Earlier this year Gareth Ellis, aka Bippo the clown, who is appearing in Zippo's Circus in Birmingham this week, was in Russia visiting children caught up in the Beslan tragedy. This is his diary...
Tuesday January 25
The first Laughtercare trip abroad left England to go to Moscow to visit children hospitalised there since the Beslan tragedy last year. Myself and Clunk were the two clowns chosen to go on the trip.
We met at Zippo?s Circus Headquarters on Monday evening, then at 5.30am on Tuesday 25 January we set off for Heathrow Airport. The people going as well were my dad and mum, as camera lady, and of course Simon Joseph who organised the trip. The extra luggage (clowning props and juggling equipment) was all weighed in and taken to the oversize departure point and we all went and got on the plane.
The flight went smoothly but when we got to the other end the two large boxes of toys were missing and Simon was called to the lost luggage point to be told they didn?t make the plane and would arrive the day after.
We arrived at Hotel Katerina which was a very good hotel and were allocated our rooms, Clunk had his own and I shared with my parents. Simon went off to see his friends
Wednesday January 26
Simon met us and told us that we were not having the minibus as he had given the driver time off. We had to travel on the Metro in costume carrying props!! I was very wary about this and we had lots of props and the camera to carry through the snow.
Whenever you went out you had to put thermals under your clothing and hats, scarves and gloves - it took ages. We were going to visit a specialist hospital on the outskirts of Moscow where children who are from the regions outside Moscow come to be treated.
The first ward we visited, the children were all excitedly sitting waiting. They all had blood diseases, some caused by their injuries from Beslan. A lot of the children wore masks which must have been uncomfortable and some of them had more than one drip going into them.
The parents were a bit quiet on this ward but the children were great and watched our show and they all got a balloon animal. The second ward we visited the children were still wearing masks but it didn?t seem to bother them. I also took a Zippo?s Circus programme and showed it to them they were very interested that we had come from England to visit them and even the teenagers all wanted balloon animals!
The wards we visited on the first day were very bare and not many toys around as they would have to be sterilised before being given to the children. The day ended at the Moscow State Circus.
We met Slava Panov who had organised the tickets and Maria and her family who had all worked at Zippo?s Circus with a trampoline act. They took us to see Mik and Mak the Clowns. We got changed in their dressing room. I knew Mik and Mak from when I had worked on the Moscow State Circus in England.
The show was very good and it had lots of animal acts there, tigers, monkeys, bears, dogs and goats.
Clunk and I exchanged programmes and they gave us a programme and a pen each.
We talked to them for a while and he was telling us they only work in Russia because of the animals and the money in Europe wasn?t very good and there were lots of regulations about animals in other countries. We said goodbye to Mik and Mak and my other friends and went to the Metro to get back to the hotel.
Thursday January 27
We were going back to the hospital and visiting other wards where children had already had operations or were waiting for operations. A lot of the children we were going to see would be from the Beslan terrorist attack.
The doctors were eagerly awaiting us and we had our picture taken with her. We visited the children in bed first. There was a girl Marina who was about five and she had been in bed for a few weeks in one room with her mother.
We gave her a painting set and an English book and her mother was very grateful and she also had a balloon animal. The next room had a little boy from Beslan who had an arm injury. He was five and we gave him a present too and had pictures taken with him.
We then did our show for the other children who loved it and laughed and giggled all the time The nurse took us to the canteen for dinner. In the afternoon we met a nurse called Angela and I gave her US$80 for toys for the new playroom she was making on the ward. The money was from the Rossendale Russia Society in England for the children and we gave it to her as she had a lot of children from Beslan.
The ward had teenagers and we showed them a programme and left them some books and toys. The teenagers were again enthusiastic, we went into one girl?s room and she had been there since September .She was 14 years old and was going to lose her leg. The terrorists at the school had carried on shooting her when she was trying to crawl away from them.
On the second ward we visited that afternoon were younger children, not only from Beslan but with congenital deformities waiting for operations and treatment. We met a little girl called Rada in her wheelchair. She was five years old and could get herself around easily in her wheelchair and she could speak English.
She had a congenital fault with her feet and would never walk so her mother told us she would need other skills so they were teaching her to speak English so she would have something extra to other children of her age. She was so funny.
Every time we asked the children to count she did it in English and laughed. Her mother was very grateful and told us the parents appreciated our visit as much as the children. The parents gave us chocolates and sweets.
Friday January 28
Our sightseeing day and Maria was coming in the afternoon to take us to the city. In the morning, after breakfast, Clunky and I went down to the gym to practise our juggling. The staff had not seen anything like it before, they moved the equipment for us and we had the place to ourselves.
We went to meet Maria at the Metro. We were going to Red Square and she had Sergey and Jora with her. When we got off the Metro and were walking to Red Square we had a snowball fight it was good fun and Jora and me kept pushing each other in the snow.
Saturday January 29
We had to be up early as we were going to visit a hospital where the children had heart conditions. The first ward was very sad. We met Daniel who was just two years old and had already had six operations and was to undergo surgery again after we had come home.
We couldn?t stay long as he had not to get too excited. In the next room was Dimitri and a very poorly baby. The baby got upset and Dimitri loved it we gave him presents and he wore a red nose. He was about four years old. The other little girl, Oxanna, had a heart problem and other problems.
In the afternoon we met Zaza, a doctor who wanted to be a clown. He lived in Beslan and had been there on the terrible day and he said he would remember it for ever.
Sunday January 30
We were leaving so the morning was spent packing. Later on in the day we went around the hotel to say goodbye to people such as the concierge and the receptionists. The trip to Moscow was a lot easier than I had expected.
I thought it might have been hard to keep my clown character and be happy when I knew what the children had gone through. I found that when I was with the kids they just seemed to forget about the pain.