The raw folds of the Caucasus Mountains streamed beneath the silver wings of the Siberian airliner taking me, and my cohort Koko Kondo, into the craggy depths of the mountain, to Beslan, Russia. This was my second trip to that land of unimaginable sorrow. My first trip to Russia since my run-in with the Russian Mafia, was in January 2005, and was prompted by a calamity of such magnitude that I was impelled to act.
On September 1, 2004, terrorists had taken twelve hundred people hostage; children, mothers, grandmothers, teachers and babies, and held them in the gym of elementary School No.1. The hostages were held at gunpoint and without water as temperatures soared into the nineties. The first reports said that a young man had been murdered and his body flung out of a second story window into the glass-strewn schoolyard. Later, the victim’s weeping mother clad in black and holding a basket of red carnations for her son’s grave, stood quivering on the steps of our hotel as she told me about her son. He was my son’s age, thirty-five, when he was murdered.
On the third day of the crisis, the Russian military, in an attempt to save the hostages, stormed the school. Explosives the terrorists had strung up inside the school detonated in blinding bursts of flame and debris and bodies. Three hundred fifty-one people, mostly children, were killed. I could hardly bear to look at the horrific pictures being fed to us second-by-second, in real time, by news agencies. Finally, I turned off the TV and calmed myself by looking out on a jungle of green trees in my back yard. I needed to meditate. I sat down and closed my eyes.
Almost at once a picture formed in my mind. The pain of those taken hostage and wounded and killed appeared to me as the color crimson, the hue of our silk memorial. As I watched with my inner vision, the blood-red color transmuted into fog and then rose slowly up and over the Caucasus Mountains and then, darkening, dropped like a comforting blanket over the school.
It was then that I knew that I had to go there, to fly to Moscow and then across the jagged Mountains to Beslan, where we would add the names and photographs of the murdered children to our crimson memorial.
In Beslan the dreary winter landscape afforded little color except in the cemetery where new graves were mounded with round baskets filled with multi-colored artificial flowers and teddy bears and dolls and angels. Wooden boards with the photographs and the names of those lost stood sentinel over the 351 fresh graves.
With the help of the survivors, their faces haunted by sorrow, the women wearing dark kerchiefs pulled low on their foreheads, we created the Beslan Banner of Hope. “Spasiba bolshoi, thank you very much,” they said, “for sharing the great burden of our grief.” They asked me to return for the first anniversary of the tragedy and I said I would.
This time, my luggage contained six long canvas bags with sixty rolls of the World Banner of Hope, one of which bore the few names I was able to find of children killed in Iraq in a war based on government lies. In Beslan, we wrapped that panel along with all the rest, on the broken façade of School No.1 the way the artist Christo swathed buildings to change the energy, giving comfort to all those grieving from unfathomable loss.
Causes Pat Montandon Supports
PETA, Women for Women, Amnesty International, Children as the Peacemakers, Peace to The Planet