08/24/2009 12:00 AM

Russia's Sept. 11

Five Years on, Beslan's Survivors Feel Forsaken


Half a decade after the Beslan hostage crisis, the survivors and families of the victims feel abandoned by the Russian state. The authorities don't want to be reminded of the failure of Russian security forces to deal with a terror attack that left so many children dead.

It was a sweltering summer day when Alan Adyrkhayev, a doctor, received a letter from his 11-year-old daughter Emilia. It was an unusual letter, because, for one thing, the father and daughter live in the same house in Beslan, a small, dusty city in North Ossetia, nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. But Emilia's request was sufficiently important to merit writing a letter.

"This is dedicated to our mother Ira," the girl had scrawled in her child's handwriting. "The years have passed, but we will never forget your smile, your eyes and your tenderness." Emilia's declaration of love for her dead mother ended with a cry for revenge: "The Russians should kill the Ingushetians, just as they killed our Beslan."

It was Ingushetian terrorists, as well as a few Chechens, who overran School No. 1 in Beslan, on Sept. 1, 2004, taking 1,127 pupils, teachers and parents hostage. The Russian authorities, unprepared for such an act, spent little time negotiating before cold-bloodedly launching a rescue effort that ended in bloody chaos.

Never before had a terrorist attack claimed the lives of so many children. Of the 334 dead, 186 were pupils at the school or siblings of pupils. Seventeen children lost both parents, and 72 still have severe disabilities. Adyrkhayev's wife, also a physician, died in the attack. Beslan was Russia's Sept. 11.

'An Act of Despair'

"I don't want my daughter to go through life with such hatred," says Adyrkhayev, "but I feel helpless." A man with short black hair and sad eyes, he is sitting in his office on the second floor of the municipal hospital. Adyrkhayev is more intimately familiar with the long-term consequences of the tragedy than any of Beslan's 36,000 residents. He sees them in his patients, including 12-year-old Kristina, who he treated on the morning of the interview, and whose blood pressure was 160. Another 12-year-old patient, Vladimir, had cut his own hand with a knife. "It wasn't a suicide attempt," the doctor explains, "but an act of despair. He is probably unconsciously tortured by the feeling that he doesn't deserve to be alive after so many of his classmates died."

Adyrkhayev describes another one of his patients, Karina Kussova, a pretty 13-year-old girl whose left leg is disfigured by burns from the foot to the hip. With their combined income of roughly €250 ($355) a month, her father, a construction worker, and her mother, a crane operator, cannot afford the weekly expense of 540 rubles, or €12, for a healing ointment, let alone the €5,000 cost of a skin transplant and removal of four pieces of shrapnel, surgery that would have to be performed in Moscow.

But what the girl, with her long, brown hair, needs even more is psychological help. At night, she imagines her stuffed animals being transformed into terrorists wearing black masks. One night, Karina woke up screaming, after dreaming that her injured leg had been severed from her thin body and was lying, lifeless, next to her in bed.

'The Government Does Nothing'

In the aftermath of the brutal, 52-hour hostage crisis, Beslan was inundated with a wave of compassion and offers of assistance. Packages and aid shipments arrived from around the world, from Australia to Jordan, including 46 television sets, 19 microwave ovens, 196 telephones, 35 video cameras and "enough stuffed animals to fill the rooms of every child in the province," as a teacher who survived the ordeal reports.

The mayor of Moscow had two modern schools built, celebrities from the Russian entertainment world gave benefit concerts, banks sponsored the construction of playgrounds, and the government and private donors paid the equivalent of about €30,000 in compensation for each person killed and €20,000 for anyone seriously injured in the incident -- no small sums in the poverty-stricken Caucasus.

Five years later, however, many of the survivors and family members of victims feel forsaken. It is part of the legacy of the Soviet health care system that very few Beslan residents have health insurance. "The government does nothing," says Adyrkhayev. "There are no regular examinations, and there is no central government office for those seeking help."

The new hospital, with its bright white walls and shiny blue roof -- as attractive and foreign-looking as if it had fallen from the skies over the Caucasus -- was built two years ago on the outskirts of Beslan. It is the most expensive hospital in the region, but it has two problems. First, a lack of funds and licenses means that the sparkling new hospital still hasn't opened its doors. Second, a pediatric psychology department is not part of the initial plan. "Does this mean that my young patients will have to wait until they're grown up?" Adyrkhayev grumbles.

Meanwhile, one in two of the existing municipal hospital's 60 beds must remain empty because there is no money to renovate the dilapidated building. At the beginning of the month, the city administration reduced the salaries of doctors and nurses by 20 percent. Before that, Adyrkhayev was making up to 9,000 rubles, or about €200, a month, but only by working many night shifts.

Suppressing Memories of the Bloodbath

It seems that Russia, which has the world's third-largest currency reserves, would prefer to simply suppress the memories of the Beslan bloodbath, just as it has forgotten about the massacre of more than 170 people by Chechen terrorists at a Moscow theater in October 2002. Beslan has become a synonym for the destruction of children as a "demonstration of power completely devoid of remorse," says Russian author Victor Erofeyev. It also signifies that Russians now experience any use of violence "as a phenomenon of a metaphysical order."

Vladimir Putin, who was president at the time of the Beslan tragedy, only visited the scene of the crime once, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. Those responsible for the Russian security forces' amateurish storming of the school building have yet to be prosecuted, and some have even been promoted. There are still doubts as to whether there were in fact only 32 hostage-takers, or whether some terrorists managed to escape, as most Beslan residents believe.

The subject is more or less taboo on state-controlled television in Russia. Members of a group called the Mothers of Beslan complain that they have spent years unsuccessfully trying to present their case on a major TV talk show. This has prompted the group's leader, Susanna Dudieva, to characterize the Beslan incident and its aftermath as a "double disgrace." Even though the government had information about the possibility of an imminent terrorist attacks in the days leading up to the hostage crisis, it was unable to protect the children, says Dudieva. And now, she adds, it has forgotten them.

There is a photo album in a corner of her small office near the destroyed school. One of the photos depicts the burned torso of her son Saur. He was sitting directly underneath one of the explosive charges the hostage-takers had attached to the basketball hoop in the school's gymnasium. The hostages sat crouched there, herded together in the scorching heat and with no water to drink. The children were forced to watch as the terrorists shot sports teacher Ivan Kanidi before their eyes.

The Long-Term Costs

"Anyone who saw that is traumatized for life," says Adyrkhayev. The doctor says that some of his patients complain of constant headaches, for which he has no explanation. His own daughters, Emilia and Milana, can only sleep with the light on. There is a list on his desk with the names of eight children who urgently need operations, but there is no money to pay for the surgeries. The name Fatima Dzgoeva is at the top of the list.

Fatima is 15, but her relatives say that they are delighted if she manages to add up the numbers 20 and 20. When Russian elite units stormed the school, a piece of shrapnel pierced her forehead and reemerged from the back of her head. Miraculously, she survived, but only after lying in a coma for 19 days. She spent the next three years lying in bed, wearing diapers and unable to say a word. After five operations, two of them at Berlin's Charité Hospital, she can now walk and say a few words.

Fatima's brother Georgiy, who was born after the hostage crisis, is playing in the sand in front of the red brick building where the family lives. Her Aunt Lana, who gave up her job as a kindergarten teacher to help her severely disabled niece, is talking frantically on the phone with provincial doctors, because the medication that reduces Fatima's intracranial pressure is nowhere to be found in the region. She brought it with her from Germany, but now she has only a few days' supply left.

Russia's Most Beautiful Cemetery

Fatima's aunt had written to the governor in the provincial capital, Vladikavkaz, 21 kilometers (13 miles) from Beslan to raise the money for her operation and treatment in Berlin. "I am so thankful that the government helped us," she says. But indifference set in soon afterwards. No one wanted to pay for the long-term consequences, and the ailing survivors were relegated to the status of supplicants.

It is not only the children, but also the traumatized adults who need help. Within view of the new but still useless hospital is the "City of Angels," Russia's most beautiful and well-tended cemetery, with its 268 graves.

Cemetery director Kaspolat Ramonov placed red roses on his daughter's grave early in the morning. She was in the 10th grade when she died, and she would have turned 20 today. "Mariana was everything to me," he says.

He speaks quietly, only raising his voice and expressing his outrage when asked how long he has been working at this cemetery. "I don't work here," he says, "I live here."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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