NATALYA and her nine-year-old son, Aslan, huddled near Zarina and her twelve-year-old daughter, Anzhelika. More than 1,000 other children and adults sat together nearby, watched by heavily armed attackers.
Earlier that Wednesday, September 1, 2004, the children and parents had been outside, preparing to celebrate the first day of school in Beslan, a small town in Alania, Russia. Suddenly, gunmen and suicide bombers dashed into their midst, shooting into the air and shouting. The more than 30 attackers herded the terrified crowd into the school gymnasium and wired explosives around the room.
The Standoff and the Mayhem
Thus began a tense three-day standoff between the attackers and security forces. “I had never prayed so much,” recalls Natalya, who was studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It was late summer, and the gymnasium became stiflingly hot. Beginning the morning of the second day, the attackers gave their hostages no food or water, and by the third day—Friday—some hostages resorted to drinking urine and eating the flowers the children had brought for their teachers. “A boy sitting near us put a leaf into my hand,” says Natalya. “I tore it in two and gave half to Anzhelika and half to Aslan.”
Later on the third day, mayhem broke out. “Explosions knocked me over,” Natalya relates. “Dense smoke filled the air, and shooting began.” Under the cross fire between the soldiers and the terrorists, Natalya and Aslan crawled away. A local Ossetian named Alan pulled them out to safety. Many others did not escape.
Hundreds of children and adults died, including Anzhelika. For weeks, sobs and wails could be heard in Beslan. Natalya’s apartment overlooks the school, and even after a new school was built nearby, Aslan could not bring himself to step inside it. He did not even go out to play. “We implored Jehovah to help him overcome his fears,” says Natalya. In time, he found the courage to return to school.
Natalya’s test was attending Christian meetings at the Kingdom Hall. “Whenever I was with many people in a confined space, I got the feeling that the building was about to be stormed,” she relates. “I would pray that nothing would happen. After a while, I stopped going. I also struggled with the knowledge that many people perished, while we survived.”
“I am grateful to those in the congregation who continued helping me,” says Natalya. “A Witness named Tatyana visited me every three days without fail. Later, she brought along another Witness—kind, tactful, and soft-spoken Ulyana—who knew the Bible well. She commended me for the efforts I had made, and she really listened when I spoke.
“I can at last talk about that day without bitterness or fear”
“Ulyana read me the words of the Christian apostle Paul recorded at 2 Corinthians 1:9. After an ordeal in Asia, Paul said: ‘We felt that we had received the sentence of death.’ She also read Isaiah 40:31: ‘Those hoping in Jehovah will regain power. They will soar on wings like eagles.’ Such scriptures, along with regular emotional support from Ulyana and others, strengthened me to attend Christian meetings again, along with my children. Even so, being in a hall still makes me uneasy.”
Zarina later became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and looks forward to welcoming Anzhelika back in the resurrection to life on a beautiful, peaceful earth, which will be ruled by God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 6:9, 10; Acts 24:15) Natalya and her children were baptized in 2009. They still live near the ruins of the gymnasium but have left the horror behind. “I can at last talk about that day without bitterness or fear,” says Natalya. “God is helping us to heal.”