MOSCOW – It was an iconic image of hope in the death and chaos that ended the three-day Beslan school siege – a girl’s bloodied hand clutching a golden cross.
The girl shown in an Associated Press photo that ran on newspaper pages worldwide is now recovering in a Moscow hospital, a piece of shrapnel embedded in her brain.
Viktoria Ktsoyeva, 14, said she prayed every day while held captive, not letting go of the cross even as she plunged into unconsciousness after being wounded in the violent climax of the siege that killed more than 330 hostages.
“I prayed that I would stay alive and that everything would be good again,” Viktoria told the AP in her room at Children’s City Clinical Hospital No. 9, sitting on her bed, barrettes holding back her long black hair.
When masked militants came to her school Sept. 1, Viktoria said she couldn’t believe her eyes. “I never thought in my life I could be caught up in a terrorist attack.”
After being herded into the school with more than 1,200 other hostages, Viktoria and her 9-year-old brother, Artur, found each other.
Fearing the chain holding the cross around her neck might break, Viktoria took it off and wrapped it around her left hand when the siege began.
During the siege, the tiny cross became her talisman of hope. “All three days I held it in my hand and prayed,” Viktoria said.
Viktoria and her brother were first held in the main gym – which was packed with explosives – and the teenager said she was certain she would die if they went off.
The siblings later moved to an adjacent room, and when Viktoria heard the first explosion Sept. 3, as the standoff spiraled to its violent end, a bomb planted near her didn’t go off.
Viktoria ran. She remembers the horror of escaping through the gym and seeing the bodies there.
At one point, Viktoria was hit in the head. As she lay wounded, Artur pleaded with her: “Don’t die. Don’t die. Open your eyes. Don’t die.”
Soldiers later passed her out a window to safety, the cross still in her hand.
Viktoria said as she was fading in and out of consciousness, she clung to hope, and to her cross.
“I felt that if I had that cross in my hand and if it was still there, then everything would be fine,” she said.
Now, the only signs of her wound are three small stitches on the right side of her forehead. But X-rays show a half-inch piece of shrapnel in the center of her brain.
For now, doctors are planning to leave the shrapnel in place: They will only operate if complications develop.
The cross is at her family’s apartment in Beslan, still stained with blood; her father and brother plan to bring it to Moscow later.