As School Reopens, a Russian Town Tries to Begin Again

BESLAN, Russia, Sept. 16, 2004 : This is a town that has gone beyond mourning, a town of silence and numbness, where streets and courtyards are empty of children, where people greet each other without smiles.

It is a town where children wake in the night with shouts of fear, where some people have stopped eating and some have stopped talking, and where desperate parents visit the morgue day after day in search of missing sons and daughters.

Two weeks after hundreds of people were killed when Chechen separatists seized a school here, Beslan’s six remaining schools reopened their doors on Wednesday. But normal life is still far away, and only a handful of students dared to attend.

When one small boy saw an armed soldier guarding the door of his school he pulled on his mother’s hand and burst into tears.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” said the soldier. “I’m here to protect you.”

The cemetery at the edge of this town in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia, where hundreds of children, parents and teachers were buried in the pouring rain, is stark and empty of mourners now. Wilting flowers rustle in the wind. As winter approaches, the ground is growing harder.


Photo by James Hill

The scene of the killings, Middle School No.1, is a ruined shell, smashed and partly burned. Its surviving students are either hospitalized or preparing for long vacations with their families.

The school has become the aching soul of Beslan, a place of grief and horror where people wander the shattered halls in shock. At least 300 people died here, half of them children. At least 700 more were injured, and scores have disappeared.

At the main entrance, dozens of photographs of missing people, most of them children, have been taped to the walls. A giant bullet-scarred blackboard is propped nearby, scrawled with messages from visitors: “We won’t forget you,” “We love you,” “Forgive us for being unable to save you.”

The blackened, roofless gymnasium, where about 1,200 people were held for three days without food or water is now a shrine, piled with flowers, stuffed animals and the special symbol of the siege: hundreds of plastic bottles of water and soft drinks.

“Why did my child have to sit there for three days, hungry and thirsty, and go to heaven hungry and thirsty?” one grieving mother said. “What did he do wrong? He’s just a child.”

In a blood-streaked classroom that had been used as an execution chamber, visitors added lit cigarettes to an informal pyre in a tradition sometimes found in cemeteries here.

The walls of the classrooms are covered with sorrowful and angry graffiti. Fatima Kudzayeva, 14, stood with a friend in a room where someone had scrawled the only question that could really be asked: “For what?”

“There aren’t any thoughts here,” she said, when asked about her feelings. “We are overcome. These were children our age and we could have been among them.”

In Middle School No.6, which will eventually accept many of the students from the ruined school, small groups of three or four or five students shared their stories of trauma and fear.

The principal, Irina Azimova, said only 150 to 170 students had come, out of an enrollment of about 900. After about an hour, most of them went home.

“We were so scared,” said Alana Dzutseva, sitting with three other 15-year-old girls in a sunlit classroom.

“Me, too,” said Madina Makiyeva.

Then, like so many people in shops and courtyards and schools around Beslan, they shared the stories they had heard.

“There’s a little boy who dreams of bandits in his sleep,” said Alyona Dzutseva, Alana’s twin sister. “The bandit tells him, ‘If you tell anybody, I’ll kill you.’ He sleeps and trembles, and he shouts.

“And I know a neighbor girl in the fourth grade who sleeps with her eyes open,” she said. “Her father, mother and two of their children went to the school together. Just the little boy survived.”

Alana continued: “I know three families where the whole family was killed. Upstairs from us, the grandfather comes to the house, cries for a while, and then leaves.”

Maggie Yeloyeva added: “There’s a 15-year-old girl I know who is missing.” “Her mother is refusing to eat anything,” she said, “and two of my friends in that school are in the hospital now. They keep saying they want to see their parents, and nobody dares to tell them that their parents are dead.”

A dozen students appeared Wednesday in Galina Korolevskaya’s art class, where she had them hold hands in a moment of silence and remembrance, “so that each of you can feel the beating of your neighbor’s heart.”

Then she told them to draw, and they produced a frightening array of works with titles like, “War Against Children,” “Living Targets” and “Killers.”

Some of the pictures might have been mistaken for the fantasies of violence that some boys like to draw, with guns, bombs, masked bandits, dead bodies and people jumping from windows to their deaths. In this case, they were reportage.

On the back of one picture, as if in a personal note to herself, one student had drawn, simply and starkly in pencil, a body in a coffin.

One drawing, though, was filled with color and sunshine. It bore the title “To Those Who Died,” and it was as if its artist had reached out and felt the beating heart of her departed friends.

It was the kind of happy vision that belongs especially to children: a teddy bear, a small rabbit and sprays of multicolored flowers. At one side, in red, was a heart inscribed with one word, in English: “Love.”

Copyright The New York Times