How Beslan is coping one year on
At least 330 people - half of them children - died when terrorists in pursuit of Russian withdrawal from Chechnya seized School No 1. In the streets of Beslan Andrew Osborn finds a town still in shock
Thursday 01 September 2005
One of the longest streets in Beslan, it runs parallel with the boundary of the shattered remains of School Number One. The street suffered the heaviest losses in the school siege and most of the dead were children. A year ago The Independent interviewed families living on the street. Yesterday we returned to find out what difference 12 months has made. Though the street, lined with cherry trees, limes and maples, seemed tranquil enough, behind every front door the people of Beslan said they were still struggling to come to terms with what happened to their small town.
7 Zhukov Lane, a small turning off Pervomaiskaya Street
Ludmila Gapoeva, 64, opens the door. Her son, Ruslan, 34, was the first of Beslan's residents to be killed last year. Hearing rifle and machine-gun fire from the school, he dashed to the scene with his shotgun. He reportedly shot one of the hostage-takers before being shot himself. As he lay wounded he raised his head and was finished off by a sniper with a bullet to the head.
His six year-old daughter Zerassa was killed on the day the siege was broken and his wife, Marina, now 35, suffered serious shrapnel wounds but survived. His father Khariton, now 72, had a heart attack when he learnt his son and granddaughter were dead. Ruslan's son Tamerlan, 6, survived. Ludmila says her dead son's widow is a shadow of her former self. "She's very quiet these days and introspective. She only started walking recently." Marina, she says, was in hospital for four months and had two operations. "She worked as an economics teacher before but now she'll never work again. She just sits at home all day." When her dead granddaughter, Zerassa, is mentioned Ludmila begins to sob. She says that she heard her heart and guts were literally ripped from her body by the force of the explosions. "Can you imagine anything worse? She wanted to be a ballerina." Ludmila says she tried to hide the truth from her surviving grandson Tamerlan. "I told him his dad and sister were on a trip but would be coming back. When I told him the truth it was so difficult. He cried and cried and even now he still talks of his sister as if she were alive." Khariton, who survived his heart attack, says he wishes more of Beslan's residents had taken up arms against the terrorists.
The grandparents blame the headmistress for what happened. They claim her incompetence allowed the terrorists to hide themselves and their weapons in the school beforehand.
105 Pervomaiskaya Street
Last year Taimraz Tokaev didn't know whether his daughter Medina, 15, would survive. She lay in a hospital bed in nearby Rostov with serious shrapnel wounds to her head. Yesterday she smiled as she described how she endured three operations and spent two months in hospital. She says she can't remember much about the siege itself. "When I remember I feel sad and get frightened." Like most of Beslan's children she hasn't studied in the last year. Instead she has been on recuperative holidays to Germany and Turkey. "They distracted me for a while." Though only 16 her eyes reflect a vulnerable sadness and an abnormally acute self-knowledge. She says that she and her friends plan to move to St Petersburg in a year to study. When asked who she holds responsible for what happened she says quietly that she would prefer not to talk about it. However she explains that she has no problems with living in Beslan. "Of course I am reminded of what happened every day but going somewhere else would mean starting from zero and finding new friends."
106 Pervomaiskaya Street
A year ago, Valentina Khadartseva didn't know whether her son Georgy, then 34, and her granddaughter Amina, then 8, would survive. Both lay in hospital in critical condition. Georgy had been shot in the head by a sniper when he tried to see what was going on at the school through his binoculars. The lenses caught the sun and shortly afterwards a bullet passed through his head narrowly missing his brain. Amina was hurt when the school gym's roof fell on her. She suffered serious shrapnel wounds and her skull was cracked. Yesterday Valentina, her grandmother, allowed herself a brief smile. Both Georgy and Amina survived. In fact Georgy, wearing a white baseball cap to cover his scars, was excitedly sitting behind the wheel of the family car which he recently learnt to drive again. His left arm doesn't work and he has a plastic plate in his skull but he seemed cheerful enough.
Valentina's husband Taimuraz said the family was lucky. "God has spared us compared to others." Valentina said Amina was still troubled though. "She runs around like a normal child but every now and then she'll stop and say her head is spinning. She also complains of bad headaches. Why did it all happen? We still don't know. Putin and the government are as much to blame as anyone else."
That Georgy is alive is a miracle. The doctors who treated him believed he would die and when asked whether he himself is surprised he gives a broad smile. "Yes I am." He complains of black-outs and of terrible headaches but says he is determined to achieve full rehabilitation. "I would like to do something. Maybe my arm will get better in two or three years."
100 Pervomaiskaya Street
A year ago Chermen, then 8, did not really understand that his mother, Jana, had died in the school siege. He told himself that she was too busy in town to come back home. Twelve months ago he talked freely and even excitedly about how he had been held as a hostage and rescued. But now that he knows for sure that Jana is never coming back, he seems to be a different child.
His mother's death has left his father Atzamas on his own to bring up four sons. Yesterday Chermen sat in his family's dark kitchen and nervously played with a piece of string, barely looking up and answering in monosyllables. He talks about how he has visited Egypt and Bulgaria. He says he liked Bulgaria more. He also concedes that he thinks about the siege a lot but then falls silent, unwilling to talk further.
His brother, Tamik, 16, cannot face talking about what happened either. His face creases with distress and tears well in his eyes as he asks to be excused. Klara, the boys' aunt, says Chermen is in a bad way. "He used to be such a cheerful child but now he is very nervous and plays up at the slightest excuse. He has become very capricious." Chermen always knew his mother was dead, she adds. "He saw his mother covered in blood before he was rescued." Chermen has undergone psychiatric treatment but his relatives say it doesn't seem to have helped.
95 Pervomaiskaya Street
A year ago Kazik Godjiev, then 12, was in critical condition after receiving life-threatening shrapnel wounds to his skull and neck. Doctors were nervous about moving him for fear of causing brain damage.
Yesterday his brother Amran, 16, said Kazik had staged a good recovery after spending five months in hospital and was recuperating with their father in a southern Russian spa resort. "His arm sometimes shakes when he is making a cup of tea but otherwise he has made an 80 per cent recovery." Amran says he was simply luckier than his brother. "I try not to remember too often and I think I have got most of it out of my system but he is in worse shape. He has a lot to work through." Amran says he is anxious to get back to school on 5 September so that he can get on with his life. "I need to study. I need knowledge. I'm already bored of sitting around here for the past year doing nothing."
Amran says, however, that he enjoyed the trips he has been on taking in Bulgaria, Austria, Germany, Ukraine and Estonia. "It was wonderful. I saw the world. But I am happy to live here for now. What happened is a reality. You can't get away from it."
The young man is one of the few not to hold a grudge, saying nobody could have predicted what happened. He thinks that people in Beslan who dwell too much on the siege are in danger of losing their health and their reason. "If someone decides that their life stopped on that day then they're dead." He hasn't seen much of his brother Kazik in the past year but insists that what happened has brought them closer together. "I look after him more. I love him more than I used to."
94 Pervomaiskaya Street
Georgy Torchinov, 11, talked last year about how much he missed all his school friends who died in the siege. A year has done little to dull his sorrow. "I haven't got used to what happened and think about it every day. It's boring here now. There are so few children with which to play." Georgy casually points to a small boy in a striped shirt. "His brother was killed. He used to be my friend of mine." Unlike some of the other children he has no difficulty pointing the finger of blame at the terrorists. "They did everything for Allah. Everyone hates them."
102 Pervomaiskaya Street
Taimraz Sidakov, whose son Alan, now 13, was a hostage, said last year that he wanted to leave Beslan and send his children away to the UK. Alan received light wounds while his mother, Ira, and two younger brothers, managed to escape the school before the terrorists consolidated their control. However yesterday Taimraz, a worker in a local vodka factory, said he had ditched the idea of sending Alan to the UK after learning that he would need a legal guardian.
Ira, his wife, says she wants to leave Beslan though. "Every time I walk past the school I feel terrified. I remember everything." The Sidakovs say people's characters have changed profoundly as a result of the siege aftermath. Those who lost children have begun to resent those who didn't and those who received less government compensation have come to envy and hate those who received more generous hand-outs. Ira says she can't stand it. "Other parents say that their children died and that ours lived for some reason. They say their children died so that ours could live. That it isn't fair. There is real tension, even in this street. People have started to keep their distance from one another." The Sidakovs say they have received around $17,000 (£9,400) in compensation and have put it aside to buy flats for their three sons. They talk in a matter-of-fact fashion about how their relationship with Taimraz's sister Rita has broken down as a result of what happened. Rita's 9-year-old daughter Alla died in the siege and Rita has since become an active member of Beslan's Committee of Mothers,, which has waged a successful PR campaign against the Kremlin. Rita has only visited the Sidakovs once in the last year and Taimraz makes no secret of the fact that he thinks his sister has become mentally unstable, tapping his head with two fingers when he refers to her. When Taimraz leaves the room Ira says she is desperately trying to persuade him to sell up. "We were in town yesterday and some soldiers jumped out of a truck. Alan thought it was all happening again and I had to calm him down." Nor, she says, will Alan ever wear a school uniform again. "Look what happened last time you bought me a uniform he says. This year I've just bought him black jeans and a white shirt."
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