TIME photo essay

Inside the Beslan School Siege, 10 Years On

Ten years after the Beslan school siege, photographer Diana Markosian made these remarkable photographs of former hostages at the site where 330 captives were killed, more than half of them children.

They were dressed in their best, little girls in spotless white ruffled pinafores and boys in freshly pressed dress shirts buttoned to the collar. It was September 1, 2004, the start of school, a cause for celebration throughout Russia.

When the first shots were fired, 11-year-old Zarina Albegava mistook them for fireworks. She is 21 now, but still has trouble talking about what happened next.

“I don’t want to remember,” she says.

Albegava, her sister Zalina, nine, and around 1,200 others were taken hostage during a back to school celebration in Beslan, in the Russian republic of North Ossetia. Two days later around 330 of them were dead, more than half of them children. Zalina was one of the dead.

It was the worst terrorist attack Russia had ever seen, a gruesome footnote to the two wars that Chechnya fought for independence in the 1990s. Even after Russia finally subjugated the Muslim republic in 2000 and installed a loyal warlord to control it, the conflict continued in the form of an Islamist insurgency whose fighters have staged suicide bombings as far afield as Moscow for years. Beslan is considered one of the conflict’s greatest travesties against the innocent. But a decade later the world has moved on. Residents of this little North Caucasus town have not, partly because important questions remain unanswered: How many terrorists escaped? What caused the explosion that lead to the storming of the school?

It was this sense of loss and longing for answers that attracted documentary photographer Diana Markosian to Beslan. Of Armenian heritage, Markosian, who is 25, often confronts the lingering effects of loss in her work, especially childhood losses. Markosian lost her own father and country, in a way, at seven when her mother moved her and her brother from Russia to Santa Barbara, and their father remained in Moscow. They never talked about her father after that and it was 15 years before she saw him again. When a Beslan survivor told her about the split of his life into “before” and “after” she understood.

“When I was separated from my dad, that’s exactly what happened, I had this experience of being torn apart from the life I had always known,” she tells TIME.

Diana Markosian
Diana Markosian

Having spent her early childhood in Armenia and Russia, Markosian also understood the significance of September 1. She still has the yellow and green Bambi backpack her father gave her for her first day of second grade. She hadn’t seen him in weeks, but he was there for the first day of school, holding hands with her mother and brother as they all walked to school.

As a young journalist in Moscow, Markosian passed through Beslan regularly en route to Chechnya. Sometimes she stopped at the school. It served as a monument to the siege, a battle-scarred structure filled with uncapped water bottles the children probably needed desperately during captivity. The hostages were corralled in an airless gym booby-trapped with explosives. For most, there was no water or food after the first day. On the second day the Chechen-speaking captors demanded Russia begin to remove its troops from Chechnya. On the third day there was an explosion and Russian forces stormed the building. In the ensuing firefight only one of 30 or so terrorists was captured alive, later sentenced to life imprisonment.

The shadow of Beslan followed Markosian until she decided to revisit the tragedy through her work. She arrived, she says, looking for the remains, “the direct aftermath of the event.”

She found children’s drawings.

They showed her what she couldn’t capture in photos, drawings of their dead fathers. The men were the first to be killed. Around 20 were shot execution style in a room where Russian literature was once taught. The corpses of fathers who had come to celebrate their children’s first day of school were thrown out the window and left to rot in the sun.

“I wanted this body of work to be collaboration,” says Markosian. “This is their story, their experience, and I wanted them to take part in it.”

Markosian had been resisting the constraints of traditional photojournalism, the distance between subject and photographer. The brutal, simple pictures made by the children in the tragedy’s aftermath combined with her own images allowed her to bridge the gap. Images of barely clothed men, women and children holding bottled water remain as unchanged as the rooms they inhabit in Markosian’s photographs, rooms decorated with bullet holes and peeling paint. On a picture of a sixth grade class she has the survivors write messages to their deceased classmates.

The children, now young adults, journeyed with her back to the school, sometimes for the first time since the tragedy. In silence, with their eyes shut, they remembered. Then they shared those memories with Markosian: the window through which their mother was shot, the spot next to them where their sister died, the classroom where they studied.

Markosian captures the survivors’ visual discomfort at being trapped in a place they have never been able to escape through portraits taken in the school. Other shots show the artifacts the dead left behind, a new shoe, a bloodied undershirt, a child’s untouched bedroom. For Beslan time has not provided resolution.

“The idea that time heals does not hold true for these families,” says Markosian. “Time heals? No, it doesn’t.”

Diana Markosian is a photographer based in Chechnya. Her previous photo essay, also published on TIME LightBox, Inventing My Father will be exhibited at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland in January 2015. See more of her work on her website.

Katya Cengel is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @kcengel.

TIME Burma

Rape Is a Weapon in Burma’s Kachin State, but the Women of Kachin Are Fighting Back

Diana Markosian—Reportage by Getty Images Galau Dau Yang, 35, stands outside her home in the northern Shan State village of Kut Khaing. Galau Dau Yang, who is ethnically Kachin, was gang-raped by police. Like in most conflict zones, human rights organizations report that rape is being used as a weapon by the military and police in Kachin State and neighboring Shan State, where many of the refugees have fled

By breaking their silence, and documenting the outrages committed, local communities in Kachin are defending themselves against sexual violence from the Burmese military and police

She had just finished describing how she had been raped by two men, dressed as policemen, when more police showed up. These police weren’t wearing uniforms, but everyone in the village in Burma’s northern Shan state knew who they were. And that’s when I stopped asking the questions and started being questioned myself.

We told the police we had read about the rape case on the Internet. That was the advice of a pastor who was the real source of our information and who had coached us on how to respond if we ran into the authorities. Before the policemen took us to their headquarters, we were able to briefly speak privately with the victim, 35-year-old Galau Dau Yang.

I asked her a single question: Did she think she was raped because she was Kachin?

Her answer was frank: “Yes.”

All the villagers knew we had come to hear Galau Dau Yang’s story. And so did the police who interrupted our interview. Galau Dau Yang said they were the same ones she reported the rape to more than a month before. The ones who assured her the culprits would be found.

The Kachin are a majority Christian people concentrated in the north of Burma with their own language, customs, and army. Since the breaking of a truce in mid-2011, fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military has killed hundreds and displaced more than 100,000. In common with many conflict zones, human rights organizations report that rape is being used as a weapon by the military and police in Kachin state and neighboring Shan state, where many of the refugees have fled.

A recent report on rape by the Women’s League of Burma was widely covered by the local and international press. The report claims sexual violence is being used as a tool by the military against ethnic communities, citing more than 100 documented cases of rape committed by Burma’s army since 2010, the majority in Kachin and northern Shan.

Of these cases, almost half were gang rapes and 28 of the victims were either killed or died later from their injuries. Several of the articles referenced the story of a seven-year-old victim whom we also met. Her widely publicized case was moved from military to civilian court — a huge victory for Kachin activists fighting for greater transparency.

“We have to voice such kind of cases, just to get the word out to civil society,” said Ja Seng Hkawn Maran of the Kachin Women’s Union and the daughter of the late Kachin leader Maran Brang Seng. She believes the rapes are an official Burmese military dictate and the only way to stop them is by documenting them: “That is why we are shouting.”

The authorities deny this vigorously. In an email translated from Burmese, government spokesman Ye Htut said that the army and police do not use sexual assault as a weapon. Individuals who commit rape are punishable by both civilian and military law, he explained, depending on where the crime occurs.

“According to our custom, religion and tradition as well as ethics, the military are never permitted or encouraged to do these things,” he wrote. “This is unacceptable because soldiers also have mothers, wives, daughters and nieces. And nobody protects the criminals.”

But Akila Radhakrishnam, senior counsel with the Global Justice Center, says that there are very few modern conflicts that don’t include rape, because sexual violence against women is an easy way to erode the resilience of a community under attack. It happened in Rwanda. It happened in Yugoslavia. It is happening in Myanmar.

The settlement where Galau Dau Yang lives with her husband and four children was established more than 20 years ago by Kachin fleeing the conflict. Like most in this hilly region near the border with China, Galau Dau Yang’s husband is a farmer. He is also an opium addict and has been for the last five years. It is a common problem in the region.

The men who came to Galau Dau Yang’s home and said they were police told her they were looking for drugs. She replied that she didn’t have any and that she hadn’t seen her husband in days. They searched the house anyway. Then they strip searched her and took turns raping her vaginally and anally, she said. Before they left they took her clothes, threatening to use them in framing her on drugs charges if she went to the authorities.

A diminutive woman with wispy bangs and a gentle smile, Galau Dau Yang went anyway, first to the hospital, then to the police. She wasn’t alone in her willingness to come forward. Other Kachin women, overcoming feelings of humiliation and the fear of publicity, have bravely done the same. Radhakrishnam calls this openness “particularly unusual.” David Scott Mathieson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said it is reflective of the conflict, “which has radicalized the Kachin.”

Galau Dau Yang also went to her pastor, Hkun Sun. Religion is one of the battlelines in this predominately Buddhist country and Kachin pastors are called upon to give both earthly and spiritual leadership. Hkun Sun was the one who told the wider world about the case, believing the more people who knew the harder it would be for the case to be covered up. Galau Dau Yang, he said, is sacrificing her privacy for other women.

It was another pastor, Naw Zed Aung, who introduced us to Brang and his wife Roi, whose daughter — the seven-year-old — had also been raped. Brang said they decided to tell their story because “We talked to the pastor and the pastor encouraged us to tell everyone.”

Like so many others, Brang settled in his village in the hills of northern Shan state years ago, after fighting forced his family to flee their original village. Clad in a longyi, the traditional wrap-around skirt worn by men, and a U.S. Army jacket, he lives with his wife and five children in a two-room bamboo hut with a dirt floor. A wood fire heats the place and the children’s toys include a shampoo bottle top and dried corn husks. The seven-year-old victim uses corn husks to etch pictures of stars in the dirt in front of her home. She has very short hair and likes the color yellow. Since the rape, her parents said she does not play with her siblings and friends like she did before.

She was home alone watching the youngest of her siblings, an eight-month-old baby girl, when a soldier approached her and asked if she was a boy or a girl. When she told him she was a girl, he carried her to the bedroom. When she shouted for her mother, he slapped her. After he was done, she ran to a nearby field where her mother was harvesting rice. Later, she told her mother what had happened, how the soldier had taken off his clothes and lay on top of her and how much it hurt. A medical examination revealed swelling in her vagina.

The soldier was taken to the police station and later transferred to the custody of the military police. Normally, the case would have ended there. “Jurisdiction for military crimes is completely outside civilian court, and the military within the constitution is also accorded amnesty for its crimes,” explains Radhakrishnam.

This time, however, things were different. When weeks passed with no word about what had happened to the soldier who raped Brang’s daughter, the local community sprang into action. They spread the word through their network of pastors, activists, media professionals and politicians. Eventually a trial was held in civilian court — the first such trial that anyone can recall. The prosecution provided a medical report, the girl’s underwear and 11 eyewitnesses, said Khaung Zay, a lawyer for the prosecution. The soldier was sentenced to life in prison — another first.

There was a short lived euphoria, followed by the realization that so long as the conflict continues, the use of rape as a weapon will also. And the case, of course, will never close for the victim and her family. “Even though she doesn’t speak about it, we know she is unhappy and we are also unhappy,” says Brang. Rape victims serve a lifetime sentence too.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com