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A hostage from Snezhinsk tells herstory
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, 05 2006

ByL.Stepanova, for Okna (Windows) magazine, April 2005.

Nord-Ost through the eyes of an eyewitness

Mankind has always been at war. For the last five thousand years there have been about 15,000 large and small wars, during which several billion people have died. Sixty years ago thundered the battles of the Great Patriotic War (WW II ed.). In crushing the fascists, our fathers and grandfathers dreamed and reverently believed that after victory there would be no more wars on the planet, and that a miraculous time of world brotherhood would begin. Victory was won, but world peace never came.

Local wars and military conflicts connected with religious, territorial, and national disputes continue. Intruding into what seems to be our peaceful lives is that evil development terrorism. Terrorism is also war, and no one is insured against it, including us, the residents of this closed city.

On October 23rd, 2002, terrorists seized the theatrical center at Dubrovka and took hostage the audience that had come to see the musical Nord-Ost. A resident of our city, Snezhinsk, was among the hostages. Her name is Natalya. She has only told her friends and loved ones about those terrible three days that shook our whole country. Two and a half years have passed, and we have asked Natalya to share her memories with the readers of Okna.

Natalyas story, part 1:

In October Itraveled to Moscow and went with some friends to the 50-year jubilee of Nord-Ost. I am not a lover of musicals in general, but Ihad this idée fix - Ijust had to see the airplane that was to appear on stage during the second act. We went in a foursome, but only three of us survived. We buried Sasha, who was a good boy.

But Iwill put everything in order. I was sitting on the balcony after the boys went down into the stalls (the main auditorium section ed.). The first act went normally. Everything happened literally five to seven minutes after the start of the second act. A man in camouflage went out onto the stage and starting shouting something, but the music was too loud and nothing could be heard. I was not even able to blink and suddenly there were dozens of people with assault rifles everywhere. They started shooting at the orchestra pit, so that the orchestra would be silenced. I heard a fuss on the balcony, turned, and there they were, like cockroaches, coming from every door, from every crevice. They were all covered with grenades. I thought: Well what do you know, directors Vasilev and Ivashchenko really did things up! The public met the events with a hurrah. Later the artists started shooting at the ceiling. The applause withered a bit, but still they cheered. I already understood that this was no show when Isaw a gunman hit some fellow in the chin with a rifle butt, and the fellow fall.

As fast as lightning the hall was seized. The terrorists acted with precision and coordination. Half of them set up a perimeter around in the inside of the building, while the rest stayed in the auditorium and on stage. Right away they barricaded the doors and laid out grenades, even in the ventilation ducts, which they shut off. They dragged in explosives. Within literally ten minutes the theater was booby-trapped and fully under their control. They ordered: Hands on your head, bags and cell phones on the floor! They beat whoever did not obey immediately. I managed to hide my passport under my clothes. I thought: If they blow us up, at least a piece of it will remain. My parents would be informed and would not think that Ihad simply vanished.

Later they started separating the men and the women. Children were also segregated the girls went with the women and the boys with the men. I have to say that there were an awful lot of children in the auditorium, and especially on the balcony with us. Perhaps it was because the tickets were so cheap. Not far from me sat two classes of Moscow schoolchildren, 14or 15years old, with their teachers. Later they brought up a group of children from the music troupe

The daughter of Mark Rozovsky, Masha, and her girlfriend Kristina, sat next to me. Kristina was a good girl. The whole time she kept asking me: Theyll let us children go? I told her: Of course, Kristinochka, theyll let you children go. But soon it turned out that the gunmen considered children only those under the age of six. They did not even want to release a ten year-old girl from Sweden with terrible cystitis. Later, thank God, we hid her in the last group of children that Roshal brought out. But Kristina died. The girl had bronchial asthma and did not survive the gas.

After we had been reseated, they started to determine who was a foreigner, who was from the diplomatic corps, and who had what kind of connections. They gave them cell phones and had them call and report about the capture and their demands. Their demand was only one the removal of forces from Chechnya. They determined peoples nationalities. Chechens and representatives of any peoples of the Caucasus were taken out and released. We had none of these on the balcony. An hour later they tossed phones to those sitting in the balcony or the stalls, and whoever caught one could telephone. I was able to call my friend Gene. I told him that we were hostages and asked him to tell my older brother who lived in Moscow, but not to say anything to my relatives in Snezhinsk. By the way, all those days that we were hostages, Gene was working at the Nord-Ost hostage rescue headquarters.

And here we sat. We could not move about, and we could not sleep. You would just start to fidget about or snooze and a shahidka (martyr/suicide bomber ed.) would come up and say: Whats this? You want to die first? Nine terrorists were guarding the balcony four men with assault rifles and five women, one of whom stayed in the center of the balcony, next to the explosives. Every kamikaze had grenades, a pistol, and a suicide belt. I started to look at the belts and saw that they worked with contacts. It would have been worse if an explosion occurred because of a short circuit. That happened in Beslan, and that was the most awful. Just as soon as any kind of a fracas broke out, the Chechen women would grab their grenades and head for the aisles.

Incidents occurred from time to time. Sometimes there was shooting. It is impossible to say that they fired a lot, but bullets would whistle by now and then. They fired above our heads to frighten us. One bullet entered a wall next to the spot where Iwas sitting. At the very beginning a girl entered the auditorium from somewhere (she was some kind of worker at the theater), and she started demanding that they released the women and children. (Olga Romanova who had attended music school at the theater ed.) They put a burst into her belly and left her in the hall. She took days to day. We could hear her moans when things were quiet. When she grew silent, they dragged her body away. They did not kill any of us on the balcony, but down in the stalls a fellows nerves gave out. He jumped up and ran at the woman with the explosives. They shot him.

People conducted themselves in various ways. Several women wrote letters to President Putin demanding that he remove the forces. The terrorists smiled on this and gave them paper and put tape recorders at their disposal. Someone else got hysterical. This time the Chechens gave us a bottle of whisky from the bar they had broken into, and allowed us to pour booze into the mouths of those whose nerves were giving out. Everyone was very frightened.

During the first hours my condition was one of panic. I had one thought in my mind: Why did this happen to me? Later, after Ihad more or less calmed down, Itried to look deep into the situation and occupy my head with something else. I started to figure out how the blast wave from the explosion would spread. After all, my first degree was in the physics of hard bodies. I sat and reasoned things out. I later helped the children make little roses out of foil. When they asked for volunteers to get water from the restrooms that were in the line of fire from our snipers, Iraised my hand. It was unbearable to just sit in place. Three times a day we went for water, accompanied by a gunman. He covered us. When we handed the water bottles to the men, we also gave them notes from their women. Many of the womens husbands, brothers, and sons were sitting there. Certainly, there was some risk. Had they seen this, they would have killed me, or in the best of cases, beaten me with rifle butts.

Part 2

We had water. It was not a lot, and it smelled a bit, but we had it. But there was no food. On the news they reported that they were sending in food to the hostages, but nothing was sent in. At the beginning the terrorists broke into the bars and tossed ice cream to the children and even little bottles of water. And that was it. The shahidki ate sweet buns and Rafaello candies. Despite the horror of the situation, it was amusing to watch them. They ate without taking off their masks, only lifting up the bandana a bit. I sat and watched. Imagine: that little white candy, which in the commercial a box is held up by a ballerina, the very embodiment of feminine beauty and elegance, and here it was in the hands of a female terrorist. In her grubby hands, all covered in gunpowder and oil from her weapon.

But her eyes! You should have seen these eyes crazed and shining, awful, as if she was doped up with some narcotic. Our guard was always with us, but Inever saw her shoot up or swallow any pills. Such are the eyes of a kamikaze. The head of them was Movsar Barayevs fourth wife. She sat right above me, and during the assault they killed her right there.

We tried to talk with the female terrorists. Not right away, of course, but the day after the seizure of the theater. We asked why they, the Moslems, were raising their hands against innocent, unarmed people. Does Islam really allow this? In stages they began to answer, though through clenched teeth. They said that they were Wahhabists and that they had received forgiveness from their imam for manslaughter and were now kamikazes. They said that they were condemned to death and were to take us with them. They said very calmly: Dont be afraid, well all die very quickly. Really, if all that crap did explode, we would have died fast. The men were more talkative. They said that one of the women had seen her children run over by a tank, and another had her whole family sliced up by the special forces. I do not know if it was true or not. If it was true, then it is terrible, but in any case they need not have gone to settle accounts with innocent hostages. Looking at the shahidki in their ghastly black gowns and masks, Iunderstood what female hate and female pain truly meant. Though it is hard for us gentle elves who live without any particular grief and are happy with life, it is hard for us to understand what it is to be an Islamic woman who has lost her loved ones. Sheis like water in the swamp dark and black. She has no emotions. She is sort of alive, but is already dead.

Time passed, and it got worse and worse for people. Everyone already did not care anymore. Sometimes we removed the seats from the chairs in order to sit on the floor and stretch out our legs, or to find cover from ricochets if they suddenly started shooting. At first we would hit the floor every time there was gunfire, but after a few days we grew so dull that people did not even react to even continuous gunfire. We only crawled under the chairs if it got too heavy. There was heavy gunfire when two schoolchildren ran away and jumped from a window. Our special forces gave them cover, and the roar was agonizing. The Chechens fired away like crazy for half an hour. It was a terrible moment. Later it got quiet again. There was an oppressive heat in the auditorium, and to the balcony rose the fumes from the orchestra pit where the hostages down below went to the bathroom. People were moaning. Many had ailments that grew worse, and heart problems became more frequent. A young girl had a heart attack, and they dragged her into the corridor where she died. We were fortunate that a childrens cardiologist was sitting with us in the balcony. She helped a lot. Doctor Roshal came and brought medicines, but they only allowed him the most simple of drugs aspirin, corvalol, iodine, and bandages and cotton. We gave him a list of hostages. Roshal held out astonishingly, and brought out some children when he left. He bandaged a Chechen who had a gunshot wound on his hand, the one who guarded us when we went for water. By the way, this gunman put a pack of gum in my jeans pocket and said to go have a chew with the other aunties, and freshen up. This professional fighter was clearly not in the mood to die.

One could divide the captors into two groups. One unit had come to the theatrical center to die loudly and beautifully. Their main goal was to attract the publics attention. They could not get it through their heads that no removal of forces would ever follow their demands. They simply had to arouse the world so that everyone would talk about how poor little Chechnya moans under the Russian yoke. How happy they were when they saw on their portable televisions that the entire country was reacting to the capture of the theater. They were literally like children. Did you hear, did you hear that even Albania is for us? And Libya too! Well die heroes! But even among the fanatical women with their suicide belts, not all wanted to die. The older women, yes, but among the shahidki were a lot of girls, very young ones, seventeen years old or so. Two girls came up from below to see Barayevs wife. They were crying. They spoke in their own language, but Iunderstood they were very scared of dying. I saw that they were frightened. Barayeva yelled loudly at them. It seemed to me that these women during the assault threw off their gowns and masks and belts and hid with the hostages. They found two suicide belts in the hall afterwards, and the girls were discovered in the hospital where Ihad been taken. They found them because of the gunpowder on their hands. They gave them artificial respiration, first aid, and then took them somewhere.

The gunmen in the mobile unit were mercenaries, but far from fanatical. If the shahidki the whole time had one finger in the grenade pin and another on the trigger, the gunmen towards the end were very relaxed. They took off their army boots and put on sneakers that they took from the audience. They rolled up their sleeves and took off their masks, and sat with their rifles nearby. The head of them on the balcony was Akbar a stunningly handsome fellow, and tall for a Chechen. He sat by one of the spectators and said: Come on, talk to me. She, it seemed, was in one of the social sciences, and could express her thoughts very clearly. They began to chat and Ijoined in. We asked him some questions. It turned out that the men and women had undergone training in Afghanistan. They had been taught everything there, including psychological methods. One could clearly believe this. The captors possessed these powers almost on the level of psychologists from the government academy. They coerced people not just with force, but also with words, and they acted very professional. With just a few words they could coerce the huge auditorium, and with a unit of only 30to 35people they could keep 900spectators in place. After all, the people could simply have run off helter-skelter, anywhere they could. Some would have died, but most would have saved themselves, and the terrorists would not have had their beautiful death and a communal grave with us. They could not allow this, and through one means or another they stopped the panic. When a member of the audience, a pregnant woman (from Chelyabinsk, by the way), started to give birth, she raised such a racket that they released her, fearing that the panic could spread to others. In general, they tried to nip these occurrences in the bud.

The seizure of the theater happened on a Wednesday night. Already by Thursday it was clear to me that they were going to hold us for a long time. I started to calculate how our special forces would rescue us. After all, were they not supposed to? It was clear that a straight on assault was impossible. All one of the female terrorists had to do was put two wires together and we would go flying off to the devils grandmother. Right away Ithought about gas and knew that Ineeded to get a hold of a piece of gauze and keep some water in reserve. I also told my neighbors that they should get some kind of material, handkerchiefs and the like. There was no gas, but by Friday night the people already decided that there would be an assault. Our people were stimulated, and the gunmen were nervous. They declared that on Saturday at 6 in the morning they would shoot the first ten hostages military men whom they had identified from photographs on some documents the gunmen had discovered hidden away. Later they would alternate in shooting men and women, but the people in the auditorium were so tired that no one cared anymore they were used to the shooting and the threats. I said: Go ahead and kill me, Im going to lay down and go to sleep. And that was all. I even took off my boots and fell asleep.

Part 3

I awoke with some sort of an awful feeling. I had the impression that Iwas all blown up like a puffer fish. My strength left me, and Islowly lost consciousness. There was no smell, but Iknew that it was gas. Some sort of animal instinct started working, and Imanaged to tell my neighbors: It seems they are poisoning us. I wet my gauze, put it on my nose, and fell. The gas was binary: first they sent in some kind of a narcotic, so that peoples reactions slowed, then later something that knocked them cold.

I awakened from a noise. They later told me that it was glass breaking to let in fresh air. I was shaking, and for some reason Ithought they would take me outside and shoot me. I grabbed someone, and Isaw that it is a healthy fellow in a bulletproof vest with a loudspeaker and a flashlight. He says: Im one of yours. Ive come to save you. Come with me quickly, everything around you is booby-trapped.

It was a special forces soldier from Alpha, and can you imagine how Ianswered him? Im not going anywhere until you put my boots on me. He started to look for them, and Iwas looking around. Next to me was sitting Barayeva, dead from a bullet in her left eye. All around lay my neighbors. I shook them, but it was as if they were dead. The man from Alpha understood my condition and calmed me down, saying that everyone was alive. He put my boots on and sent me down the chain. Alpha group worked with precision. We need to pray for them. I was like a dreamy autumn fly, walking a bit, and being dragged a bit. I would drift in and out of consciousness. I remember the hallway black and burned. There was a lot of blood. People were carried out and undressed so that they could perspire. Doctors gave out antidotes. I was tossed into a bus, and there, like in a painting by Osvenzim, were mountains of heaped, half-naked bodies. The living and the dead were mixed together, and all had the same blue color, and were cold. The only ones awake were myself and another man, who from time to time would fall down. I had an unbearable thirst. I asked for a drink, but the policeman did not give me anything and hid the bottle behind his back. He did not know if Iwas allowed to drink or not. I felt very ill, as if Iwas losing myself, as if Icould not hold my soul within my body and Iwas falling to pieces, simply falling apart. It was so frightening to die.

At last the bus moved and we drove off, stopping at every light. We drove through early morning Moscow, observing all the rules of the road. Two policemen were on the bus, and in a weak voice Isaid: Hey uncles, why are we going so slow without any recognition lights or escort? They got offended: Girl, youve been through a lot, now just sit and shut up! Are you trying to be clever? What other escort do you need? How did you take this into your dim, drunken head? Thank God that we did not have to go far, to Hospital #13. Some older woman carried me out, and Iwhispered to her: Dont drop me, please. They dragged me into a ward and laid me there with the regular patients. No one knew what to do with us. I started to have a seizure; Ithrashed about and doubled up in pain. My neighbors in the ward held onto my four limbs and doctors and nurses came running. One yelled: Let her drink, shes asking for it While another: Dont give her any water, dont let her sleep! For two hours they tried to figure things out, then started an IV. All of us had kidney failure our blood pressure had dropped so low, while our brains were working at 70%. They did not tell the doctors what it was in the gas that was a military secret. The simply told them how to treat it. Our poor medics we worked them to the bone during those days. They looked after us night and day and would not even go home, and all this on their miserable salaries. In the hospital Ifinally realized what kind of good people we have. My neighbors in the ward, who were just out of the operating room, washed me and combed my hair, took me for a bath, and held me so that Iwould not fall. They washed all my clothes. They brought me food, although Istill could not eat. A fifteen year-old girl gave me her cell phone. A few days later some people came and distributed milk, Shishkin Forest water, and cheese sandwiches. They said: This is for you from the president. I wanted to ask: Why cheese? Why not black caviar?

The hospital was closed to the press. The young journalists tried to break in, but we were warned no interviews. We did not really want to talk with anyone, or talk about anything. I can speak about it now, but back then Icould not. They showed us lists of the dead. Sashka was there, and Kristina, and the older women sitting next to me, and many other people whom Imet during those awful days. It is one thing when you see on television that some innocent citizen has died somewhere, you are sad for them, but you did not know them. It is completely different when you find out about the death of people who for three days swallowed so much grief with you, who shared a drink of water or a piece of chocolate with you, who wanted to live, but unlike you, they did not survive. It is very painful. It is a shock. More then 200people died. I still think, however, that the gas was the only way to save the majority. It is another matter that everything was so poorly planned. I will leave that be, since all the details are being discussed in the news.

When they discharged me from the hospital, my friends and Iwent looking for my things. We did not have high hopes, but Ivery much wanted to find my drivers license and my Open Gold scuba diver ID. We walked around the theater for a long time and looked. And found. I found my jacket, and my hairbrush, and my compact, and my little rucksack only it was empty. I found my wallet, but there was not a ruble bill or any money at all. They even cleaned out my foreign coins, but left about ten rubles in change. Naturally, they stole not just from me, but also from the other hostages. Naturally, Ihad heard about the looting by those whose mission was to protect and guard us, but it outraged me terribly. Imagine such grief: adults and, most terribly, children, have died, and there they were, making a living on this grief. It was not enough that, through the connivance of our brilliant public servants, three minibuses full of non-Russians were let into Moscow to seize the theatrical center. Then they had to go and rob us. My indignation was apparently from shock. I started to shout at the guards and policemen, but they said to me: Calm down! You got 50thousand in compensation, so be happy!

Yes, those us who remained alive got 50thousand rubles (about$2000 ed.) This is the sum the government used to pay off the hostages at Nord-Ost. The doctors who examined us at discharge just grabbed their heads and said nothing. In addition, it became clear that our health had been ruined. It was nice that a diamond company in Yakutia decided to sponsor us and gave us three weeks in its resort in Gelenjika. The hostages were able to rest there for free. Little by little we came to ourselves, but we understood that it would never be as before, for none of us, not a single one. We have reevaluated what is important in life, and had a change in our relationship with our own lives. After Nord-Ost we were different.

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