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6 Sep, 2014 12:20

​Beslan’s youngest survivor and her rescuer meet 10 years after tragedy

​Beslan’s youngest survivor and her rescuer meet 10 years after tragedy

This image has been seen by millions around the world – a special forces officer takes a six-month girl to safety out of the besieged school in Russia’s Beslan, North Ossetia. Ten years later, Rossiyskaya Gazeta has found the baby and her savior.

Alyona Tskayeva is now 10 years and six months old. The windows of her apartment overlook what remains of the school building where she and Makhar were held hostage for three days. That’s her new home and her new family – her second mother Svetlana, father Ruslan, brothers Makhar and Georgy and her little sister Kristina. Kristina is now 10 months. She was named after Alyona’s elder sister who died under the debris of the gym after the blast together with her mother Fatima.

Children, their parents and teachers all came to the school to mark the beginning of the academic year. Fatima took her older daughter Kristina, three-year-old Makhar and six-month-old Alyona. She carried Alyona in one arm while the son held her by the other hand. The older daughter shone proudly in the center of the schoolyard festooned with bundles of balloons.

The four of them ended up in the hands of the terrorists. Makhar has been haunted by nightmares ever since. Even today, 10 years on, he can still remember what happened in the gym packed with explosives. He can remember how his mom handed over Alyona to someone and remained with them inside the gym.

It happened on September 2. Ex-president of Ingushetia Ruslan Aushev stepped in and began negotiations with the terrorists. He managed to get permission for women with babies to be allowed out of the building. But Fatima Tskayeva wasn’t among them. She handed Alyona to another female hostage and remained with Makhar and Kristina.

Alyona Tskayeva and Elbrus Gogichayev / Image by Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Someone said they saw her throwing Makhar and some other child out of the window right after the first blast. She shouted at them to run away in the Ossetian language, they said. The roof must have collapsed immediately afterwards and she was allegedly buried under the debris together with Kristina, who she held tightly by the foot.

Fatima’s father, Boris Gasinov, thinks that Kristina just didn’t want to leave her mum. So she didn’t jump out of the window. They remained there, lying close to each other. But Makhar managed to escape. After the second blast when the hostages’ relatives rushed inside the gym, he saw one of his father’s friends and shouted to him. The man, Albert, heard his call, saw the three boys hiding near the wall. That was how Ruslan Tskayev’s second child got rescued.

He didn’t learn his younger daughter Alyona was alive until a while later.

“My daughter told them Alyona’s name was Pushkina,” says Klara Gasinova, the mom of late Fatima. “That was how they put her on the survivors’ list. We saw the list but didn’t guess it was our granddaughter. But then we realized Pushkin was the nickname for our son-in-law, Ruslan, whose curly head looked very much like Pushkin’s. We rushed there to find Alyona safe and sound.”

They later found out that it was Elbrus Gogichayev, a lieutenant from the local Interior Ministry’s special force team, who took her out of the gym under the guns of the terrorists.

He brought the six-month-old girl to the local district administration office hoping her family would find her there. The girl hadn’t shed a tear, but when the lieutenant let her out of his arms she burst out crying. After Elbrus found out her mother had died, he wanted to adopt her.

“His wife Tamara told us about it,” says the grandmother. “She found us, Alyona’s grandparents, said they had two sons and they would like to adopt our girl. She said her husband couldn’t sit still, thinking about the rescued girl all the time. We said Alyona had a father and he would never give his girl away. We haven’t seen Elbrus in these 10 years – he just phoned us occasionally and asked how Alyona was doing.”

Reuters / S.Dal GD

However, they did meet, thanks to Nelly Betcher, a journalist for the North Ossetia newspaper, who has been following Alyona’s life over the last 10 years. At the moment of the explosion that took place on September 3 at 01.05pm, the correspondent was in front of the school among the hostages’ relatives.

Among her other articles and materials dedicated to the tragic events, there is a story called: “A six-month-old hostage” that was written in the aftermath of the incident. The essay was supplemented with the famous picture of a courageous and strong man gently holding a fragile baby. She found out his name – Elbrus Gogichayev. Nelly called him a few times, but he always refused to meet. “Don’t make a hero of me, I was simply doing my job. Write about Alyona – her having survived is indeed a miracle.”

“A while after the tragedy, Alyona’s grandmother Klara called our newspaper office and invited me to Alyona’s birthday – she turned one on February 19, 2005,” says Nelly. “I could feel how difficult it was for her. On the one hand, how can there be celebrations in a house that mourns? But on the other hand, the youngest survivor of the Beslan tragedy has turned one – how could they have ignored this symbolic fact? So the father of Alyona and Makhar, Ruslan Tskayev, decided to gather their relatives and friends to pay tribute to his dear wife and elder daughter, and to thank his lucky stars that his other daughter and son had stayed alive.”

This TV grab image taken from Russian NTV channel 07 September 2004 shows wires and hostages in the gymnasium of the Beslan school, northern Ossetia. (AFP/NTV)

Over time the journalist became really close with the family. She helped find doctors for Makhar who needed rehab therapy after the stress he had gone through. The family shared all the news with her, telling about numerous new playgrounds, named after Alyona, that were opening around their house, about Makhar becoming a primary school freshman, about Ruslan starting a new family, and the time that he, his new wife Sveta and the kids went on vacation to Turkey. In September 2011, Alyona started school. She now has a younger brother and sister. The readers of the newspaper followed these developments in Alyona’s life through Nelly’s articles.

“When the 10th anniversary of her rescue was drawing near, I decided to arrange a meeting with Elbrus Gogichayev,” says Nelly. “It was hard to get hold of him, since he retired in 2010. In August 2008, Elbrus was in Tskhinval. Now he’s retired and devotes his time to bringing up his sons. I called him on the phone, saying that surely he wanted to meet Alyona and see how she had grown. He replied that he wanted to see her very much, but was scared to remember those terrible days. I managed to convince him in the end. The meeting took place in Fatima’s parents’ house. I came there with Valery Savlaev, the head of the Crimean Ossetian community 'Alania', who took a picture of a shy Alyona meeting her savior.”

Relatives of school children being held hostage wait for further developments as they sit near the seized school in the town of Beslan, province of North Ossetia near Chechnya, September 1, 2004. (Reuters)

He didn’t say much and at first glance seemed withdrawn. For ten years he’s been living with a profound sense of guilt for failing to save so many people back then. That’s why he doesn’t want to talk to journalists: what kind of heroes are we, he says, if we couldn’t save the children? But Valery captured the rare moment when Elbrus Gogichayev’s face that seemed to remain the same in the course of all these years lit up with a smile. And the same strong arms are gently holding a little girl, giving her warmth and hope, “Everything will be all right, Alyona!

Russian special forces troops take cover while soldiers stormed a school building seized by heavily armed masked men and women in the town of Beslan in the province of North Ossetia near Chechnya, September 3, 2004. (Reuters / S.Dal GD)

The school year in Beslan starts on September 5, preceded by days of mourning. Alyona Tskayeva will be in the 5th grade. As she’s growing up, she starts to look more and more like her mother. Born in the same year the terrorist attack took place, she only learned about it after she started school. Adults in her family couldn’t bring themselves to tell her how her mother and older sister died. Once she said to her grandmother with a very serious expression on her face, “I have a guardian angel that watches over me from the skies above.”

We saw her outside and gave her the Rossiyskaya Gazeta issue with the image of her rescue from the besieged school on the front page. “That’s uncle Elbrus,” Alyona said.

She was holding her little sister Kristina in her arms, 3-year-old Grigory was running around, and Makhar was playing football nearby. Just an ordinary girl from a big happy family. She wants to be a doctor, or a hairdresser and loves braiding her friends’ hair. Now Alyona knows that her life goes on thanks to a big, strong person, who carried her away from hell ten years ago.

Tatyana Pavlovskaya, Rossiyskaya Gazeta

The article was first published here