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Trauma of Beslan siege still haunts the town

BESLAN, Russia—At first, all of Beslan's grief seemed surface in its children.

Kids were suddenly afraid to be left alone. Some would manically twist their faces into strange shapes. Others feared the dark. Others cried while they slept. Some went mute. One sad little boy began to meow incessantly.

Their trauma began the morning of Sept. 1, 2004, on what should have been the giddy first day of a new school year. But a gang of terrorists swept down on Beslan's School No. 1 and took 1,200 students, parents and teachers as hostages.

They demanded that Russian troops pull out of neighboring Chechnya. A three-day standoff ended in a chaotic series of explosions, gun battles and a fire in the school gymnasium that charred many bodies beyond recognition.

In all, 336 people were killed, including 156 children. Twenty-four children became orphans. Nineteen teachers died. Hundreds were injured.

Six months after what's known here as "the tragedy," the surviving children are getting better. But like their parents, their teachers, their neighbors—indeed, like the rest of Beslan—they're a long way from OK.

"The whole town needs help," said Alexander Kolmanovsky, a Moscow psychologist who, with his wife Natalya, is working with traumatized children and teachers in Beslan.

Beslan, on the rim of the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia, is a railroad-junction town of 35,000. It's known for its pure spring water and delicious local vodkas, especially the Phoenix brand.

Now Beslan is trying to rise from the ashes of a tragedy that remains incomprehensible. Anger, sorrow, empathy and fear govern the town's emotions.

"How did people in New York feel after 9/11? That's how we feel," said Vladimir Khodov, head of the regional administration. "As time goes on, we seem to have even more questions. Why? Why?"

Beslan prides itself on being a close-knit and welcoming Caucasian community. But the last six months have not seen Beslan at its best.

Some citizens angling for government stipends used forged papers to say that their children—who actually were safe at home during the siege—had been hostages.

Parents who lost children in the assault angrily demanded higher stipends than those whose kids were "merely" disabled or injured. After heated arguments a graduated system of cash awards was established.

Teachers also came under scathing criticism, even though some of the most touching and heroic stories from the siege were of teachers physically shielding their students from gunfire. Shell-shocked teachers who didn't immediately return to work were not paid.

"Teachers are exhausted, not only from the actual trauma (of the siege) but from the situation in the society afterward," said Kolmanovsky. "Parents said to them, "How could you survive when my child died?'

"The teachers know it's irrational and they know the parents are traumatized, but they still get defensive and they fight."

Principal Lydia Tsalieva, a 50-year veteran teacher and administrator at School No. 1, resigned recently when she could no longer bear up under parental criticisms, death threats and charges that she should have somehow prevented the takeover of the school.

"I can't blame these people. They're so poor, they've lost their children and they're in such sorrow," said Tsalieva, 72, whose two grandchildren were hostages. She herself was nearly killed. "I have to forgive them."

Since the tragedy, the town has almost seemed cursed.

After hundreds of burials and funerals, one charred child's skeleton remained. But DNA tests showed the body didn't belong to the parents whose daughter was the only child unaccounted for.

Due to haste, the fog of grief or a forensic foul-up, someone had buried the wrong child as their own.

What followed was gruesome, agonizing and necessary: graves were unearthed, more DNA tests were done, tiny bodies were correctly identified, and new funerals were held.

Finally, Beslan's dead children could rest in peace.

In the days after the tragedy, tens of millions of dollars in assistance poured into Beslan. Many of the hostages, especially children, were sent to spas and resorts on the Black Sea with their families. Others went abroad, visiting kids their own age in Italy, Canada and the Caribbean.

Dozens of Russian and foreign psychologists, psychiatrists and trauma counselors also have come to Beslan, and training courses and workshops in Moscow are in hurry-up mode.

Art and play therapy have been used to great effect with hostage children, trauma experts said.

"It's for children who can't express their fears concerning the terrorists they saw," said psychologist Alexander Venger. "Adults talk. Kids play."

The parents of one troubled schoolboy got him into art therapy as a way to break the news of the death of his 2-year-old brother. After several sessions of painting, he drew a sky full of stars.

"He said his brother had gone into the sky where he would work as a star to give us light," said Larisa Khatagova, an intern in the art therapy program at Beslan's Polyclinic.

One 8-year-old girl drew faces of terrorists on balloons, then popped them one by one with a pen. When she got to the last balloon, she asked psychologist Yelena Morozova to pop it for her. When Morozova did, the little girl exclaimed, "How nice! You killed him!"

"These feelings demand to be released," Venger said. "The main thing is to work out their fears, fantasies and wishes."

David Khabalayev never managed to work out his fears and his anguish.

The 42-year-old businessman had been in the crowd of citizens outside School No. 1 during the standoff with the terrorists. When the explosions and gunfire started—a federal inquiry is still sorting out the chaotic series of events—Khabalayev rushed to help carry burned and wounded children out of the gymnasium.

"He took it so much to heart," said his cousin, Roman Khabalayev, a leather tanner, as he laid a spray of flowers inside the burned-out gym. "It was heart-breaking for him."

David Khabalayev killed himself last week, most probably another victim of the Beslan tragedy, another part of the collateral damage.

"He shot himself," Roman said sadly. "Through the heart."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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