Heart-wrenching coverage of Beslan horror hits home

September 12, 2004|By Paul Moore

A WISE COLLEAGUE once said that big news occurs in bunches and that the news is almost always bad. Recent front pages bear out this wisdom.

Hurricane - then tropical storm- Frances battered Florida last weekend and early this week, just three weeks after Hurricane Charley caused billions of dollars in devastation there and caused more than 20 deaths. On Monday, a suicide car bomber outside of the Iraqi city of Fallujah killed seven U.S. Marines and three Iraqi soldiers in the deadliest attack on U.S. forces since April. On Tuesday, 35 Iraqis died in battles around Baghdad and seven more U.S. soldiers were killed, raising the total number of U.S. military deaths to more than 1,000.

None of these stories, however, had the emotional impact of the shattering hostage-taking and standoff between Muslim guerrillas and Russian forces at a school in Beslan, a town near Chechnya. The siege lasted more than two days and ended in a firestorm of bullets and bombs that killed at least 338 students, teachers and parents and left hundreds wounded. Subsequent news reports detailed the barbaric treatment the 1,200 at the school received at the hands of their attackers.

Sun Moscow correspondent Douglas Birch interviewed survivors at the scene and wrote this last Sunday: "Many escaped smeared with blood and bore hideous wounds. Others, soaked in sweat and clad only in their underwear, looked pale and spectral. Almost all had the shining eyes and grimly set mouths of people who had experienced the worst, people who had expected to die. ... Before the blood-soaked rescue of hundreds of schoolchildren, they saw teachers and parents shot dead. They were deprived of food and water, forced to sit in their own filth."

Mr. Birch, a veteran reporter who has been exposed to plenty of danger during assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that Beslan was "the most disturbing, horrible and chaotic thing" he had ever encountered.

He thought of children dying as each bomb went off and whenever a machine gun riddled the school. "Most of the people were killed in the first 15 to 20 minutes of the battle," he said. "I was 150 feet from a door that soldiers cut out at the back of the gymnasium. I saw people escape, the wounded stagger out and eventually rescuers bringing out the dead."

Mr. Birch was there at the end of the siege.

"I watched a crowd kick a guerrilla to death," he said. "People were understandably out of their minds with rage and fear. The sense of chaos and despair was overwhelming."

One reader's reaction to the articles was representative: "I simply had to stop reading about it. It's unfathomable to think this has happened. And because I have children, I can't comprehend how people are coping with it."

Barbara Ann Bloom said the story "forces Americans to wake up to the reality of just how evil and serious these terrorist movements and attacks are around the world, not just in Israel. It's not pleasant to see and read, but we need to stop being complacent and open our eyes. ... Your news coverage is doing the right thing."

Coverage of these events put a human face on the otherwise clinical term "global terrorism." The photographs from Beslan conveyed a horror and pain that, if you looked too long, threatened your very core.

Some of the pictures showed rescue workers carrying bleeding and naked children from the school. Others portrayed paramedics, amid a room of body bags, registering the bodies of victims. On Wednesday, The Sun published newly released photos produced from videos taken by the guerrillas. They included pictures of a boy with his hands behind his head and a bomb attached to a basketball hoop.

One reader complained that a headline on the Russia story last Sunday gave the wrong impression. "The violence is shocking and seems beyond the pale," said Charlotte D. Spanka of Towson, who said she is Russian Orthodox. "But I had trouble understanding the headline, `Amid captors' gunshots, indifference and contempt.' After reading the story on Sunday, I thought indifference was the least appropriate word under these kind of circumstances. Please help me understand."

The headline was intended to describe the attackers' disregard for the suffering of the hostages, not as a commentary on the event itself. But as another wise colleague once said, "Words sometimes fail to do justice to things that are too awful to comprehend."

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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