emilia, who suffered minor shrapnel wounds and burns, nestling by the body of her 29-year-old mother.

When Adyrkhayev asks Emilia if she wants to go back to school, the wonderful new one with the swimming pool and the big playground, she nods as if she knows the right response, but her downcast large brown eyes betray her doubts. Emilia never speaks about her experience, relatives said.

Her father, in turn, is a hollow-eyed, broken man who has refused to return to work. Instead, Adyrkhayev sits at his computer screen scrolling through the faces of the dead. "I would be lost without them," he said.

He has also recorded a video of Milana, a bright, smiling child, singing to a picture of her mother, and an audio clip that he plays on his cell phone when he wants to hear her voice.

"I know that she lives in the sky," the girl says on the clip. "They killed my mother. How can they be so cruel? They're all beasts."

Adyrkhayev twirled the cell phone in his hand, smoking a cigarette in the shade of an apple tree. "I think I'm losing it," he said.

As with the families of many other victims, relatives are providing care. Adyrkhayev's sister and parents have moved in with him to help with the children.

"The babushkas are holding the town together," said Bagayeva, the psychologist.

At the Satsayev household, Tamerlan's mother is cared for by his father, who quit his job. His grandmother, Nina Satsayeva, watches Tamerlan and his sisters. When Tamerlan returned to school in March, his grandmother sat beside him every day, squeezing herself behind a small desk. If Tamerlan jumped at a sudden noise from the nearby construction or began without any apparent prompting to cry, Satsayeva gripped his hand to steady him.

"He's afraid," said Satsayeva, 68. "He remembers everything."

The care of 7-year-old Georgy Sidakov, and his younger brother, David, 5, has largely fallen to their grandmothers.

Georgy's father, Albert, was shot and killed on the first day of the hostage-taking when the terrorists singled out and executed men who might represent a threat. The body of the 33-year-old customs officer, who had taken a day off from work to hear Georgy recite a poem at his first assembly, was dumped out a second-story window. Georgy's aunt was shot three times when the school was stormed; she lived, but is still recovering.

Georgy's mother, Zita, also survived, but still suffers from severe depression, according to the family.

The two boys, who suffered minor wounds, now spend most of their time at one of their grandparents' houses.

"They are so fragile," said Toma Andiyeva, Zita's mother. "If they wake at night and you come to their bed, they don't want you to touch them. They just curl up and say, 'Don't touch me.' It's horrible."

The grandmothers said Zita was adamantly opposed to Georgy, who has been at home for the last year, returning to school. "She says, 'Who will guarantee he will be safe? Will you?' And what can you say?" Andiyeva said. "She can't think about sending him to school. She refuses to talk about it."

The two women said they were trying to persuade Georgy to go against his mother's wishes. He shook his head as they raised the subject yet again.

"I don't want to go to school," Georgy said. "I don't want to be dead."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company