Former Beslan hostage starts new school year

Malik has the nonchalant manner of any 14-year-old when he says “I don’t know” or snaps at his little sister, Fatima. But his green eyes are “those of a 40-year-old man”, his mother says, even a year after he survived the Beslan school hostage massacre.

Sitting on a bench outside his family’s home, Malik Kolchakeyev already knows what questions are coming. He nonetheless answers them dutifully and launches into the story of his experience during and after he was held hostage in his Beslan school, a tale he has told many times before.

“The psychologists asked me the same questions 50 times—about the terrorists, about the deaths.
I’m used to it, even if it’s still painful. But I’m also tired of it all,” he says, cracking his knuckles impatiently.

It was on the morning of September 1 2004 that three friends swung by to pick Malik up for the first day of school.

“My little sister wanted to come with us, but I didn’t want her to. She got mad and we left without her,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone.

He would spend most of the next three days as one of more than 1 100 hostages held by gunmen demanding independence for Chechnya in the gymnasium, and today he recalls memories of the long wait with his throat parched “like a sponge”.

He also recounts with pride that he “managed to steal a jerry can with 20 litres of water from a terrorist who was sleeping, to give it to the kids” who were denied food and water by their captors for the duration of the siege.

Malik remembers the explosion, a blast that paradoxically “saved” him because he was thrown outside the building by its force.

The next images he recalls are those of his mother, Fluorida, approaching him with outstretched arms, a ride in a car, a stay in a hospital where he was unable to sleep and his return home.

Malik and his three friends survived. A number of their classmates and his teacher, Natalya, did not.

Following burial of the dead—318 hostages, 186 of them children, were killed in the crisis, along with 10 servicemen, two rescuers and 31 hostage-takers—Malik returned to school. But he could only do it for one week.

“There were rumours about women suicide bombers. So I stayed at home,” he says.

And that’s when the nightmares began. They would not let up for months, and continue less frequently today.

Malik sleeps with the light on and dreams of “snipers who want to kill me” and of an unquenchable thirst.

“When I would wake up, I would go drink from the faucet. In the morning, still half asleep, I was always asking my parents to let me go to the toilet ... I started to be afraid of being thirsty, I was afraid I would die,” he explains.

Like others hurt in the hostage-taking, Malik’s family received 50 000 rubles (R10 700), enough to build a house after living in a construction-site trailer.

Malik got a new bicycle, notebooks and books. And he got a chance to travel to other parts of Russia—and to Britain.

“The people must be normal, well brought up, over there,” Fluorida says. “When he came back home, he finally had a smile again.”

Late last month, Malik became the first child to testify in the trial of the sole surviving Beslan hostage-taker, Nurpashi Kulayev.

“I wanted to see him, to look him in the face,” he says, adding that he has closely followed news about Beslan, especially pictures of the storming of the school.

Calm and possessing a natural poise, Malik has become “hard, even violent” since his ordeal, Fluorida says. “He no longer has any patience with his sister. Sometimes he makes me afraid.”

In the past few months, the polemics over Beslan have resurfaced with force—disputes over the circumstances of the massacre, over money and over the aid provided to some families and not to others.

“I couldn’t care less. My new bike is broken anyway,” says Malik.

His mother is more explicit. “Beslan is divided into camps—hostages and non-hostages, those who lost loved ones and those who did not,” she says, admitting that she is unable “to speak with the people whose children are dead”.

“It is just too hard. We have different kinds of pain, and in their eyes I see one question: ‘Why is your son alive?’”

Far from these concerns, Malik knows just that he is going back to school on Monday, a new school built with money from the Moscow city government.

“It’s a good school and, most important, it is well guarded. That’s the only thing I wanted to know when I visited it,” he says.—Sapa-AFP