Returning to Beslan

Since the tragic events in the Russian town of Beslan two months ago, when more than 400 children and adults died after being taken hostage by militants demanding independence for Chechnya, counselling centres have been working hard to try to help the survivors.

Since the tragic events in the Russian town of Beslan two months ago, when more than four hundred children and adults died after being taken hostage by militants demanding independence for Chechnya, counselling centres have been working hard to try to help the survivors ... BBC2 broadcast a special concert and film as part of efforts to raise money for post-traumatic stress care in Beslan. For the programme, Jonathan Charles went back to Beslan for the first time since he reported on September's dreadful events. His visit was a very personal one — not just to look at how people there were coping but also to try to deal with his own demons following the events that he witnessed:

I would like to tell you about some of my experience concerning filming and watching videos of violence in my area. During the last 10 years of fighting and war, I have had to witness many many very violent pictures, and I and my colleagues hope that this will be useful for other people and journalists to learn from.

Sometimes, it's good to go back. Returning to Beslan felt like the right thing to do, a chance to put the terrible events that I'd witnessed on that early September day in to some sort of context. During more than sixteen years as a BBC foreign correspondent, I've covered conflict after conflict, catastrophe after catastrophe. I thought that I'd seen death in all of its possible forms but the ending of the school siege in Beslan, in which hundreds of children and adults died amidst a cacophany of gunfire and explosions, had burned disturbing images in to my mind — images which were proving hard to shake-off.

I kept recalling the exact moment when grief overwhelmed countless families. The father of one of the hostages was standing close to me as the siege reached its violent conclusion. When the shooting began, his hands covered his face in horror, tears flowing from his eyes. Like all of us, he could imagine what might be happening to the children who were trapped inside the school. Even as bullets flew towards us and we all ducked for cover, during the pitch battle between the Russian security forces and the militants who were demanding independence for Chechnya, his suffering was impossible to ignore.

The sight of this parent enduring such pain has rarely been out of my thoughts. I've been sent on enough courses about post-traumatic stress, in recent years, to know that its dangerous to suppress the emotions that had been unleashed. At their worst, they could trigger severe depression. In the macho world of the foreign correspondent, it's not fashionable to admit that you've been scarred by what you've witnessed but sometimes it's impossible to be just a detached observer. Sometimes, it's better to be honest with yourself. It was that desire to face up to my emotions which was motivating my need to visit Beslan, once more. Ostensibly, I was going there to film a report about how the town was coping with its trauma and to look at how music was being used to aid the healing process. But, I was honest enough with myself to acknowledge that was just a smokescreen. I hadn't suffered anything like the agony of the grieving Beslan families but I needed to replace my persistent mental image of Beslan's torment with something more positive.

Wandering around the town, more than two months on, there are signs that people are beginning to realise that life must go on — trying to lance the boil that is their collective trauma. At a counselling centre, I watched as a group of children took part in a music therapy class. Amongst those running around the room, to the accompaniment of an out of tune piano, were two brothers. Four year old David and six year old Georgy saw their father hauled away by the militants and shot dead, just hours after the start of the school siege. Their mother, Zeta, who was also a hostage, sat watching the class — weeping. The music therapy is supposed to relax the children, encouraging them to communicate their feelings. Zeta told us that her children can think of nothing else but the death of their father. She said at the moment when the siege ended, six year old Georgy started singing all the songs that he knew and recounting poetry. Somehow he blocked out the battle going on around him by concentrating on his singing. Now, music is part of his treatment and it's allowing both David and Georgy, two sweet little boys with sad eyes, to smile for the first time in weeks.

There were smiles, too, when I arrived at the region's most prestigious music school. The head teacher, Zhanna Tsutseva, says there's a new focus on children and their education since the horror of Beslan. She took me to see one of her pupils practicing. 12 year old Anna, a serious looking girl with long dark hair, was playing Rakhmaninov on a battered piano — a passionate, moving, performance. The music school has been starved of money by the state since the collapse of communism more than a decade ago but now there's hope that could be remedied. Charity donations are flooding in to the area, including money raised by Russia's famous Mariinsky orchestra which has been playing special fund-raising concerts in London and other European capitals. It's all part of a renewed effort to invest in children and to make sure they develop fully in this poverty stricken part of Russia.

As we listened to the Rakmaninov concerto, it seemed that Beslan, like me, was also trying to turn its trauma in to something more positive. One man summed up how life has changed. He told me that we didn't treat our children very well here before Beslan. Men in particular often behaved harshly towards their sons and daughters but, now, they're treated like Gods. He's just one of many people here attempting to make sense of what appears to be a senseless slaughter, wanting to discover their own small message of hope.