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Victims of Beslan Terror Still Search For Comfort, Wait For Answers

On the first day of school in Sept 2004, after terrorists took hundreds of children and parents hostage in Russia's Northern Caucasus region, a bloodbath ensued. Questions and scars linger.

Russian schoolboys standing where the Beslan hostage crisis took placeon Sept.1, 2004
Russian schoolboys standing where the Beslan hostage crisis took placeon Sept.1, 2004
Zaur Farniev and Lana Parastaeva

BESLAN — Along the road that once connected the North and South Caucasus stands Holy Alanskii, the only functioning convent in North Ossetia.

The original structure was first built sometime before the Russian Revolution, but had been completely abandoned in 2004 when the current nuns moved in. Now there is a stone fence and a whole complex behind it: a church, living quarters for the nuns, a house for pilgrims and a rehabilitation center.

It is the rehabilitation center that has brought us here — the only one of its kind in all of Russia, built to care for children who have been in wars or other conflicts. And it was opened in 2005 specifically for the children who were held hostage in the bloody Beslan standoff of September 2004.

In the dramatic siege, 1,100 people, including 777 children, were held hostage for three days by Chechen terrorists. In the end, the tragic toll included at least 380 people killed, partially as a result of the use of heavy artillery and tanks by the Russian military in their assault during the third day of the standoff.

After the subsequent war between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia in August 2008, children affected by those hostilities were also brought to the convent for rehabilitation. The director of the rehabilitation center says that since opening in 2005, it has helped more than 3,000 children.

But its original purpose, caring for the children who survived three terrifying days in Beslan, is still an ongoing mission here. Nuns say, even now, nine years later, the survivors of the standoff are afraid to leave their homes, wont’ talk with strangers, cry at night, cut themselves off from the world, and some have taken on aggressive behavior.

One girl named Maria, now a teenager, still comes to the rehabilitation center regularly. After the hostage crisis, she would refuse to leave her mother’s side for even a minute, and would not go to school. During Maria’s visits now to the convent, her mother still calls several times a day to ensure that her daughter feels safe.

Sister Georgia, the convent's director, says the rehabilitation center has long used modern European methods and was financed by German philanthropists until 2008. Now the center is supported by donations from church members as well as by aid from the local government — though it is currently threatened by the construction of a nearby cement factory.

A failed blitz

In Beslan, everyone notes that the former hostages still need psychological support, but refuse to go to the government for help – either from a tradition of mistrust or resignation that the government won’t actually do anything.

The prime minister of North Ossetia, Sergei Takoev, insists that the local government has worked to help the former hostages, though he acknowledges that there has not been a single request for help recently.

Over the years, a program has ensured that all former hostages and their families have housing, and that all former hostages are granted admission to a university in Russia — although activists are concerned that that program is ending too soon, since students who were in first or second grade at the time of the attack have still yet to finish their schooling.

One issue unites both survivors and the local government: the lack of investigation into the terrorist attack, and how it was handled by Russian authorities. Former hostages and their families have been waiting for years for the answer to fundamental questions: Why did so many people die? Why did a bomb go off in the gym? Why wasn’t the attempted rescue mission better organized?

These are questions dear to Sergei Takoev, who led the only investigation into the Beslan attack. He had found that the assault occurred only because the local government had dissolved the police guarding the border with Ingushetia (both Ingushetia and North Ossetia are part of Russia, but have separatist elements).

When his findings were said to be baseless, Takoev was temporarily put under house arrest. When we asked him what he thought about the chances for an independent investigation, he shrugged his shoulders. “The victims have said themselves that they want an honest investigation, not because they want someone to blame, but because they want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, and that the country establishes an effective way to react if there is another hostage situation,” he said. “But every year the hopes for answers to the victims’ questions get smaller and smaller.”


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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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