Flower Children

Photo: Dmitry Beliakov/Courtesy of Showtime

On the second day of the siege, the children ate the flowers. There were many flowers because the children and their parents brought them for the teachers, along with balloons, on the first day of school, known throughout Russia and not just in Beslan, 30 miles from the border with Chechnya, as the Day of Knowledge. In this shattering account of what one 16-year-old girl calls “Russia’s 9/11”—during which, on September 1, 2004, hooded Chechen terrorists with machine guns, hand grenades, and bombs seized School Number One and held 1,200 children, parents, and teachers hostage until all hell broke loose—there are dozens of defining moments and obscene ironies, as if, after the worst possible news, a sinister significance attached to every ordinary object, even dolls and shoes. But it’s children eating flowers that I can’t get out of my mind.

Outside, the temperature rose to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, in the gym where the children were caged, a gym where bombs were wired to basketball backboards, it was steam-bath stifling. They were not allowed food, water, or permission to use the bathroom. So they ate the flowers and drank their urine.

Meanwhile, using a video camera confiscated from a parent who had hoped to record his child’s first day of school, terrorists shot candid footage of themselves, in mufti and masks, strutting, posing, and praying. So accustomed do we become to this awful intimacy that when the two female terrorists, who apparently hadn’t bargained for murdering children, blow themselves up, we are almost surprised that we don’t see it. We see everything else, including a severed leg.

After the only face-to-face negotiation that occurred before the bloodbath, nursing babies were removed from the site, and their mothers with them. Of course, these mothers were there to begin with because they had older children in the school. So they had to decide whether to remain with one child or escort the other out. Zalina Zandarova explains how she walked away with her 2-year-old but left her 6-year-old behind. Even so, she’s luckier than Sergei Urmanov, an engineer right out of Dostoyevsky, who survived the siege but lost his wife, daughter, sister, and three nieces. We also get to know Elena Kosomova, the language teacher, assistant principal, hostage, and mother of a hostage. In a Hollywood movie she could be played by Michelle Pfeiffer, though Kosomova’s type of clouded beauty cost her way too much.

On the third day, something exploded in the gym, nobody knows what or why, after which came a popping, which galvanized the trigger-happy. For ten hours, hoodies in the school exchanged berserk fire with tanks, snipers, Russian Army special forces, and local militia in shorts and flip-flops, while bloody children fell out windows. The body count was 331 hostages, 176 of them children. A figure of 500 is given for the wounded. But Beslan’s entire population, 35,000, should be counted as wounded. The dead kids were in the lower grades. Before school, they lined up according to age group, the youngest at the head of the line, older ones nearer the gate through which they escaped at the time of attack. Later, there is a memorial consisting entirely of bottles of water, to quench the thirst of the slain.

Three Days in September was written, produced, and directed by Joe Halderman, an Emmy-winning veteran, like executive producer Susan Zirinsky, of CBS News. It is narrated by Julia Roberts, so skillfully you never once think, Hey, that’s Julia Roberts. It is a superb and disquieting marvel of television journalism in which film footage from the time of the siege, inside and out, has been woven together with family snapshots, children’s keepsakes, town scenes, flora, fauna, and weather, and subsequent interviews of many of the principals, including the hostage negotiator, a sniper, and a photographer so traumatized by what he saw that he stopped taking pictures. It’s all crosscut with gunfire and a children’s choir, so that we are almost slapped back and forth in terrible time. Can you imagine? Grown men actually plotted in advance to seize a school, lock small children into the gym, and wire bombs to the basketball backboards?

Given that the film Julia Roberts narrates is Three Days in September, and she’s currently starring in Three Days of Rain, you might think the Showtime documentary is a peek at her Broadway debut. It’s not—nor is it a sequel to the 1992 Russian film Three Days in August. Nor a remake of Three Days of the Condor. Nor a preview of the forthcoming Three Days in Dublin, nor an abridgment of Four Days in November or Four Days in July. Momentous dates, like good things and bad news, apparently come in threes—save for the most famous historical span, at least in Russia: Ten Days That Shook the World.

Three Days In September
Showtime. May 25. 8:30 p.m.

Flower Children