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‘Beslan’ trauma difficult to watch

Kevin McDonough United Feature Syndicate

A year ago today, armed terrorists seized a grammar school in the Russian city of Beslan.

The documentary “Children of Beslan” (8 p.m., HBO) recalls the horrific event from the point of view of the young survivors.

Russians call Sept. 1 “Knowledge Day,” the traditional start of the school year. As video footage makes clear, the children of Beslan School No. 1 were dressed in traditional finery and accompanied by their parents and grandparents.

Minutes into the school day, the parents and children were taken hostage by Chechen terrorists armed with machine guns. They immediately herded everyone into the gymnasium and rigged the schools with bombs.

After a three-day siege, Russian forces attacked. More than 350 people died in the resulting gunfire and explosions; half of them were children.

The young narrators recall nightmarish scenes with a chilling matter-of-factness. Several witnessed the violent deaths of their mother or father.

A young boy describes being splattered with the brain matter of an exploding Chechen gunman.

A girl remembers trying to reach an outdoor faucet during her harrowing escape from the school. Dashing through machinegun fire, she felt jealous of a group of her friends who were lining up to get a drink of water.

But before she could reach the spigot, a Chechen fighter threw a grenade into the crowd of children, killing them all.

A powerful indictment of the inhumanity of terrorism, “Beslan” is disturbing to watch. Its young participants are clearly still in shock and emotionally scarred, probably for life.

There’s something almost unbearable about watching a film consisting only of these traumatized witnesses.

Many of the boys discuss an active fantasy life that got them through the siege and the following months.

One boy recalls that, during the ordeal, he wished Harry Potter had arrived in his “cloak of invisibility” to take them to safety. Other boys take out their violent fantasies in video games, and many harbor urges for real-life vengeance. Several hope to grow old enough to join the Russian military so they can kill Chechens.

“Beslan” also looks at the city in the aftermath of the attack, a sad place where the cemetery is continually filled with mourners and where children aren’t children anymore.

Tonight marks the last Thursday-night broadcast of “WWE SmackDown!” (8 p.m., UPN). The wrestling showcase moves to Fridays beginning Sept. 9.

Other highlights

Coverage of U.S. Open tennis play (4 p.m., USA) continues.

South Carolina hosts Central Florida in college football action (5 p.m., ESPN).

Julie Chen hosts “Big Brother 6” (8 p.m., CBS).

An upstanding architect commits armed robbery in order to be incarcerated with his brother and save him from an unjust execution in the two-hour series premiere of “Prison Break” (8 p.m., Fox).

Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson star in the 2003 martial-arts Western “Shanghai Knights” (8 p.m., ABC).

Jennifer Lopez performs at Karen’s wedding on “Will & Grace” (8:38 p.m., NBC).

Aisha Tyler (“Friends,” “24”) guest-stars as the new DNA lab technician on “CSI” (9 p.m., CBS).

A college fieldt rip and a special forces team cope with prehistoric monsters in the 2005 shocker “Pterodactyl” (9 p.m., Sci Fi), starring Coolio.

Heather Graham guest-stars on “Scrubs” (9:23 p.m., NBC).

A blind teen and a mentor vanish while camping on “Without a Trace” (10 p.m., CBS).

Morris assumes command on “ER” (10 p.m., NBC).

Chris Isaak performs on “Soundstage” (10 p.m., KSPS).

Scheduled on “Primetime” (10 p.m., ABC): real-life wedding crashers; a class action by welders.

Cult choice

A World War II vet (Clark Gable) rejoins his ad firm to work for a crooked client (Sidney Greenstreet) in the 1947 drama “The Hucksters” (7 p.m., TCM).

Series notes

Lost in the City of Angels on “Joey” (8 p.m., NBC) … A visit from Lois’ sister on “Smallville” (8 p.m., WB) … Ephram prepares for Europe on “Everwood” (9 p.m., WB).

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