Children Bear Emotional Scars from School Siege

Less than two months ago, few people outside of Russia had heard of the small town of Beslan. Now it's one of those spots on the global map whose very name has become synonymous with terror, tragedy and trauma.

It has been seven weeks since the world watched a horrible tragedy unfold at School No. 1 in Beslan. More than 1,200 men, women and children from the village arrived at the school on Sept. 1 to celebrate the first day of the new school year. Instead, they were taken hostage by heavily armed terrorists, herded into a gymnasium and endured three days of threats, thirst and fear of death. The siege would end in explosions and gunfire. More than 300 people would die.

20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas traveled to the shattered town to find out firsthand how the survivors and the victims' families are coping and moving forward.

While their pain and enormous grief is still very raw, the people of Beslan showed a remarkable spirit of courage and resilience during Vargas' visit. Many families opened their hearts and homes to 20/20 to share their story.

Raissa Totyeva, who lost four of her five children in the school massacre, talked with 20/20 about the tragedy that changed her life forever.

Like most villagers, Totyeva had no idea what her children were facing that day. "I heard some shots. I didn't pay much attention though because I thought, 'Well it's the first day of school, the celebration maybe it's kind of fireworks,' " she said.

A friend phoned her to tell her the news that the school was under siege by terrorists.

Her 13-year-old daughter, Medina, was her only child to survive the attack.

Medina said she was with her sister Lyuba during the siege, but couldn't see her other siblings. "They were on the other side of the gym. I didn't know about it until later. Lyuba and I were holding each other, we didn't let go."

Totyeva was among the parents waiting outside the school, hoping the children would be saved. "It's very hard when you are near and you can't help them, and every shot I heard was going through my heart. And you don't know what's going on inside, and you pray to God again and again," she said.

Medina recalled the moments after the first explosion ripped through the gymnasium. "When I raised my head and opened my eyes I couldn't recognize anyone. There were dead bodies lying around me. ... I heard a very faint voice say, 'this is me, Lyuba." I didn't recognize her, she was right beside me and I couldn't recognize her at all. ... I dragged her into another classroom."

"Los Angeles Times" reporter Kim Murphy, who was on the scene during the siege, said she'll never forget what she witnessed at the morgue set up in Valdicoskov. "Parents [were] moving from body to body and recognizing a ring or a piece of cloth and knowing it was their child, and the sound of mothers who have lost their children. I can still hear it," she said.

Totyeva and her husband buried two of their children on Sept. 7. "The rest," she said, "I can't remember. We looked for them for so long."

It took nearly a month for the remains of Totyeva's other two children to be identified. Today, four of her children are buried -- but they lie next to each other. Raissa feels some comfort in that, and draws strength from her deep religious faith. In a large box she keeps the letters of support and encouragement she's received from people around the world.

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