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.
Like the Totyevas, there are hundreds of families in Beslan trying to move on. Some grieve openly and continually. Others seem lost in a state of shock. Virtually everyone in this town has been wounded.
The school's shattered remains are now a memorial filled with flowers, photos and toys, and with thousands of bottles of water, for the children who were not allowed to drink. Tributes have come from near and far, including a banner in the corner from students at an American school that saw violence -- Colorado's Colombine High School.
'We Never Thought We Could Get Out'
The school remains exactly as it stood the minute the bombing and shooting stopped -- a horror frozen in time for all to see. And villagers come to grieve, seek understanding, and to heal.
Fatima Melikova and her 5-year-old twins, Larissa and Suslan, were among the hostages who survived. The twins were too young to be students at the school. They had come with their mother simply to watch the opening day festivities, when they were caught up in the attack.
Melikova said, "I thought I should come here and see how I feel afterward. Just to see how it was possible for us to get out. We never thought we could get out of here alive."
"When the first explosion happened," Melikova said, "We were lifted into the air and I remember thinking, 'Well this is the end.' Everything was burning around us and parts of the ceiling were falling on us. I passed out. When I came to nobody was getting out. I grabbed my daughter and started pushing her out of the window."
Melikova remembers finding her son and throwing him out a window as well before following herself. She was helped from the school in shock. Meanwhile, four blocks away her daughter ran into the arms of her father. By evening, her son, Suslan, had been found as well.
Natasha Dzhatieva and her son, Aslan, were also caught in the siege. She and her son hid in a shower room, waiting for the shooting to stop. Both had wounds to their heads. Russian soldiers finally found them and lifted them through the window, carrying them to safety.
Returning to the school seemed to help Dzhatieva and her son. They carefully picked through the rubble, walked through the hallways, and visited Aslan's classroom. As the morning wore on, they gained strength. They had survived, but they were still unsure how, or why.
For others, like Aneta Gurdieva, the reliving is more painful.
On the second day of the siege, the terrorists had forced Gurdieva to leave the school with her baby girl, Milena. The baby's cries had grown annoying to them. But she was forced to leave her 9-year-old daughter, Alana, behind in the gym. Alana did not survive.
"It was so quick. Oh God, I didn't even hug her. I turned to her and said, 'Alana, you are a clever girl, everything will be fine,' " Gurdieva said.
Gurdieva said she is unable to think of the future. "For now, I don't have the strength to recover -- or the will. The only thing is that I am responsible for the little one. That's the only thing that keeps me going," she said.
Although the death toll was devastating, it would have been much higher if an extraordinary team of doctors hadn't set up a field hospital near the school. Altogether, 527 patients were treated by the MASH unit. The team performed 200 surgeries in a 24-hour period -- and almost miraculously -- every child they operated on survived. To learn more about the group's work, read our related story "Medical Miracles in Beslan."
40 Days of Grieving -- and Calls for Retribution
According to the Russian Orthodox faith, the soul departs the body 40 days after death. Family and friends gathered to mark the day in Beslan. Women remove their black mourning scarves, and replace them with dark-colored scarves. Men shave beards they let grow during the mourning period. Clergy members offer prayers and blessings.
But in Beslan, the day was marked with tears and cries of anger seeking retribution for those responsible.
The inquiry is ongoing, and there are competing theories of the origins of the plot, who spearheaded it, funded it and why.
Was it an outgrowth of the ongoing Chechen separatist campaign? Was the group somehow linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network?
Officials have identified 17 of the 32 rebels involved in the siege. They are of various nationalities, but authorities say they had gone to a training camp and learned about explosives from Arab instructors.
According to Nikolai Shepel, deputy prosecutor general of the Russian Federation, "The investigation was able to establish the location in Ingushetia where they have been based before the attack. They lived there for a certain period. The place was well equipped and that's where the terrorists gathers, stored weapons and this is where they came from."
Shepel said he believed the siege was an attempt to bring long-simmering ethnic tensions to a boil. "The goal of the terrorists was to inflame a conflict which started in 1992 between the Ossettians and the Ingush. They knew that this would be the easiest way of starting a conflict," Shepel said.
Incredible Bravery of the Beslan Children
Amid the stories of sorrow and grief, Vargas learned of the incredible courage and resilience of the children who survived the siege.
Taimuroz Melikov could have gotten out of the school, but stayed to be with his little brother. "I could escape because I was standing outside, near the exit. I didn't escape because of him," he said.
Another boy told Vargas they tried to keep each other calm. "We were cool from the beginning. We'd say to each other that everything was going to be all right. That everything was going to have a good ending."
The children described for Vargas what life is like in Beslan since the siege. "The town is kind of sad," one boy said.
"Now as you enter our courtyard you won't see any children playing there," another said.
Russian authorities brought many of the traumatized children to the resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea to be a temporary distraction for them. Families who wanted a change of scenery for three weeks were picked by lottery.
But the distraction was indeed temporary. "There everything was full of joy, and here everything is dark and gloomy," one girl told Vargas.
There were amusements of all sorts for the children and, for some, play periods with psychologists who watched for serious signs of stress.
The Sochi sojourns were not a cure, but performed a service that experts in childhood trauma say is very valuable.
Dr. Rachael Yehuda said the getaways were important because many children who suffer a trauma have trouble experiencing joy.
"It's very important to remind people, even when they're at their lowest point, that they won't be there forever, that joy is around the corner, that they have not lost their ability to feel good. That that ability will come back," Yehuda said.
Two boys who spoke to 20/20 proved Yehuda's point. "I already forgot a little," one boy said. "When we were there it would even seem those things never happened. As if nothing happened at all, nothing like that at all," said another.
The children said they'd never forget what they went through. "Little children, 1- or 2-year-olds, will forget but we won't," one boy said.
But one girl expressed a poignant hopefulness that she and the people of Beslan will heal. "You begin to understand more clearly that you've been saved, that you're alive."