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Lunch at Lever House with: Dariya Fadeeva

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-04

Dariya Fadeeva of Russia wants to come back for more education in America.

"This is a great country," said the star of a new Showtime documentary, "Three Days in September." "When I went to school in Texas, I wondered about why there was so much security. Then when the terrible things happened in my hometown in Russia, I began to wish that we had similar security."

Ms. Fadeeva is 17 years old. She had just returned to Beslan after a year as an exchange student at a high school in the Dallas suburb of Euless, when she became witness to a terrorist siege of a school where nearly 350 hostages were killed. Some 180 of them were children.

"My younger sister Alia was among the hostages," Ms. Fadeeva said the other day during a visit to New York for the film's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. "She fortunately survived, but she was badly injured. The entire tragedy is something that I will never forget."

The story of that tragedy, as shown in the documentary, unfolds over a period between Sept. 1 and 3, 2004. Narrated by the Oscar-winning movie star Julia Roberts, the film shows how a group of nearly 30 heavily armed Chechen terrorists stormed School Number One in the small, rural town of Beslan in Southern Russian.

"Nearly 1,200 children, parents, and school administrators were taken hostage in a three-day standoff with Russian police and special army forces," said the producer/reporter in Beslan, Jonathan Sanders. "Sequestered in a sweltering gymnasium and forbidden from eating, drinking and using the bathroom, the hostages endured hellish conditions until a 10-hour gun battle erupted on the third day, ultimately ending in a bloodbath."

Mr. Sanders "discovered" Ms. Fadeeva.

"Actually, it was Dariya who found me," Mr. Sanders said. "I belong to that old-fashioned school of reporting where you learn a lot by simply walking around. I was in this park near Beslan City Hall, trying to capture on my little camera the voices of local people. That's when these two girls came near me."

Ms. Fadeeva told what happened next.

"I was walking with my friend Zaira, when I saw this big, bearded man talking to some people," she said. "Everyone's saying he's from New York."

Zaira said to her: "Go on, try out your English with him."

Mr. Sanders - who holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, and directs the Project on the Russian Future, a think tank and foreign policy consultative group - speaks Russian fluently. So he struck up a conversation with Ms. Fadeeva, which blossomed into a sweet friendship.

That friendship led to collaboration on the film, which is directed and produced by veteran CBS newsman Joe Halderman, and whose executive producer is Susan Zirinsky, also of CBS. Both are winners of many broadcasting awards, including Emmys.

In their 80-minute documentary - which will be broadcast on Showtime on May 25 at 8:30 p.m. - Ms. Fadeeva introduces Beslan, a small, rural city of nearly 35,000 people situated at the foot of Russia's beautiful Caucuses mountains, and a thousand miles from Moscow.

"I never imagined that I would ever be introducing my hometown to Americans through a film about a tragedy," Ms. Fadeeva said. "I felt that it was important to share my feelings. What happened over those three days not only changed my life forever but also of my community."

Mr. Sanders argues that what also changed in Beslan was the ethos of "the new world order."

"In Beslan, a line was crossed, making children the targets of hate in this new borderless war of terror," he said. "Ordinary people found themselves at the gates of hell."

That inferno is offered in extraordinary detail in "Three Days in September." Mr. Sanders and his colleagues were given a video tape that local teenagers found in the rubble of the school after the siege. A terrorist had commandeered a camera from a parents and shot footage of a pile of bodies. Those bodies are shown outside a school window.

Other scenes feature interviews with soldiers from Russia's elite Spetznaz brigade. This force stormed the school and killed all but one of the Chechen terrorists. The terrorists wanted the Russian army out of Chechnya, a republic about 30 miles from Beslan that engaged in a war of independence from Russia since 1994.

A co-producer of the documentary, Allen Alter of CBS News, said that it is through such scenes that the film evokes the drama of the episode.

"This film tells a human story in an incredibly personal way - you can't help but relate to the people of Beslan as citizens of the world," Mr. Alter said. "Their small town could be 'anywhere USA," much in the way the tragedy in Columbine was one Americans everywhere could relate to. I've worked all over the world but walking through the remains of Beslan School Number One was a haunting experience I'll never forget."

Like Mr. Sanders, Mr. Alter said he was profoundly touched by the people of Beslan.

"They are warm, courageous and compassionate - people who are just trying to lead a normal life, wanting the best for their kids just as Americans do, too," Mr. Alter said.

He and the rest of the film crew understood, as Mr. Sanders put it, "that the souls, consciousness and psychology of the people of Beslan are, at best, on the mend."

Mr. Sanders had special words for Ms. Fadeeva.

"At the worst time in her life, she and her family opened up their homes and lives to us," he said. "They were always very welcoming, despite psychic pain. That's not an easy thing to do. They took us into their hearts and home. We've tried to tell their truth in this film. This isn't a political film. And I, for one, will follow how their mend their lives."

For Ms. Fadeeva - who lives in Beslan with her mother Svetlana - being on the mend means planning on higher education.

"I like the American system," Ms. Fadeeva said. "I think that Columbia University is great. So is Barnard. Maybe they will accept me?"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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