Education International
Education International

And still they grieve...

published 20 June 2005 updated 20 June 2005

Beside the road from the principal airport of North Ossetia to the capital city of Vladikavkaz is a new cemetery. It has been opened in the past year to accommodate the remains of over 300 victims of the siege in School No.1 in Beslan. It is a remarkable sight. Its external walls are festooned with a mixture of large colourful plastic wreaths and real flowers, as are its inner walls.

The graves of each and every victim are bedecked with flowers and some with toys and other mementos of those who are buried there. It presents a stark reminder of the scale of the tragedy which beset the people in this small remote corner of the Russian Federation less than one year ago. The cemetery is not currently the quiet place one might expect. It is filled with the sound of construction machinery as workers toil to turn the cemetery into a lasting monument of red and grey marble to those who are buried there. Even the noise of cement mixers could not drown out the wailing sounds of a grieving grandmother as she visited the graves of her daughter and her granddaughter who died together in the siege of Beslan. The presence of the many grave plots which contain more than one family member - sisters, brothers, mother and daughter or son, grandmother and grandchild, in one case six children from one family – is a poignant reminder that this was a school serving a small community. The graves of teachers and other school workers are intermingled with those of parents and students. The single post grave markers and the Armenian crosses are a reminder that this is a community of mixed Muslim and Christian religions and that each religious community suffered severely in the tragedy. North Ossetia is one of the smallest of the republics of the Russian Federation with Georgia to its south and Chechnya to its east. The city of Vladikavkaz itself nestles at the foot of the vast Caucasus mountain range, from which it derives its name. (literally meaning at the foot of the Caucasus). Vladikavkaz is a small city with high unemployment struggling to come to terms with the loss of the neighbouring mining industry and the effects of the economic reforms in Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union. Its principal industry currently is distilling. The area is now one of the principal suppliers of vodka to the Russian market. The people of the city and surrounding area are a mixture of Slavonic and other races. Both Christian and Muslim religions are well represented in the population of the city and surrounding area. The people are generally hospitable and openly friendly. They are strong proponents of tradition in their social activities. During the Second World War the area was invaded by Hitler’s army on its way to the oil rich areas further north and east. There are monuments to heroes of the resistance to the German advance which was halted at Groznyy in Chechnya. This is an area off the main tourist routes. Prior to last September visitors from outside of the region were rare. There are few concessions to any language other than Russian which is, of course, similar to Ossetian. The signs and notices in Cyrillic script add to the sense of remoteness of the place to a visitor from Western Europe. Beslan is a small town at the edge of the city. The town now has three substantial building projects in the form of what are planned to be three of the most modern and well-equipped schools in the Russian Federation. Those affected by the tragedy have received some compensation from the state. A special Commission was established to oversee the distribution of aid. Many foreign aid agencies and charitable institutions also provided aid to victims. Some are continuing to provide material assistance. There are, however, many children with uncertain futures. A three-year old girl has lost all of her family except her grandmother. Families have lost the main breadwinner, who may have been a teacher in the school or one of those teachers visiting the school, on that fateful 1st September last. The newly appointed Prime Minister of the Republic maintains that one of the most difficult issues to deal with is the psychological trauma suffered by the children. He sought assistance with providing programmes of counselling and other strategies to assist the people, and particularly the children, to deal with their post-trauma stress. A visit to the site of School No.1 is the closest that one can come to an understanding of the ordeal suffered by those caught up in the siege. From a distance the outline of the school is the same as that of many schools in the rest of Europe. As one draws nearer, however, one can see that the roof is missing from the gym and the black embers of what were the roof beams glisten against the blue sky. There are broken windows and bullet holes. Roof tiles on parts of the main school building have also been smashed by large calibre bullets or rockets. The gym itself is a surprisingly small building which held almost fourteen hundred hostages. It appears large enough for not more than a quarter of that number. The floor is littered with plastic bottles containing water. These are maintained by relatives of the victims as a reminder that the hostages were deprived of water by their captors. Most of the bottles contain at least a single flower. The basketball hoop from which hung the bomb which ultimately exploded and led to the panic among the hostages and the subsequent carnage is still clearly visible. The floor is still marked with the residue of the blood of victims. The door through which many of the victims sought vainly to escape in their panic is open; the killing ground beyond now overgrown with new grass. There is a sense of numbness in this environment. The enormity of what happened is almost too great to grasp. The joy of a school community celebrating the start of a new academic year, like many others schools in the Northern Hemisphere at the beginning of September, shattered by unspeakable and inexplicable violence. Societies like to view their schools as safe nurturing environments, not places of execution and bombs and bullets and terrorism. The presence of a small child’s shoe, discarded in the rush to escape, and now a moving memento sitting on the windowsill of the gym surrounded by flowers, is moving reminder of the age of many of the victims of the violence in this place. The scars of this tragedy may never heal for those who were present during the siege and survived. Most of the teachers and students from School No.1 opted to remain together and transfer to School No.2 when they returned to school. There they offer each other the support that only those who have shared experiences of such an event can offer their fellow sufferers. They have prepared a poster of all of the teachers who died, including the former administrator of the school who was visiting on that fateful day. They are all still clearly traumatised by the events and in need of support. It is likely that many of the children will continue to need special support throughout their education and some may need psychiatric assistance for many years after. The community is vigorously debating what should be done with the old school. Some want it retained forever as a reminder of the terrible events which took place there. Others want it razed to the ground and replaced with a suitable memorial on the site. The reality is that the buildings have been badly damaged and some steps will have to be taken to prevent decay of the buildings. Other evidence of the siege such as the stains and marks of the violence will fade with time. Perhaps in a year or two those involved will view the situation differently. Other relatives of the victims are expressing their anger on the streets. They are demonstrating in the centre of the city, near the Government administration buildings, seeking publication of the official report into the tragedy. Eleven of the demonstrators are on hunger strike. On the 3rd of September a major commemorative event will take place in Beslan. Amongst the planned ceremonies the regional authorities intend to open the new cemetery formally as a monument to those who died. Education International has been invited to participate in the ceremonies and will be represented by the President, Thulas Nxesi. A visit to the Beslan community in the aftermath of this tragedy is a deeply moving experience. It is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that people who experience such extraordinary events can rebuild their lives. However, it is clear that for many of the people of that school community the tragedy is still part of their daily lives and will be for a long time to come. Charlie Lennon, EI Chief Administrative Co-ordinator 15 June 2005