Life after the horror of Beslan

Eighteen months after terrorists killed 344 people, including 186 children, in a school in rural Russia, Michael Church sees how British efforts are helping the survivors to recover
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After landing in Beslan, the first place you come to is the cemetery, whose bronze "tree of suffering" - three grieving mothers supporting an exfoliation of tortured infant limbs - dominates the windswept landscape. The long ranks of new graves make the old ones seem an afterthought: hundreds of red-granite tombstones, each bearing a photograph of a face, and stacked round with flowers plus whatever its occupant most loved in life - a guitar, a football, a sewing kit, a teddy bear.

"No matter how often I come, visiting this place doesn't get any easier," says a grim-faced Vladislav Totrov, North Ossetia's deputy minister of education, as he shows me round. Black-clad figures sit by the graves, or tend the flowers - not just grandmothers, but young parents too: it's mid-morning on a weekday, but for many Beslaners, attendance at this sacred spot takes precedence over work (that's for those lucky enough to have any).

Next stop, the gym of School Number One: a sight beyond words. "Forgive me if I don't come in with you," says Totrov, "and please, no photos, because this is a mass grave." The pock-marked walls and pitted wooden floor have been lent a terrible beauty by the flowers, candles, water-bottles, and photos which fill every inch of space: black-clad figures study the photos, replace the flowers, or simply stand and think. Eighteen months on, this town is still in shock.

And it is nervous: there's an armed guard at the gate of the new school which the old one's survivors now attend. I find them larking about in the corridors, doing metalwork and maths, playing basketball in the gym: no interviews are permitted, because these kids have been smothered in ghoulish attention, and they must be allowed to merge back into the innocent world of childhood - if, after their unspeakable experiences, such a thing is possible.

Television documentaries have shown how the siege has affected young minds. We've seen a girl sweetly affirm that, "God kept the best children for himself"; a boy saying he had trusted Harry Potter to get him out alive; and his friend declaring, "I don't believe in God any more - I believe in the Russian army". We've noted how many young vigilantes are growing up with just one goal - to go over the border and rub out "terrorists". We've watched the studious girl doing her daily drawing of the attack, then ripping it up and burning the scraps of paper, and we've heard her chilling speech over the flames: "First I draw the terrorists, then I burn them on behalf of the school. But it's never enough - it's impossible to get enough revenge. All my life I will have to perform this ritual." But these are the luckier ones: others are still too shocked to speak, or move those limbs they still have.

There are 300 former hostages in Beslan's new school, of whom 24 have lost their hearing and 40 have lost limbs. According to the headmistress, Ludmila Dzytseva, every single one is suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder.

In Russia it's traditional for disabled children to be segregated in institutions specialising in their disability, but in Beslan they are being brought back into the mainstream, thanks to an initiative sponsored by the British Council, whose involvement has interesting roots. It began when communism ended and Russian educationists realised they could learn from the methods of the West. While American educational help consisted of hosting students on scholarships, the British Council decided to focus on language-teaching - designing a school-leavers' exam which has now been adopted by the federal government - and on projects which would have a life of their own.

The project now starting in Beslan germinated when Elena Lenskaya, the British Council's director of education, was rung by the British educationalist Sir Michael Barber as he watched the Beslan tragedy unfolding on television. "He said we must do something," recalls Lenskaya. "I was watching the same thing on TV, and when he said that, I simply wept. I said I would like to help create a programme which really delivered something. We didn't want the British Government to do a one-off rescue operation, merely inviting traumatised children to visit Britain. We wanted our scheme to have a long term impact, not just on Beslan, but on the whole of the North Caucasus."

As a child of the Caucasus, she knew the local problems at first hand: it is a desperately poor region, now being torn apart by ethnic strife. With the British Council's director, James Kennedy, she wanted to help the North Caucasus - which the rest of Russia tends to regard as a lost cause - to get back on its feet.

Quacks and faith-healers arrived after the tragedy, but teams of psychologists and therapists have also been drafted in. "Beslan was like New York in the aftermath of 9/11," one of them tells me, having worked in both situations. "There was great fear, and great disbelief that these terrible things could actually have happened." And, as Dzytseva points out, the hostage children themselves, who initially got all the attention, were by no means the only ones needing help. "Invitations to stay with well-wishers abroad caused family splits, when whole families had been through trauma," she says. "And the parents felt humiliated by their failure to prevent catastrophe. Many also blamed the teachers, who suffered anew, as a result. When we have parents' meetings, we can still see in their eyes all the turmoil they are in - over whose kids died and whose kids survived. Parachuting helpers in for a fortnight doesn't scratch the surface of the biggest problems, which are bound up with the national culture of this republic."

That defensive reference to national culture speaks volumes, and parallels the Russian government's initial wariness about British Council involvement. "But we made it clear that we were not trying to tell them how to handle their traumatised children," says Kennedy. "We simply wanted them to make use of the expertise we have to offer." That expertise is now proving its worth in many ways, most immediately in the "rainbow rooms" which have been set up for very young children whose first experience of school was unadulterated horror. These are classrooms which don't look or feel like classrooms, a seductive first step towards normal schooling later.

Vocational education in non-existent in much of the North Caucasus and the British Council is making a major push in this sphere, creating a curriculum with entrepreneurship at its core. Car-repair students will learn how to set up their own small businesses, as will construction students, whose skills are desperately needed in this devastated region. Lenskaya has also had requests to revive ancient Caucasus crafts, but given the virtual absence of tourism - the North Caucasus is simply too dangerous - she doubts the usefulness of that. The Scottish theatre company Class Act is being drafted in to induce Caucasus teenagers to turn their experiences into drama, but perhaps the cleverest contribution of the British Council's North Caucasus Education Initiative lies in what it's doing with language teaching. Through this scheme, Beslan children may be able to take Cambridge exams for free, which should help them get jobs.

"We also want to integrate 'tolerance teaching' into the language curriculum," says Lenskaya. "But 'tolerance' is in fact a bad word, as it implies a negative attitude. I prefer 'respect for diversity'. When you negotiate and reach a consensus, you do it through language, so we can put some exercises in our English language curriculum which will teach students negotiating and conflict-resolution skills. We may also teach them to distinguish between facts and opinions. Language-teaching has many uses in this context."

This is the crux, as inherited hatreds are growing increasingly virulent. The fact that many of the Beslan terrorists came from Ingushetia has fuelled ferocious anti-Ingush feelings in North Ossetia; the desperate migrants now sweeping through the region - Chechens, Abkhazians, Azeris, Armenians, all in flight from conflicts - are straining fragile civic structures to breaking point. Lenskaya has ambitious plans for multicultural education - "it's about behaving, not just about knowing" - which may moderate some of those enmities.

Beslan, in fact, is just the tip of the iceberg: as the theatre-animateur Jon Nicholas points out, there are many other groups of children whose plight has been put into the shade by the world's obsession with Beslan. "In other Ossetian and Ingush schools, I've seen acts of terror and violence as readily portrayed as domestic scenes," he says. His colleague Madina Adleyba reinforces the point: "I just hope we can somehow help these kids from different ethnicities see how alike they are, how much they have in common, because the whole North Caucasus is such a tiny place."