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Russia: One Year Later, Beslan Survivors Remember

  • Claire Bigg --> A funeral last year for one of the victims On 1 September 2004, School No. 1 in the southern Russian town of Beslan was preparing for the first day of classes marking the start of the new school year. But the festivities quickly turned into a nightmare when heavily armed gunmen seized the school, killed several adult male hostages, and demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Two days later, the hostage taking ended in a chaotic battle as Russian forces stormed the building. There were explosions and gunfire. The roof of the gymnasium collapsed, the building caught fire, and by the time the horror ended more than 330 hostages were dead, including 186 children. For those who survived, the approaching anniversary of the tragedy brings back painful memories.

Beslan, 31 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Malik Kalchakeev, a tall 13-year-old boy, twists his hands nervously as he recalls the violence that ravaged his small town almost a year ago.

He remembers clearly when the attackers herded him into the school’s gymnasium, along with some 1,200 children, teachers, and parents. There, he spent three grueling days packed together with his schoolmates in the sweltering gym, with no food and very little water.

Finally came the rescue attempt by Russian forces, and the school suddenly erupted in explosions and gunfire.

“There was a first explosion. I didn’t understand what was going on, I was deafened," Malik says. "I got up and wanted to flee, but there was a second explosion. The force of the blow threw me out of the gym. I fell on the asphalt. First I lay there, I was in pain, my arm and knee were hurt. Then my friend lifted me up and told me to run.”

Despite the hail of bullets coming from all sides, Malik managed to escape the smoldering school almost unhurt. The horror of these three days, however, has left him with lasting psychological scars.

During the siege, Malik stole water in the school’s toilet and distributed it to small children despite the fear of being caught and shot by his captors. This fear, he says, took days to subside after the siege.

“The first days [after the siege] I was constantly asking my mother, ‘Can I go to the toilet?’ I was afraid. I have nightmares about ending up in the school, in the [terrorists’ hands], again and again," he says. "The first few days I took pills to calm down. Now I’m feeling more or less all right.”

Malik was one the first children to testify last week in the trial of Nurpashi Kulaev, the only hostage taker known to have survived. But when he heard a small child cry in the audience, his nerves gave way and he broke into tears.

Malik still strains to hold back tears when he talks about the many friends he lost in the massacre. He particularly misses Elvira Margieva, a smiley 13-year-old girl who had written him a St. Valentine’s Day card the same year.

Elvira’s mother, Svetlana, lives a few blocks away, close to the charred ruins of the school. As the first anniversary of the tragedy draws near, Svetlana, according to tradition, is receiving relatives in her small flat to honor the memory of her only child. A black scarf tied tightly around her head, this 46-year-old woman still appears stunned by the horror that tore her life apart.
"I was treated by psychologists, I was given medical care, but the mental pain is not going away. People say time heals, but I’m not sure." -- Svetlana

On the day of the tragedy, she was with her daughter celebrating the festive first day of classes. When she first heard the rattling of guns on 1 September, she thought they were fireworks.

Even during the agonizing three-day siege, she held on firmly to the hope that the authorities would eventually rescue them. “We didn’t think it was that serious," she says. "Personally, I didn’t think it would end like this because we strongly believed the authorities would help. We trusted them very much, very much. I believed so and told the children they would help us. Some of them asked. ‘Will we be killed?’ and we told them that no, of course not.”

The last thing Svetlana remembers of the siege is Elvira standing up on the third day to stretch her limbs. Then the first explosion ripped through the gym, and Svetlana’s mind went blank.

“I can’t remember anything after this. I didn’t hear the explosions or anything," she says. "When I regained consciousness, I saw everything was destroyed, people were lying under the rubble. My daughter was in my arms. She had died instantly. Her head was covered in wounds, her jaw was unhooked, her teeth broken. Her eyes had stayed open.”

Svetlana had severe shrapnel wounds across her stomach and left leg, but she somehow managed to crawl out of the rubble.

At the door of the gym, she found a small child lying unconscious and dragged it by the leg after her. Then she was rescued. But she never found out whether the child has survived.

Since then, time has stood still for Svetlana. She has not touched her daughter’s room, simply placing pictures, toys, flowers, and icons on her bed.

In a weary voice, Svetlana says she doesn’t know whether she will ever be able to come to terms with her grief. “My leg hurts very much. But my soul hurts a lot more," she says. "I was treated by psychologists, I was given medical care, but the mental pain is not going away. People say time heals, but I’m not sure.”

The only thing that seems to bring Svetlana comfort is a short poem that Elvira wrote, in which she describes herself as an angel flying to heaven. It was written a few weeks before she died.

For more on the Beslan school hostage tragedy, see RFE/RL's dedicated "Remembering Beslan" webpage.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​