Elation, then gunfire
The first day of the new term holds special significance
in Russia. In Beslan, children were dressed in their finest
outfits, holding aloft colourful balloons and showing off their
musical skills. But the festivities were cut short that morning by
a series of explosions and gunfire as the terrorists surrounded the
throng and herded them into the school’s gymnasium.
In the initial mayhem many of the fathers were killed by
the terrorists. The gym was booby-trapped with bombs to prevent
anyone escaping and Russian troops and local people massed outside
the school grounds creating a siege.
For the next two days officials tried to negotiate with
the terrorists and prospects for a peaceful conclusion rose when
some of the youngest children and their mothers were released. For
those left in the gym conditions were horrendous. Children had to
drink urine to remain hydrated and the heat was so intense many
were stripped to their underwear. And all the time they were forced
to remain sitting on the floor in silence with their arms in the
air. Guns were constantly trained on them and they watched
terrorists execute some of the adults.
Midway through the third day of the siege a bomb
exploded in the gym. No one is sure whether this was deliberate or
accidental, but it prompted Russian troops to storm the building.
The gun battle that ensued was intense and went on for much of the
day. Many of the hostages escaped, but 330 – half of them children
Like many of us, Stan Godek watched on television as the Beslan
school siege reached its bloody conclusion on 3 September,
The images from that horrific day in southern Russia’s North
Ossetia region are still fresh in the Edinburgh social worker’s
“I remember children running from the school in their underwear
past dazed onlookers. One young boy was carrying another in his
arms,” he says.
A few months later Godek would be using his skills as a social
work training consultant to help the Russian professionals deal
with the aftermath of the tragedy.
His journey started when he was asked by Duncan MacAulay,
Edinburgh Council’s social work general manager, about devising a
training scheme for the teachers and psychologists working with the
trauma victims. It followed an approach to MacAulay, who had
previous connections in Russia, by Antonia Lyshenko, director of
the Moscow Centre for Psychological Support of Children and
Families, who explained the difficulties they were facing in
“Duncan approached me because of my 25 years’ experience working
with traumatised young people,” says Godek, who also works part
time for Edinburgh Council. That experience included work with
people dealing with loss, death and abuse and the conflict, anger
and aggression that can result. Within weeks Godek and his wife,
Liz, manager of a young people’s centre in Edinburgh, had put
together a two-week training programme and in May they flew to
Beslan is the third largest town in North Ossetia with a 33,000
population. Situated near the border with the troubled republic of
Chechnya, it is three hours’ flight from the Russian capital. Its
location made it an easy target for the Chechen terrorists fighting
for independence from Russia but few would have predicted them
turning their attention to School Number 1 where, on 1 September
2004, 1,000 children and their parents had gathered to celebrate
the start of the new school year before the horrific scenes
The repercussions of the tragedy touched nearly everybody in the
town. The initial aftermath saw many families grieving over the
loss of children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters – in one day
alone there were 170 funerals. But, as the physical wounds began to
heal, the psychological ones started to become more apparent.
Moscow sent teams of psychologists and psychiatrists to Beslan
to try to help survivors come to terms with what had happened. But
without any recognised social care infrastructure, services and
professionals – many of whom were young and inexperienced – were
put under enormous strain by the long hours and harrowing stories
they heard. Many of them attended Godek’s training programme.
Godek says the symptoms displayed by many of the 3,000 people
who needed help were the classic after-effects of a traumatic
experience. “The physical reactions include no feelings, low energy
and eating disorders, while emotionally they can suffer panic
attacks, fear of leaving their home and compulsive obsessive
The Godeks delivered eight seminars to 36 psychologists,
combining theoretical perspectives and case studies. The intended
format was for a one-hour presentation followed by 45 minutes for
questions and discussion. However, such was the interest that each
seminar lasted four hours.
As well as developing professionals’ understanding of dealing
with traumatic loss, they also discussed managing anger and
aggression and working with adolescents who reject help.
Godek says: “For children, one of the reactions of something
like this is to mistrust the adult world and see the world as being
out of control. There are some young people who haven’t returned to
school and it is difficult to get them to not think it will happen
There were instances where young people and adults had begun
misusing drugs and alcohol, something seldom seen before and which
authorities had little experience of addressing.
“One of the areas they wanted us to talk about was how to
re-engage fathers with their families,” says Godek. “Beslan has a
traditional culture where the father is the breadwinner and some
felt guilt and shame for being unable to protect their families.
You have fathers who wished it had been them.
“Some of the men have turned to alcohol because they found it so
difficult to re-engage since the purpose had gone out of their
Resilience theory – developing the idea they are survivors – was
also an important concept in the seminars.
Godek says: “If we can identify the characteristics of
individuals that cope we can form an approach to working with those
people who are less resilient and help promote resilience. You need
to emphasise they are survivors and not victims.”
Painting and music therapy play a major part in this, he adds.
“There was an exhibition of the children’s paintings while we were
there. A key factor in resilience is confidence: seeing people
appreciate their paintings and music helps to build this. It is an
important part of the healing process.”
The Godeks have been asked to return to Russia but Stan says the
key to recovery lies with the community itself: “The professionals
are doing their best but mothers, uncles and older children have to
be helped to help each other. Professionals have worked with
parents to help them understand their children’s behaviour and try
to engage with them positively.”
The first anniversary of the tragedy will be a time for the
people of Beslan to remember those who died. But life is beginning
to move on – two new schools have been built – but the charred
shell of School Number 1 remains. Locals want to flatten it and put
a chapel in its place, but authorities cannot afford the
£40,000 needed to do so.
Godek is doing his bit to help with this too – he has just
raised £6,000 from the proceeds of a concert – to add to
thousands already raised.
“That’s where I think we need to help as much as possible. They
are doing so much with so little,” he says.
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