Video: Beslan's tragedy

By Keith Miller Senior foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/23/2004 10:11:11 AM ET 2004-12-23T15:11:11

Olga was clawing at the dirt that covers her 14-year-old son's grave, crying.

Elena sat at a piano wanting to play, but all that came out of her were tears.

Elderly women never leave home without clutching a handful of tissues.

This is the way it is for the survivors and relatives of Russia's worst terrorist attack. Beslan, in southern Russia, is a town in tears.

Haunted community
Anyone who walks into the ruins of Middle School Number One are in for a shock. The horror happened nearly four months ago, but this place is haunted.

The fragments of the remains of suicide bombers stain the walls. The windows are broken, textbooks scorched and everywhere there are water bottles. They have been left by survivors to remember the three days the terrorists refused everyone a sip of water.

As the snow drifted in through the gaping holes in the ceiling of the school, a young blonde American started crying. Gentle tears at first, that grew into a torment.

Crystal Woodman-Miller came to Beslan to hand out presents for the charity group, Samaritan's Purse. The recent college graduate was the perfect person to relate to the survivors of Beslan, because she is a survivor too.

Back in 1999 she hid under a desk in the library of Columbine High school while two crazed students gunned down her classmates. They ran out of ammunition. She lived.

There was no shortage of ammunition in Beslan. And many died. Middle School Number One was used as a slaughter house by a band of Islamic terrorists demanding independence for Chechnya.

They took more than 1,000 hostages on the school's opening day — Sept. 1. A three-day standoff ended in explosions and gunfire. 338 were killed — with more than half the victims children. More than 700 were wounded and the attack created 28 orphans. Out of the town’s 40,000 residents, 7,000 of them are in therapy.

Woodman-Miller stood in a destroyed school hallway haunted by the cruelty committed here,  punctuated by a thousand bullet holes and more. "I can't imagine the fear and the terror and the children. There are no words," she said.

Music, dance, art try to help healing
Indeed, words are almost useless here. But there are helpful sounds.

A walk around town reveals the sound of music. UNICEF and half a dozen other aid agencies are working to help people overcome the trauma. Music is used to restore their ability to feel.

Elena, 13, sat at the lone piano staring at the keys. She wanted to play, but the tears welled up. She left the piano and fell into the arms of a psychologist who gave her hugs and comfort.

The experts say any expression — sadness, even hate — helps the survivors reconnect with their emotions.

There are pictures drawn by the kids to help them make the transition from darkness to light. Stick figures covered in red. Small faces dotted with big tears. And a heart — a big, fat, happy-looking heart.

Slideshow: Beslan saga At the Republican Center of Medicine, kids are undergoing relaxation therapy to help ease the nightmares. Kids dance to music and hold hands, but if you look closely it is clear some of them are not here. Not in this room anyway. They are far away, in some bad place. Even the trained therapists are heartbroken.

Oyun Dendevnorov has been with UNICEF for 13 years. In all that time, she said it never has been this tough. “We've seen with our own eyes, talked to the children, to parents. And every moment you participate, the tragedy becomes a part of you," she said.

Woodman-Miller predicted this charity mission would be a tough one.

On stage at the local cultural center she told her story of survival and promised the kids and parents that life gets better. The adults in the audience wiped away the tears. The kids sat silently.

Holiday spirit
But the moment was transformed when volunteers from Samaritan's Purse started bringing out brightly wrapped shoeboxes. Hundreds of them, marked boy or girl. They were simple gifts — miniature teddy bears, whistles and games. But each shoebox had something in it that couldn't be seen, only felt. The kids knew that someone out there cared for them, even loved them.

Woodman-Miller, now dry-eyed, was beaming too. The American and the Russian connected by love.

Woodman-Miller came to Beslan with Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian charity based in Boone, N.C., along with brought 8,500 of the boxes — enough for every child in Beslan.

And just for a moment the Christmas spirit of giving overwhelmed all the sadness, fear and anxiety.

"All the things in the world seem so unimportant when you step into a place like this,” said Woodman-Miller.

Beslan has many more tears to shed.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote that "for happiness one needs security, but joy can spring like a flower even from the cliffs of despair." 

The people of Beslan are not yet secure, but they experienced a glimmer of hope and joy — contained in something as simple as a shoebox.

Keith Miller is an NBC News correspondent.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments