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Russia: One Year Later, Beslan Youth Use Photographs To Tell Their Stories

A participant in the UNICEF project frames his shot How do you help a teenager cope with the memories of a trauma on the scale of 2004's massacre in Beslan, which killed nearly 200 children and robbed hundreds more of mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends? The UN children's agency UNICEF, as part of its rehabilitation work in Beslan, has invited young people to tell their stories through photographs. The weeklong workshop in July resulted in thousands of images of life in the North Ossetian city one year after the tragedy. The project allowed many of the participants to return to the still-devastated site of School No. 1, as one UNICEF official put it, "with the safety of being behind the camera."

Audio Slide Show -- Beslan: One Year Later. Real Player, Windows Media

Prague, 30 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Alana Alikova, a slight 17-year-old girl with long, dark hair, narrowly escaped the three-day hostage siege, which began on the first day of school, 1 September 2004.

Her mother, a history teacher at School No. 1, was not so fortunate. "I was lucky," Alana says. "I was able to run away. My mother stayed, and she died."

Alana says simply that life without her mother has been "very hard." And throughout the city of Beslan, there are hundreds of children and teenagers living with the same pain.

More than 330 people were killed in School No. 1, including 186 children and teenagers. Most died in the explosions and fighting that broke out on the third day of the siege between the hostage takers and Russian security forces.

Many more were badly injured. All were left with horrifying memories -- of being trapped in a sweltering gymnasium with explosives draped from the ceiling, and of those killed in the final chaotic hours.

Recovering From Tragedy

The predominant emotion among many of the adults of Beslan is anger that, one year after the tragedy, so many questions remain unanswered and so few people have been held accountable.

But the response of children and teenagers to trauma is often more complicated. They are left with a feeling of profound anxiety and helplessless, robbed of the assurance that their parents or other adults will always be able to keep them safe.

Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist and expert on traumatic stress, says that when young children are exposed to large-scale traumatic events, such as those in Beslan, they often suffer repeated nightmares, separation anxiety, and physical ailments that take the place of emotions they cannot express.
A recurring theme in the photos is water. Brittain says it is a powerful image for the residents of Beslan, who remain haunted by the thought of the agonizing thirst the hostages endured during the siege.

Speaking from New York, where she directs the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and their Children, she says the response in older children is somewhat different.

"Among older children, you find concerns about safety and security that may extend to a sense of a foreshortened future," Danieli says. "It's like they can't envision the future. They cannot conceive of plans for the long term. Adolescents in particular may exhibit social withdrawal, substance abuse, and risk-taking behaviors, as well as fascination with death and suicide."

Using Art As Therapy

UNICEF has spent much of the past year aiding rehabilitation efforts for the children of Beslan. As part of this, a small group of the older children were given a unique opportunity to use photography as a way of telling their stories.

Working with UNICEF photographer Giacomo Pirozzi, 13 students between the ages of 13 and 18 -- five of whom were hostages -- spent three days learning the basics of composition and lighting.

Then they were handed digital cameras and sent out to document their city, neighbors, graveyards, and the site of School No. 1.

It was a relatively new approach for UNICEF. But John Brittain of the UN agency's Russia office says the project proved a success at helping the teenagers cope with a painful subject.

"This seemed to work extremely well. We found the children really took to being able to approach the disaster from the protection, if you like, or the safety of being behind the camera," Brittain says. "They could walk into places like the old school for the first time in a year and think about making good lines and making good lighting and thinking about other things like that, which sort of took away from the horror of where they were and what they were doing."

The end result was more than 1,000 photographs. One hundred of the best are now in display in Beslan, as part of the events now marking the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.

Many of the photos are of the site of the siege, which remains largely untouched since last year's massacre. One photo shows a school ledger lying open on a classroom floor. Others show hallway corridors pockmarked with bullet holes. One child photographed a makeshift shrine of cigarette stubs -- the remains of cigarettes lit in tribute to Beslan men killed in the building.

A recurring theme in the photos is water. Brittain says it is a powerful image for the residents of Beslan, who remain haunted by the thought of the agonizing thirst the hostages endured during the siege.

"The first time we noticed it was when one of the youngsters brought in a picture of two dirty, dusty cups that he had found on the gym floor. And we asked this little boy why, and he said, 'These were the cups that the terrorists were drinking from while we were dying of thirst,'" Brittain says. "Everywhere, throughout the school and throughout the graveyard here, there are bottles of water. Thousands of bottles of water. People feel so sad that the children were dying of thirst for three days before the massacre, that they want to try and do something to alleviate the pain, even of a departed soul."

A Hopeful Future

Many of the pictures, however, are hopeful. One -- taken by 17-year-old Alana, together with her friend Alina Sakieva, a siege survivor -- shows a young girl grinning despite the tugs of her grandmother, who is pulling a comb through the snarls in her hair. The little girl, viewers learn later, lost her mother in the tragedy, although she and two sisters survived.

The photograph the group of teenagers eventually chose as Best Picture is warm and peaceful, showing a bee sitting on a vivid yellow flower. It has no direct connection to the tragedy. But, as UNICEF photographer Pirozzi explains, it is a powerful reflection of what the young survivors wanted to say about themselves.

"It's a beautiful shot. It's a flower -- it's full of color, of joy, of life. And this is probably the message to the world they wanted to send. They didn't want to choose an image of destruction -- of School No. 1 and all the negative sides of it," Pirozzi says. "They went for the best. It's a beautiful shot. It's beautiful technically speaking, but also it's a beautiful message -- it's a flower, it's full of life, it's very positive."

Pirozzi, who works full-time documenting UNICEF's work around the world, says he began the Beslan workshop by showing the teenagers pictures he had taken of children who had lived through tragedy in other parts of the world -- AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe, for example, and young survivors of December's tsunami in Asia.

It was, he says, a way to help them feel "they were not the only children who had to go through very difficult times."

Audio Slide Show:

Beslan: One Year Later. Real Player, Windows Media

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

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