By: Bruce R Porter, D.Div.
Scanning the empty classroom, my gaze fell upon a small hand-print on the wall just below the sill of a shattered window. It was small, belonging to a child of perhaps only 7 or 8 years old. Broken glass crunched as I stepped nearer to examine it more closely. It reminded me of the artwork little children often create with finger-paint and proudly sign with a crayon.
This was not an art project to display on a refrigerator however. It also didn’t bear a crayon signature, or even a “smiley face” sticker. It was printed in the life-blood of a wounded child while desperately trying to escape the monsters who invaded the child’s school.
Beslan School is located in southern Russia. On the first day of each school year, it is a custom for students, their parents, grandparents, and siblings, to gather for a special day of celebration. Dressed in their best clothes, students bring flowers and gifts for their teachers. On that fateful day of September 1st, 2004, Beslan’s festive occasion was cut short. At 8:45 am, fifty Islamic terrorists stormed into the school’s courtyard in full battle dress, armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons, and captured over 1,100 people within 15 minutes. The hostages were herded into the school’s gymnasium, and held for three days without food or water. Many of the hostages desperately resorted to drinking their own urine. The jihadists tortured and humiliated the captives, even raping many of the young girls right in front of their horrified classmates and parents.
Around 1 pm on the third day, some of the bombs planted throughout the school began detonating. Panicked hostages began jumping out of windows and rushed the exit doors to escape. The jihadists opened fire on the hostages with automatic weapons, and tossed grenades among them. Russian special forces rushed the building to save as many hostages as possible. After a room to room battle, hundreds of people lay dead or horribly wounded. In the end, nearly 600 perished.
When the news broke in America, I knew I had to respond. Over the years, I’d served in my local fire department as a firefighter and Critical Incident Stress Debriefer. I also served at the Columbine High School attack and Ground Zero in New York after 9/11. I believed I could help, and made plans to fly to Russia. This wasn’t easy, for Beslan was nearly closed to foreigners. I kept pushing for visas for my small response team. Miraculously, visas were granted, flights booked, and funds poured in to cover our expenses.
Six days later, we landed late at night at Beslan’s only airport. The next morning, we visited the school ruins. Amazingly, the authorities opened the buildings to anyone to see what the terrorists had done. Family and friends wandered the scorched corridors and classrooms of the buildings wailing and moaning. It was a house of horrors beyond our worst nightmares. In the gymnasium, thousands of open water bottles and flowers were displayed. The water commemorated the fact that the victims were deprived of water during their ordeal. The walls and ceilings of every hallway and classroom were splattered with blood, clinging bits of human flesh, shrapnel, and bullet-holes. Weeping, I stepped past pools of blood and debris, praying God would give me wisdom to help this broken community.
Our team visited hospitals to give small gifts, stuffed animals, and offer what encouragement we could to survivors. It was heartbreaking to see little kids suffering from bullet-wounds, and shrapnel. The vacant stares of little girls and young women who endured the most cruel and brutal abuse haunted me for months. Most physical wounds would eventually heal, but emotional scars can last a lifetime. A nurse remarked that we were the first American visitors, and it was the first time most of the children had smiled or laughed.
I met with Dr. Federov, Director of the children’s hospital in nearby Vladikavkaz. His eyes filled with tears as he described the first desperate hours when hundreds of injured children began arriving in private cars and trucks because there were only a few ambulances. They hurriedly set up a tent to triage the flood of wounded. He choked-up as he described having to use garden hoses to wash blood off the children so their wounds could be assessed. Later, a nurse wept and told me how they had to stack bodies up in the hallways because the morgue was overflowing. With each encounter, we sought to encourage, pray with, and share funds with families from donors in America.
We visited one of the families who survived the attack. They lost their 5-year-old son, Mark. We rode in a car with several bullet-holes. The terrorists shot at the father trying to escape the school with three other children huddled in the back seat. The mother, however, and two of their sons were captured.
While they were held in the gym, she saw little Mark put his hands together, bow his head, and pray. When asked what he was doing, he replied that he was praying for the terrorists so they would come to know Jesus like their family did. She was shocked at his simple, childlike faith. When pandemonium broke out at the end, little Mark was struck in the head by shrapnel from a nearby bomb and died in his mother’s arms. She didn’t want to leave him, but her older son shouted over the mayhem and explosions, “Mom! Mark’s with Jesus now, but we have to get out of here!” She gently kissed her little boy’s face one last time, leaped up, and they ran to safety.
I wept as I beheld in her face a heavenly serenity and peace. She said, “I have forgiven these terrible men, as I know my Markie did in his heart. He prayed for them, and I pray for their souls now.” Such a display of God’s peace in the soul of this mother was inspirational beyond words.
At the new cemetery on the edge of town, we laid a wreath and tried to comfort mourners. Walking among the fresh graves, I saw that whole families were often buried together. Flowers and cards covered the fresh mounds of dirt. I was moved to see thousands of packages with flowers and a letter from the State of Israel laid upon each grave. No other nation did the same. Who could empathize more with the pain of these brokenhearted people than the Jews, who have suffered such undeserved, evil hatred for centuries?
Looking back, I struggle sometimes wondering if our small team made any difference in the face of such a disaster. Hopefully, the hundreds of hand-written cards we gave out from Christian school students, and the stuffed animals and small packages of Columbine flowers assuaged, in some small measure, their grief. Only eternity will tell. I remain inspired by the example little Markie left us to pray for those ensnared in the matrix of evil and hate. I’m also haunted by a disturbing question. Will there be more bloody hand-prints on school walls, perhaps right here in America? I suspect we have a lot of praying to do.