Christian Aid in the Wake of Beslan Terrorism
On 3 September 2004 a tragedy that shocked the entire world struck the quiet North Ossetia town of Beslan in Russia. A well-planned, cruel attack by Chechen insurgents led to the death of331 people, including 186 children from Beslan School Number One. TV screens carried chilling images around the globe for several days after the horrific attack. People immediately rushed to Beslan to help in any way they could. This north Caucasus village suffered the death of so many innocents that it is now known for its “black fame.”
Gravestones all carved from the same red granite now mark the entrance to town. A huge steel monument listing the names of everyone who died during the siege stands at the front of the cemetery. The cemetery never lacks fresh flowers. They are constantly replenished, summer and winter, especially on weekends. In the Christmas season of 2005, families decorated graves with Christmas trees as reminder of their children’s love for this happy holiday. Mothers in black dresses sit by some of the gravestones and stare emptily at photos of their children. Grandmothers come to the cemetery and grieve for entire families. People here say that Beslan will never recover from its grief.
On the second day after the tragedy, the well-known mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, promised to rebuild the school, and he kept his promise. The new school, which is much larger than the old one that was destroyed, was completed in a matter of several months. Its wonderful classrooms, however, are cheerless because the nearby ruins of the old school building, with its bullet holes and spots of dried blood on classroom walls, still remind everyone of the horror of the terrorist attack. Student sand many parents still go back to the old school to lay flowers and light candles that are constantly replaced and never go out.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of families were affected by the tragedy. During the first days after the siege, eyewitnesses say that the streets to the new cemetery were clogged by funeral processions. Several caskets often came from the same home: a father and all his children who had gone together to the first day of school; another and all her children; four of five children of Baptist minister, Taimuraz Totiev and his wife Raisa.While visiting Beslan two months after the siege, I will never forget a drunken man wandering around the remnants of School Number One. He was looking for anyone who would listen to his story - a chilling tale of discovering the lifeless bodies of his loved ones among the debris and burying each one. Local people say that he spends most of his time around the ruins of the school. The shock waves of the Beslan attack still reverberate from the small autonomous republic of North Ossetia across the Caucasus and across all of Russia.
The longstanding but nearly forgotten conflict between the Ossetians and the Ingush was instantly reignited. All the schools in Beslan and throughout North Ossetia now have armed policemen manning the entrances. The religious and political environment remains very tense.
Because of the severe trauma suffered by residents of this community, the Association for Spiritual Renewal (ASR) quickly decided to open the Heart to Heart Center to provide psychological and moral support to Beslan survivors. (ASR, headquartered in Moscow, is the Russian affiliate of Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries, Wheaton, Illinois.) Already, by the second half of September, 2004, the Center was actively working in a rented facility with those traumatized by the terrorist attack. A team of eight Christian psychologists conducted round the-clock services for children and adults. Additionally, nine Christian workers visited the injured in their homes and in hospitals, providing moral, spiritual, and financial assistance. A committee formed by local church leaders distributed funds for funeral and medical expenses.
A large portion of the work involved the distribution of financial assistance to the families of the dead and to former hostages. Before the end of September 2004, ASR distributed funds collected in the West to Beslan
victims at a time when many did not have money to bury their relatives and did not know what to do or to whom to turn. This very timely assistance was distributed by a local committee of Christian leaders headed by Baptist youth pastor German Gzhiev. In the fall of 2004, 2,300school children, 700 former hostages, and 2,000 family members of the injured received humanitarian aid in the form of Christmas gifts and food. Within 12 months, more than 6,000children and adults received psychological counseling and humanitarian aid in the form of gifts and backpacks with school supplies and children’s Bibles. In addition, Heart to Heart Center workers opened a 24-hour telephone hotline on local radio. Four counselors provided continuous help to people who had suffered from violence, depression, thoughts of suicide, and other difficult life situations. The work of the Center contributed significantly tithe healing process in Beslan and will be anon going source for spiritual and psychological support for the Ossetian people.
On 1 September 2005 a team of eight counselors began working at a new Beslan facility called the Heart to Heart Community Youth Center which grew out of the Heart to Heart Christian Center. Built by ASR, this new facility houses a Christian library, computer classrooms, and areas for recreational activities for Beslan’s children and youth. Sunday worship services recently began in this youth center and many people are attending. Organizations that contributed to the building of this center include Samaritan’s Purse, Global Aid Network
(GAiN USA), Danish European Mission, and Norwegian Mission to the East. In addition, ASR provided funds to complete the construction of the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church in Gizel, a town located near Beslan that is pastored by Taimuraz Totiev. ASR also worked with Kids Around the World (Rockford, Illinois) and Samaritan’s Purse to build playground for the children of Beslan. A group of some 40 volunteers from the West traveled to Beslan in May 2006 and installed playground equipment on land provided by the Beslan administration. Over a thousand people attended the playground dedication.
True Christian generosity is well-known in Beslan. Many groups have given liberally to support this community. ASR partnered with a number of organizations in its terror relief efforts. GAiN USA and Cross International shipped containers of goods that were distributed to Beslan families. Organizations including Childrens Hunger Fund, Norwegian Mission to the East, Danish European Mission, and many others from all over the world made substantial donations in support of the victims of the Beslan terrorist attack. The following description of the work of various organizations is not exhaustive, but it does demonstrate the range of assistance given to the Beslann community.
A Roll Call of Christian Assistance
Association of Humanity, Igor Nikitin, St. Petersburg, and its representative in Beslan, Brother Kozirev, purchased a house in Beslan that is functioning as a counseling center for children and youth.
Calvary Chapel Church, Sochi, visited the injured and families of the terror attack victims in homes and hospitals and provided material and spiritual support on behalf of many American Christian families.
Caritas International, the relief, development, and social service organization of the Roman Catholic Church, organized immediate assistance to Beslan victims. It arranged for round-the-clock access to two psychologists and provided medicine and other supplies to local hospitals that were caring for children from School Number One. Additionally, as people are trying to recover from the effects of the tragedy, Caritas International has provided long-term medical and psychological support to victims and their families and support for families whose breadwinners were killed during the siege.
Child Evangelism Fellowship, Moscow, conducted training seminars and provided training materials for local churches in Vladikavkaz and Beslan on how to work with traumatized children.
Christian Bridge, U.S., President Michael Morgulis traveled throughout the area with his assistants and offered prayers for hurting people at the Beslan Cemetery and in their homes. Christian Bridge also provided some financial support to families.
Christian and Missionary Alliance, Krasnodar, raised funds among its churches allover Russia and provided financial assistance tithe injured and their families. They also support the work of the Heart to Heart Counseling Center by mobilizing and sending counselors and volunteers from other regions to come to Beslan to help the community.
Church of the Seventh-day Adventists provided much material assistance to the injured, as well as counseling assistance to the families of victims. Adventists also provided Christmas gifts to all families.
Denver Seminary, Denver, Colorado, sent a group of American psychologists to provide psychological help to the injured after the terrorist attack. This group worked in a Beslan Baptist church and conducted a counseling seminar, training local Christians how to help others in the community with post-traumatic recovery.
Faith Mission of Christian Mercy provided counseling and material assistance to the injured and traumatized. The main work of Faith Mission has been the provision of spiritual assistance and financial help to the injured and their families. This ministry is supported mainly by Russian immigrants in the U.S. who have provided material assistance to families who lost loved ones during the terrorist attack.
Living Water Christian Evangelical Center, city of Armavir, provided counseling and material assistance to the injured and their families.
The Lutheran Hour (Russia) program (LHM),a ministry of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Lutheran Church-Canada, and Lutheran Women in Mission, responded tithe events in Beslan in three ways. First, as children were being sent to area hospitals for treatment, LHM provided children’s videos tithe hospitals at the request of hospital administration officials. Second, the LHM free crisis line was made available for those in need of counseling. The crisis line was staffed by professional psychologists. Third, LH Morganized the “Children of Beslan” program. Children from a Russian orphanage drew pictures that were printed on note cards and other items. The money generated from sales of these items in the United States and around the world was used to support children in Beslan.
Northern Ossetian Mission of Christian Mercy (NOMCM), Vladikavkaz, visited the injured and provided moral and humanitarian assistance to victims of the attack. In cooperation with ASR, the Northern Ossetian Mission organized a Personal Gift Project that included children’s Bibles, toys, school supplies, and music CDs. These donations also included counseling materials produced and made available by Focus on the Family. Since the tragedy, NOMCM has worked with ASR to produce radio counseling programs and a 24-
hour Christian hotline.
Peace Regional Mission of Christian Mercy raised and distributed funds to school siege victims.
Russia Inland, Moscow, working together with Christians from England, brought several soccer teams, organizing soccer games for children in the area to help them recover from the trauma.
Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, President Rev. Yuri Sipko was one of the very first Christian leaders in Russia to visit Beslan, just two days after the tragedy. He provided personal comfort to local church leaders and to the Christian community.
Slavic Gospel Association (SGA), the designated Western fundraising organization of Russia’s Evangelical Christians-Baptists, provided substantial financial assistance to Baptist church members in Beslan. SGA continues to help the local Baptist church by funding an addition to its building and constructing a new road to the church. SGA also provides substantial financial support for the Totiev brothers—local pastors who suffered enormously by losing their own children in the attack.
The Orthodox Church in America established the “Beslan Relief Fund” on the morning of 7 September 2004. Church members had already begun donating money to help the victims in Beslan on Sunday, 5September 2004. According to figures from the Church’s 2005 Charity Appeal, in the year following the events in Beslan, the Orthodox Church in America raised Over $100,000 for Bedlam relief.
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate:
According to a press release from the Russian Orthodox Church: “On March 10, 2005 . . . an agreement was signed between the Stavropol and Vladikavkaz Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Diocese of Berlin and Germany of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on the joint construction of Epiphany Convent in Beslan. Therapeutic and trauma center will be built at the convent as well.” The hospital will be the first rehabilitation center in Northern Ossetia specializing in treating those who suffered from the Beslan tragedy.
Word of Life (Ulf Eckman Fund) and Beslan Church of God, local charismatic churches, supported by international funds, provided assistance to the injured and to the families who lost loved ones.
What lessons have Russia, the Christian community, and the world learned from Beslan?
The main goal of the attack was to create fear in Russia and to fan the flame of ethnic tensions into open warfare throughout the North Caucasus. This did not occur, but it is widely assumed that the terrorists will attack again, as they did on 13 October 2005 in the neighboring autonomous republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. After more than a year and a half, the state commission for the investigation of the causes and circumstances of the terrorist attacking Beslan released the results of its investigation.
As expected, it concluded that people had failed. Everyone was guilty, but no one was held responsible. The court in Vladikavkaz, which Mothers of Beslan regularly picketed, reached a guilty verdict on the sole terrorist who was captured: 30-year-old Chechen Nurpasha Kulaev was sentenced to life in prison in May 2006,while the crowd outside the court room was demanding death.
All families who suffered from the attack received some compensation from the state. According to Mr. Mayerbekov, secretary of the Beslan Commission for Funds Distribution, families who lost a loved one received $50,000per person killed and $35,000 per person injured. This is not including funds received from organizations that provided funds directly to the families. These funds and those received from nongovernmental organizations have been spent on medical bills, family rehabilitation, and home improvements. Many child survivors and their families have received overwhelming attention from the governments of other countries. Many have even had to choose in which country to receive medical treatment. Immediately after the attack, the Christian community in Bedlam was united by an incomprehensible grief and the desire to reach out across denominational lines in order to minister to the victims and their families. Time has passed, and everything has reverted to the way it was before. Beslan, now known all over the world, is thought by many people to still being need of material help. They are trying to send groceries or toys to kids in Beslan who are now asking for more modern computers, video games, and humanitarian aid shipments that are still stuck in huge customs warehouses.
A Lack of Coordination
While people and organizations from all over the world wanted to help in Beslan after the attack in September 2004, there was no solid system in place to coordinate assistance. Unfortunately, this contributed to an unhealthy spirit of competition among Christian organizations and gave rise to scams among local residents. While visiting some victims’ families in Beslan with a team of local believers, I saw groups of women dressed in black dresses and scarves who did not resemble Beslan residents. They approached anyone who looked like a foreigner and demanded that they receive financial help for their “relatives” who supposedly had suffered from the attack. Cults also appeared in Beslan soon after the attack. Sadly, well-known false healer Grirorii Grabovoicame to Beslan and exploited grieving families by promising to resurrect dead loved ones for a fee. He now is in jail awaiting trial.
In summer 2005, Samaritan’s Purse, headed by Franklin Graham, provided funding for ASR national teams from Beslan to conduct summer camps for children in the war-torn North Caucasus, including children from Grozny, capital of Chechnya, and 200 Chechen refugee children living in Dagestan. The summer camping Grozny was the first to be held in the region since the outbreak of the Chechen War in 1994.
Ossetian and Russian believers from Beslan risked their lives to go to Grozny in order to reach out to Chechen children. After this peacemaking mission, one of the returning young leaders gave the following account: We enjoyed this [camp] very much since we saw huge results. When we asked a group of 50children what their favorite toy was, many of the boys shouted, “Weapons! Kalashnikov guns! “We understood that many of these children had been living in the midst of war for so long that guns and fighting were all they knew. On the final day of camp, after spending time with these children and teaching them the Bible, we saw dramatic changes. They performed their ethnic dance (the “Lesginka”), they hugged us, and they begged us to come back. We learned our most important lesson then: In order to stop the violence and killing in the Northern Caucasus, the church should make every effort to reach out to the children there with true Christian love. This alone can stop ethnic conflicts and prevent future attacks like the one in Beslan.
Sergey Rakhuba is vice-president of Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries, Wheaton, Illinois. This ministry’s Moscow-based affiliate is the Association for Spiritual Renewal.