The aftermath: Beslan tragedy still hurts

One year after the horrifying carnage at Beslan Middle School Number One, the Russian community's wounds are still gaping.

"The school is frozen in time," reports Lisa Aronson, a trauma expert who recently returned from training 24 mental health professionals who are working to put their community back together. The work will not be simple.

Parents who lost children in the three-day siege that began September 1, 2004, remain paralyzed with grief. One woman, Aronson reports, could not accept that her eight-year-old daughter was gone. For eight months, she went to the school each day, calling, "I am here for you."

The heart-rending reports include stories of soldiers who have patrolled the decimated school site and claimed to hear the haunting cries of children still calling out to their mothers.

The community is so devastated that no one-year commemoration has been planned. Many of the children who survived the siege remain crippled with fear, refusing to leave their homes and return to school.

Although the scope of the devastation– 350 dead and 700 injured– is nearly impossible to imagine, Aronson says there is hope for children who survive traumatic incidents. She says mental health workers must analyze not only the trauma the child experienced, but also "secondary adversities."

Consider the case of a group of 11th graders who managed to flee on the first day of the siege. Instead of being embraced for escaping from hell, Aronson reports that they have been ostracized by the community for failing to help the younger students. Their alienation from friends and family grew so intense that the Beslan government eventually sent them to school in St. Petersburg, hours away.

Teachers who were eventually safely released by the terrorists faced similar treatment by their angry neighbors. In a community that values loyalty and responsibility above all. many parents refuse to send their children back to school. Why? Because of their distrust of teachers who somehow failed to protect their students from the Chechen attackers.

"The vanity of the terrorists was such that they wanted their kidnapping, killing, and suicides filmed," says UVA psychiatrist James A. Thomson, a colleague of Aronson, who, he says, has the seen the film.

The director of UVA's Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction, Aronson was invited by a Russian non-government organization called "Women of the Don Region." At the time of her visit, in late July, the area was still considered too unstable for Americans to travel without an armed escort, so Aronson did her work 400 miles north, in the Russian city of Novocherkassk.

Despite the bleak situation in Beslan, Aronson says there is hope for the children recovering from the attack. "It's going to affect their character and their development," she says. "But if you intervene and help, you can see tremendous progress."

Lisa Aronson