Young hostages retell ordeal in documentary


September 01, 2005|By Tony Perry | Tony Perry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

In the middle of Children of Beslan, an emotionally powerful HBO documentary about the 2004 terrorist attack on a Russian school, one of the young hostages tells of her fantasy during the 57-hour ordeal.

"I was hoping that Harry Potter would come," she says. "I was thinking he had a cloak that made him invisible, and he would come and wrap me in it, and we'd be invisible and we'd escape."

Russian soldiers did come, but in the battle with Chechen extremists holding more than 1,100 children and adults in the gymnasium of Middle School No. 1, some 200 adults and 171 children died. Many were burned to death and others were caught in the crossfire.

Agonizing questions about the soldiers' heavy-handed tactics remain unanswered, with evidence suggesting that the death toll was the result of a horrendously botched assault by the soldiers, and their use of flame throwers.

The parents of Beslan, a community 1,000 miles from Moscow, are so angry at their government, and an apparent official cover-up, that they asked President Vladimir V. Putin not to attend a ceremony this week on the first anniversary of the attack.

Children of Beslan, airing tonight at 8 and made by BBC documentarians Ewa Ewart and Leslie Woodhead, is not concerned with assessing blame or exploring the political repercussions of what is Russia's worst act of terrorism. Instead, Children presents the ordeal through interviews with some of the children who were hostages. There is no narrator, and no adults are heard.

The interviews with the children are doubly heart-rending because the children speak in clear, precise, almost matter-of-fact tones about the horror they experienced: blood on the gym floor, body parts, bodies burning, chaos and fear.

A boy walks through the rubble-strewn school building and, like a tour guide pointing out a historic spot, shows where the terrorists shot his father. Almost casually he points to the window where they tossed out his father's lifeless body.

As any journalist can tell you, stories built around interviews with children can become cloying and precious. But Children is too good for that, and adroit editing splices the children's interviews with news footage of the takeover and rescue, snippets of the video taken by the terrorists, and home videos taken by parents before the terrorists rushed the school.

"It was all horrible, like the end of the world," says one girl.

The parents of Beslan want answers. Children of Beslan suggests many of the young survivors want to forget. "Everyone's afraid now," says one girl.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Children of Beslan

When: Tonight at 8

Where: HBO

In brief: A hostage ordeal through the eyes of the children.

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