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The Children of Beslan
written by Peter Hagerty,  October 5, 2004



Luba with Muslim family




Sergei Korneva




Schoolyard outside my Moscow apartment the
day after the Beslan tragedy




St. Viltus Cathedral
  Prague Cathedral - September 11, 2004

Here I sit, virtually alone, in the darkness of St. Viltus. Today I rose before dawn, walked through the empty streets of the old city of Prague and made my way over the Vltava River and up the hill to this cathedral, the worshiping place for Czech monarchs and presidents since the ninth century.

I came from Moscow yesterday to meet Simon, our wool buyer who purchases Russian and Romanian fleece for us. We had been out late the night before, catching up on the last three years. By all rights I should be still sleeping in my bed.

In a few days I will be home in America and my friends will ask me "How was Russia?" Most ask out of politeness but some truly are eager for news. But now, as the quiet of the empty cathedral descends over me, many emotions and images of the past days floods into my memory. Perhaps in the pre-dawn quiet of this ancient place I can try and make sense out of all I have seen.

Moscow - Friday September 3

I arrive at Luba's flat on Yaltinskaya Street in time to watch the horrors of Beslan unfold on Russian television. Children, many attending school for the first time, are being held captive in this small town in southern Russia by Chechen separatists demanding the release of their Muslim comrades held in Russian jails. Hopes have risen over the past twenty-four hours that a negotiated settlement might be reached. Then suddenly, before our eyes, smoke begins pouring out of the school windows and children's bodies begin appearing in the arms of Russian soldiers rushing off, trying to save their fragile lives.

As my friend Luba and I travel the Russian countryside over the coming days visiting the three farm families with whom we have worked over the years, the horror of Beslan and the dying children is relived over and over in our conversations and shared grief. I will watch the faces of my Russian friends as they take in all this news. One week ago, two Aeroflot airliners were blown from the sky, killing all on board. Then just a few days later a bomb exploded in a busy Moscow metro station killing and injuring scores of commuters. Now as the Russian people face an hourly increase in the body count of their children, I ask myself, "How much can these people take? Soldiers killing, women weeping, children dying."

Korneva Farm, Istra Region - Saturday, September 4

"Putin must be strong. We cannot negotiate with these Muslim bandits." A pleasant early morning breakfast at the Korenva farm has turned into a heated exchange. Family members are talking so quickly and interrupting each other so often that I completely loose the thread of the conversation. My conversational Russian has never been my strong point but what I find most interesting today is that it is impossible to tell who is on what side of the issue. Just when I think wife Luda and husband Sasha are about to throttle each other, they find a common belief, celebrate it with a respectful nod, and then both are off again in totally different directions. Families can disagree in Russia but they will always do so in a respectful and considerate manner, mindful that they will all be sitting around the same table at the day's end. It was almost always the women who had the last word.

Russian and Chechen mothers have been unofficially cooperating for over 12 years to help save the lives of their sons. When a Chechen or Russian mother learns that their soldier son has gone missing in combat, she knows she can call "Mothers for Peace" in St. Petersburg and a network of women on both sides of the battle lines begin searching for the missing son. On Russian television last week I saw images of women praying, crying, tending to the injured children while the men prowled the borders of the schoolyard, heavily armed but virtually powerless to effect change. I cannot help but wonder that if the soldiers on both sides of the conflict in Beslan had been women that their children would have stood a far greater chance of being alive today.


Potstrlov Farm, Shepelova Region - Sunday, September 5

Whenever possible, I arrive at Shepelova on foot. I ask Luba to drop me off by the Konstantinova road and the one hour walk to this small village on a dead end road gives me time to slow down my pace so I can begin to appreciate all that is around me. Fall is in the air and several fishermen chat and smoke by a nearby river, watching their bobbers drift about on the water. Hawks ride the updrafts and hunters prowl the marshes on the first day of duck hunting season. I pass a defunct collective farm and notice how the cement cow barns have finally begun to crumble under the snows of winter. Shepelova Village appears in the distance, a small grouping of old Russian log homes surrounded by broad fields and boarded by the thick, dark forest.

Pavel and Galina have been my friends for over 10 years. I first came here to buy sheep from them back in 1993 and started a short lived Peace Fleece farm partnership with my friend Fydor Krut. Back then they were a couple in their late fifties struggling to grow food in this small village far from their native Moscow. Today Galina sees me coming and waits at the gate as she always does with a mixture of joy and sadness in her smile. It is impossible for her to hide any emotions. She is right out there and you always know how things stand. We settle into a small vine covered gazebo that Pavel made between the road and the house and the sun shines down into our little green cave of ripening grapes.

Pavel had spent June and July in the hospital and Galina had put in all of the hay with their hired man Alexander. Now Pavel sits in the sun, smoking and looking very thin. He had decided to sell his stallion Valliet as well as many of his feeder lambs. He and I share a deep love of farm horses and I know he is upset by the decision to sell his beloved stallion. I head out into the field to say good-by to Valliet. I had worked haying with his mother years ago and saw him first as a newborn colt. Now this 7-year-old stallion is leaving and I will never see him again. But today he is more interested in eating the fresh grass than saying goodbye to a friend. Unlike Galina, Valliet hides his emotions until they come out, often as a burst of anger. Perhaps he understands more than most how tenuous life is in this remote countryside where there is no guarantees of a meal or a roof over one's head. Galina had gone to great lengths to set an early supper table and just as we are sitting down, a brightly dressed family pulls into the farmyard. Iydin, a truck driver originally from Dagistan, one of the Caucaus states near Chechnya has come with his wife Jamillya, son Nimyet and daughter Mechpawe to buy lambs for an upcoming Muslim holiday. Of course this is a most interesting development so we all join them by the barn as they purchase two fat lambs and begin slaughtering them on the spot.

I ask Luba in English if she thought we could talk with this family about the tragedy in Beslan and courageously she begins the discussion.

"Iydin, do you ever worry for your safety in Russia as a result of your being clearly a Muslim?" she asks.

" Unemployment is very high at home," he begins. "That is why I came here to this region looking for a job. If my wife and I are walking down the street and the police inspect our documents, when they find that all is in order and that we are registered with the government to live and work here, they respectively hand us back our documents and we go on our way. We share with them the great sadness that darkens this country".

I ask Mechpawe what she was studying in school and she tells me that her favorite subject is English. We awkwardly share a few words and I give her my e-mail address. Luba told me later how excited she was to have met this family. In spite of her many travels through her country, she is rarely afforded the opportunity to have such conversations with a Muslim family like Iydin's.

Annoshka Farm, Podolsk - September 9

The trip to our third and final farm takes us to Podolsk only 30 km south of Moscow. Here Tamara Nickolavna and her partners, brothers Dima and Sasha, are on the move. Having struggled for almost 20 years against the local city government, urban sprawl, the mafia and the weather, Tamara, now approaching 70 has had enough. She has decided to sell her 100-acre farm and move into the Russian countryside, far away from "the traffic, the new construction, the pollution and the people". She can get a lot of money for her land, just a 45-minute drive to Moscow.

Once the young wife of a privileged Soviet diplomat living in Chevy Chase, Maryland during the Khrushchev era, she now faces her new life with a child-like radiance. I am eager to follow her in her new journey.

Yaroslavl - September 6-9

One of the main reasons I go to Russia twice a year is to sort out the complications surrounding the transfer of our goods to and from Russia. For years we used unconventional methods to move product back and forth as the Russian government struggled as well to come up with a set of fair and consistent import and export laws. Two years ago Russian officials made it clear to us that the time had come for Peace Fleece to live within the spirit and the letter of their new laws. But we were at a loss to understand them. Then we found a young company in Yaroslav. Oleg, Ivan, and Dima are bright lights shining on a cloudy and confused horizon. These young entrepreneurs have set up an import-export business in Yaroslavl, a beautiful city on the Volga River about 350 km northeast of Moscow. Their company Dimolyar now does all our importing of raw materials to make our wooden buttons and knitting needles and exports the finished products to us as well. Until ten years ago, there was no such thing as a freight forwarder or import-export businesses in Russia. Dimolyar, by laborious research and trial and error, has managed to secure itself a growing reputation and without its aid, we could not do business with Russia today.

So I always look forward to my few days that I spend with them in Yaroslavl. I bring with me every trip a six months supply of Skippy peanut butter for everyone in the office. Unavailable in Russia, this crunchy commodity virtually assures me first class treatment in their city. Let me give you an example.

For years I have always wanted to own a quilted workers coat very common on every construction site in Russia. Olive drab in color, few of my friends can imagine why I would want such a relic of Soviet times when LL Bean was at my back door at home in Maine. Most of my Russian friends just smile at my just plain poor taste. But not Dimolyar.

After our three-hour long staff meeting on day one, we adjourn for lunch, followed by an afternoon of searching for my coat. With Dima at the wheel of the Audi and Ivan punching numbers into his cell phone, we drive to no less than nine stores, one of them located three flights up an obscure building surrounded by tall walls, another hidden in a weekend marketplace, a third in a military clothing service. Ivan never gives up, operating his phone like a small computer, talking to his mother who knows where to buy virtually every item on the surface of the earth.

As the sun was setting on Yaroslavl, we learn that the item we were searching for is called a "vatnick" and is probably no longer in production, having been replaced by South Korean clothing. My hosts are frustrated at our empty handed condition but I have enjoyed the passion of the search regardless of the end result.

That night I am a guest for supper at the home of Ivan's parents. Ivan's mother is a banker for the Russian Federation, his father a professor of French and his sister is fluent in English and somehow they have managed to prepare a delicious meal. Somehow between plates of food I begin talking about the children of Beslan.

"Russians and American's now share a history of tragedy," I said. Without loosing her smile, Ivan's mother said, "We have shared enough tragedy. I am now ready to share some joy."

So I spy a guitar in the corner and begin singing a song that my Uncle Peter sang to me when I was just a young child.
"We had a moo cow, no milk would it give.............
My wife said 'honey', it's costing us money, no milk would it give
A big strong rooster came into our yard
And caught that moo cow right off of her guard.
She's giving eggnog just like she used to............

The next morning early there is a knock on my apartment door and Dima enters with a large plastic bag. Inside is a brand new "vatnick", still tied with the original string from the store. It is like Christmas for me. I am so excited and it fit perfectly. As it turns out, the vatnick belonged to Dima's grandfather who had bought it years ago and had never worn it.

Prague Cathedral - September 11

The clock strikes seven am. on the Prague cathedral tower and I hear the rustle of feet shuffle down one of the side isles not far from me. Soon the castle will be filled with tourists from around the world, marveling at its beauty and size. As I rise, grateful for these few moments of reflection, I realize once again that the small business which Marty and I and our friends run in Maine affords me such a unique view into the lives of people whose hopes and dreams are really not that different from those of my neighbors back home. I now look forward to seeing my family and friends for I now know that my story coming out of Russia is as much about kindness as it is about tragedy. It is my job to tell the story about Beslan along side of the search for the vatnick. As Ivan's mother said, we must not only dwell on life's dark places. For just around the corner there is light if you want to find it.