Comradeship helps to heal deep wounds
The first day of school in Beslan, North Ossetia, has always been a special day. Families and guests go with the children to celebrate the start of the new session.
Last September Aleta Gasinova, a teacher at a children's centre in the town, did not go with her daughters, Amina, 9, and Saneta, 10. Her father-in-law went instead. He had been headteacher at the school, School One, for 30 years and he was going back as a guest. He was to never leave the school again.
"All we found was one of his shoes and a bit of his leg," says Mrs Gasinova, plucking obsessively at her shirt collar as she talks about the three-day siege and massacre by Chechen separatists. In a quiet classroom at Cradlehall Primary in Inverness, she cries at the memories.
The 13 children, aged 8 to 15, whom Mrs Gasinova has accompanied on a recuperative holiday to Scotland, seem less bruised by their experiences.
They mask their hurt: 15-year-old Theresa Karsanova lost her sister; 14-year-old Alexander Pogrebnoy, Sasha for short, was badly burned on his hands and body; 8-year-old Zalina Amirkhanova's mother was so badly injured she must go to the United States for treatment.
Outside, the visiting children, some dressed in treasured Celtic shirts, play football with their buddies, the 13 P7 and P6 Cradlehall Primary pupils allocated to them. They dart around, laughing and shouting, communicating in sign language and the few sporadic words the children from the southern Russian republic have learnt during their four-week holiday.
The trip has culminated in this visit to a school to see how Scottish children are educated.
"We wanted to make the day as much fun as possible," says Anne Dougall, the depute headteacher. "We are doing art, taking a trip to the historic Culloden battlefield, in the afternoon we will play handball, followed by Scottish country dancing in the hall, and finally our choir, which won an Inverness music festival award in March, will sing a couple of Scottish songs."
The children have been living with Scottish families during their one week stay in Lanarkshire and three weeks in the Highlands and islands. During a packed schedule they have been to Lewis, where they went go-karting, to Fort George, north-east of Inverness, and have had dinner with Rangers players at Ibrox.
When Lawrence Sutherland, the headteacher at Cradlehall Primary, heard the children were coming to Inverness, he contacted the organiser at the local charity link and arranged that a day would be spent with his pupils.
"Everyone was traumatised by the images from Beslan, and for us it brought back memories of the Dunblane massacre. We wanted to do something," he says.
"It has been good being here," says Mrs Gasinova, who speaks a little English. "Scotland is not unlike Beslan to look at, although it is colder.
But it has been very good to get the children away from the town, so that they don't have to think about what happened."
In Beslan, Mrs Gasinova's house is less than a five minute walk from the charred remains of School One, close enough to have heard the uproar as the terrorists charged the school.
"When I heard the noise I ran down immediately and saw the terrorists getting out of trucks," she recalls. "There was shooting and shouting. I ran up to the terrorists and begged them to let me go with my daughters. We were all pushed into the gym, which was incredibly hot and airless, and made to sit down, everyone squashed together.
"On the first day the children were allowed to drink dirty water from buckets. But they said to the adults that if we touched the water they would kill the children. After the first day they wouldn't let anyone drink anything, not even the children.
"It was so hot people were dying. One girl with diabetes died on the first day but her mother kept her body hidden in the toilet because the terrorists were just throwing the dead out of the windows."
On the first day, the men held hostage, some of them teachers, were made to rip up floorboards and desks to build barricades. Then the terrorists shot them.
"They killed all the strong men straight away," she says.
After that it was a waiting game, trying to keep the children from being too scared and too noisy.
"The terrorists had suspended explosives across the ceiling, connected to a foot pedal, which they kept threatening to detonate," continues Mrs Gasinova. She told children near her that the bombs were new air conditioning units.
"I also kept telling them that the siege would end peaceably because they wouldn't kill children, but we all knew about the theatre seige in Moscow.
The terrorists showed us gas masks they had brought in case the army tried to gas them."
After three days, as emergency workers were going in to retrieve the bodies of dead hostages, an explosion ripped through the gym, followed by two others and the collapse of the roof. Even now, no one is certain what made the bombs go off. Witnesses reported that one of the bombs taped around the gym fell and exploded.
Mrs Gasinova watched as the terrorists gunned down children who had leapt out of the windows. She and her daughters were used as human shields.
"They made the children get up into the windows, so that soldiers wouldn't shoot. I stood there with my daughters while all these guns were going off around me. There were bullets everywhere and grenades were being thrown. I still can't believe we weren't killed."
About 200 children and 130 adults among the 1,388 hostages died. Twelve were teachers. Some burned to death in a fire begun by the third explosion.
Many were ripped apart, leaving only segments for families to identify. An eight-year-old boy is still missing.
"Whenever I see his mother she always tells me he's not dead, he's going to come back soon," says Mrs Gasinova, speaking rapidly, wiping tears from her cheeks. "But there were so many bodies burned and damaged by bombs, I don't think they will ever find him."
The broken school remains, closed, a memorial for the people.
Two new schools will be built. Until then the 700 children who survived the siege will attend their nearest school in the afternoons. Officially, they returned to school in October, but in reality only a few went back. Since the siege, going to school is no longer a priority. Many have been in hospital or clinics recuperating from injuries. Others have been too frightened to step back into a classroom.
"When I went back to school there were just three or four of us," says Zalina. "But more are coming back now. There are 26 in my class now."
The world has responded by sending gifts and offering recuperative trips to take the children away from the scene of carnage. Some have been to the Czech Republic, others to Switzerland.
The trip to Scotland was organised by the Inverness link of Chernobyl Children Life Line, a charity set up in 1992 to give the children affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident recuperative holidays. With the help of the Scottish Sun newspaper, it raised money to bring over the Beslan children, although it still has more to raise to reach its target of pound;30,000. Cradlehall Primary contributed money raised at its Christmas carol concert.
Mr Sutherland was alert to the benefits for his pupils of inviting the Russian children to the school, but the management team were aware of the risk of traumatising them with too much information.
"We brought up the massacre in assembly and all the children remembered seeing it on the television and in the newspapers," says Mr Sutherland, "but we deliberately didn't go into the tragedy too much. We didn't want pupils focusing on the negative. So we emphasised the therapeutic nature of the trip."
It gave class teachers an opportunity to talk to pupils about Russia, find Beslan on maps and study some Russian culture, beginning with a look at the language. Using the internet, pupils study the Cyrillic alphabet so they could write their name tags in Russian.
"We spelt the names phonetically but it was difficult as some sounds are missing. They don't seem to have a letter for the h sound, so Holly had to be Molly and Hannah took the name Anna," explains Mrs Dougall.
As the pupils waited for the Beslan children to arrive, their questions showed they were anxious about the language barrier. The opening art class on Kandinsky went quite well, but it was outside on the playing fields that the children began to connect.
Tsara Kesaev, 11, and Scott Cameron, in P7, managed, through smiles and gestures, to come to an understanding.
"I was really nervous about it," says Scott later in the day, "but it has been really fun, especially when we were playing football and handball.
Trying to communicate with Tsara was hard, though."
Tsara found it just as uncomfortable. He grins as he explains through an interpreter that he liked being at the school, especially when they played outside. His greatest souvenir from the trip is his Celtic shirt.
Sasha found Cradlehall Primary different from schools in Beslan. "It looks more like a house than a school," he says.
Zalina agrees. "At our school the classrooms are all off one big corridor.
I think I would get lost all the time at this school."
Most of the Beslan children appreciated being partnered with a Scottish pupil as it gave them someone to identify with and follow, but mostly they stuck together, with the boys talking loudly and the girls hanging back.
At the Culloden battlefield centre, it was the boys who rushed to look at the weapons, while the girls sat quietly with their partners. In contrast, when it was time for Scottish country dancing, the boys were more reluctant to come forward. Cajoled by Mrs Dougall and other staff, they did take part in Strip the Willow. It made Mrs Gasinova laugh to see them join in.
"It is good for them to meet Scottish children and to go to a school where they feel safe," she says. "Children forget quickly. They don't think about it all the time. But the adults will never forget. We are angry, very angry. We are angry at the Chechens."
In Beslan, the process of rebuilding people's lives is continuing slowly.
But it seems unlikely that the first day of the new school year will ever be celebrated in the traditional way again.