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Beslan victims find peace in Switzerland

The Beslan siege survivors are learning to deal with the past swissinfo.ch

Survivors of the Beslan school siege in Russia are in Switzerland as part of a study and rehabilitation trip organised by local students.

This content was published on March 23, 2005 - 09:58

The group’s members were among 1,200 children, parents and teachers taken hostage by armed militants at their school in North Ossetia last September.

The insurgents, mainly from neighbouring Chechnya, detained the hostages in a gymnastics hall booby-trapped with bombs, where they were forced to spend three days.

Explosives were suspended from the beams and basketball hoops. Their captors stood guard with their feet on detonator pedals.

There was no food, and as the hours wore on, the terrorists cut off all water and bathroom privileges. They threatened to kill the hostages if they did not keep quiet.

More than 330 people died – half of them children - in explosions and gun battles between the attackers and security forces trying to end the standoff.

The survivors were severely traumatized by bloody scenes they witnessed, and still require psychological treatment.

College project

Students at the Professional School of Commerce in Nyon, near Geneva, watched in horror as the drama unfolded on television.

They decided that, as part of their final year project for their commercial apprenticeships, they would try to help the victims of the siege.

They came up with the idea of organising a study trip to their town, which is located on Lake Geneva. Their teacher, Marek Mogilewicz, secured free air passages to Switzerland for 25 people, and found host families through advertisements in the local newspaper.

There were 21 ten-year-olds, three teachers and a psychiatrist in the original group, but five children returned home after the first week.

They arrived in Switzerland at the beginning of March, and classes got underway immediately.

The students are pursuing their Russian fourth-grade primary school curriculum, taught by their usual teacher. They have French classes in the afternoons.

Outside school, there are free judo classes for all the pupils on Monday nights. A local dance school has also offered free lessons.

The circus school will be teaching the students big top tricks after the Easter break, and a local bakery has offered to demonstrate bread making.

"There really has been a huge amount of solidarity from the community," Mogilewicz told swissinfo.

The host families also take the children on excursions around Switzerland and to the local swimming pool.

Healing

These diversions help the recovery process, but there are no guarantees that the psychological scars will ever heal.

Psychologist Larisa Lukanova, who accompanied the group to Switzerland, says many of them suffer from eating and sleeping disorders. "Some have become aggressive and others are too passive," she said.

But she has noticed an improvement in their mental health since the trip began.

Diana Daurova is a striking example. She was unable to communicate with her fellow pupils before her visit, having lost her brother in the Beslan bloodbath. Now, largely as a result of the contact with her host family, she plays happily and chats.

Her teacher, Svetlana Kozyreva, also feels much better. "I’m not afraid any more. I don’t have to run to the window when I hear the slightest noise outside."

"I hope no-one will ever have to go through what we went through," she added. We just want to go on and live our lives, just like everyone else."

More help needed

When the Swiss trip ends, Kozyreva will have to resume her teaching in Beslan at a school patrolled by armed guards. The security precautions are considered vital by local authorities, with warring Chechnya just across the border.

Mogilewicz says it is important that the Beslan survivors continue to receive Swiss help after their return home. He would like the sponsoring to continue until the 21 children reach the tenth grade, and has approached the Swiss government for funding.

"We need to keep trying to improve the psychological health of these children," he said. "Perhaps we can erase some of the trauma they have suffered."

Switzerland is already sponsoring a therapy programme at a sports hall close to the targeted school. The project, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, aims to help survivors recover through numerous activities, including art, play and sport.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Nyon

Key facts

More than 330 people died after Chechen rebels attacked a school in Russia in September 2004.
One hostage-taker was arrested and the other 31 died when Special Forces stormed the Beslan school.
Four other people were later arrested, suspected of helping plan the siege.
Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has claimed responsibility for the attack.

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In brief

Survivors of the Beslan school hostage drama are studying in Switzerland for three months, as part of a project to help them recover from the tragedy.

They are learning French and taking part in extra-curricular activities.

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