Aronson aids victims of school siege
Photos by Dan Addison
|Lisa Aronson (right), with a translator, teaches Russian psychosocial volunteers.
By Anne Bromley
A mother whose six-year-old daughter was caught in the Beslan school siege in Russia on Sept. 1 through 3 last year, went back to the school daily for months, calling out, “I am here for you.” She couldn’t accept that the girl had died.
This is just one case of “complicated mourning” among the many psychological problems that Lisa Aronson, director of the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction, encountered when she went to the North Caucasus this summer to help mental health workers, organized by a group called Union Women of the Don Region.
|Aronson dances with volunteers during a Cossack banquet at the offices of Union Women of the Don Region.
Aronson, who had met the group’s leader, Valentina Cherevatenko, a year earlier at an international meeting, provided consultation and training on understanding traumatized children, families and communities. From July 26 through Aug. 11, she met with 25 individuals who came from all walks of life — business managers and housewives, as well as psychologists and teachers. Along with Women of the Don volunteers and Sarah Harder of the National Peace Foundation, Aronson and the speakers imparted basic social work and leadership techniques and discussed specific cases to determine what might be done to help the people continuing to experience severe trauma one year after armed militants took over the school, holding hostage at least 1,200 people, including teachers, family members and children. The crisis ended in a military firestorm between Russian security forces and terrorists that left more than 330 people dead.
|Aronson with Valentina Cherevatenko, director of the Union Women of the Don Region in Tagenrog, Rostov Region.
Many questions remain about the reasons for the attack and for the military’s poor coordination in its operation. Although Chechen separatists who want independence from the Russian federation eventually claimed responsibility for the event, some of the 32 hostage-takers who died have been from other Russian ethnic groups and other countries. Somehow they had moved guns and explosives into the school before pupils arrived. Four different security forces surrounded the school, but it was unclear who was in command. How the fighting began remains unclear, but one version says a bomb the terrorists had inadequately fixed to the gym wall accidentally went off, causing either police or anxious relatives who had not been kept from the schoolyard to start firing.
These unanswered questions only exacerbate the psychological wounds. More than half the school children did not return to Beslan after the event, with some going to other schools instead, and the gymnasium remains a burned-out structure. Angry, grieving parents have displaced their guilt and blame teachers who survived for not saving the children. A group of 11th graders who managed to escape are shunned as traitors, Aronson said.
The outreach volunteers all live or work in or near Beslan — a few were directly affected by the tragedy — which makes it easier to work with the community. Aronson, however, had to meet with the group in Novacherkassk, about 200 miles away, because Beslan, part of the North Ossetia region, borders Chechnya. The U.S. State Department and U.S. Embassy in Moscow consider it too dangerous and advise Americans to stay away from the area.
One of the first things Aronson, a clinical psychologist and social worker, did with the group was work with them to understand their own
“Experience with societal trauma must be acknowledged and addressed personally, especially for professionals who deal with it intensely through victims,” she said.
In order to evaluate the cases of families they would work with, Aronson taught them three considerations used to determine the degree of trauma: degree of direct exposure to a violent event, the number and types of secondary adversities flowing out of the traumatic incident and a person’s previous history with trauma and loss.
Some of the children who survived lost their mothers, had to be hospitalized in other cities and then go live with relatives — those are all secondary adversities that “make recovery more complicated,” Aronson said.
For someone who had already lost a parent, an experience like being a hostage at the school makes it harder to regain the trust and confidence in the human world that enables healing. How is a child supposed to believe a parent who says that everything will be safe at school when it obviously wasn’t on that day?
“Basic trust is at the heart of human functioning,” said Aronson, who has worked with other traumatized populations, including victims of violence in Los Angeles and survivors of the 1999 earthquake in Turkey and Hurricane Mitch in Central America.
Complicating this lack of trust due to trauma is a historical lack of trust in the Russian authorities to conduct an objective investigation and explain what goes wrong in their handling of terrorist crises.
Because of the horrific destruction when the terrorists and Russian forces battled, many bodies were not recovered. The process of identifying people with DNA testing has been a long process. Without being able to see the loved one who has died, a person may not be able to grieve and remains in a state of suspended mourning, explained Aronson, such as the mother described earlier.
Aronson and the other leaders taught the psychosocial volunteers how to distinguish between normal functioning and dysfunctional responses, how to help the survivors relearn coping skills and how to identify which family members needed more in-depth psychotherapy and should be referred to professionals.
“They applied techniques to design four practical projects for Beslan: a helpline network of psychologists, a marriage preparation program for young couples, the city’s first women’s service organization and a community theater project integrating disabled and traumatized children with well children.”
Aronson will give presentations this semester to medical residents for Psychiatric Grand Rounds and to the Center for Global Health to show the value of providing consultation and training to care teams from traumatized communities.
“In universities, research is so crucial, but research-based action is not as common,” she said. Resident organizations work because the members know the communities and the language, and they are committed, she explained. In this kind of work, one has to build relationships.
Despite the tragedy, the members of the Women of the Don Region are fun-loving and generous, she said. “They treated me with respect and care, fed and housed me. They held banquets, dances and outings. They want you to love their country as much as they do.” Aronson aims to continue working with the Union Women of the Don and the National Peace Foundation in this research-action project, and is currently seeking funding to make this possible.