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Former hostage Pavel Kovalev tells hisstory
Written by   
, 28 2002
“I was a ‘Nord-Ost’ hostage”
For any person, vacation is like a holiday; only the latter is lesser in duration. Justlike any other day marked in red on the calendar, vacation is long-awaited, and prepared long in advance, but later imperceptibly flies by until one morning you realize that it is already over, and you admit to yourself that it is going to be painfully difficult to return to work once again. Thisis also no secret to the managers of organizations or institutions, and management carefully monitors their employees to ensure that they return from vacations on time. Thisis why, when a certain member of our editorial staff did not appear at work on the appointed day, on the editor’s business calendar appeared the entry: “P.Kovalev explanation!”
We did not find out until later that Pasha (Pavel) did not return to work, because he was inside the terrorist-seized theatrical center on Dubrovka, and, of course, he had no time to write a memo. Hisexplanation is presented here.
THE LONGEST DAY
It is overcast and rainy: a typical Moscow late autumn. Rainmixed with snow is falling, and the wet, newly fallen snow on the ground crunches underfoot and splashes sticky wet under the wheels of the city’s countless automobiles. At6:48 pm Ileave Proletarskaya subway station and walk three blocks along dirty, noisy Volgograd Prospect to the ball-bearing plant’s theatrical center, where Ihave not been since my faraway childhood. Right in the station there are signs: “Nord-Ost, a classic (already?) Musical.” My memory of the area is good, despite the fact that Ihave not been here in 14years. Right away Ihead in the right direction, turning onto Melnikov Street, which is quiet at this hour. Drizzle from the sky, and the cars kick up fountains from the huge puddles onto the entire expanse of the pavement. There are some business along the street, and a vocational school and a hospital. Andcheap, Khrushchev-era blocks of flats. Finally, the factory, which later Ifind out, now makes tires. Hereis my much-desired theatrical center. There is no one at the main entrance, but under the canopy stand a girl and boy. “Need a ticket?” Ido, of course. Actually, Iwanted to buy a ticket for tomorrow, and that was why Iwent to the ticket window in the first place. Downtown, on Tverskaya Street in the subway it is a bit more expensive. Theyoffer me, Iremember, first row for 600rubles, then 250for the mezzanine. Well, okay, from up top (the balcony adds 90meters of altitude) Ican see everything. Itturns out that not only can Isee, but Ican also hear very well: a speaker is directly above my head.
I check my coat at wardrobe Iwill not see it again for 18days and run upstairs. Hasit already started? No, thank God. Three steps ahead of me a young mother with a child is running. Ithink that Isaw them later in the “female half” of our auditorium-concentration camp. Theboy is 6or 7. Didhe make it out? Perhaps Dr. Roshal brought him out? Oris he with those children whose laughter no longer pleases our world? Mymemory sharpens faces Ihave seen, and brings to mind even the tiniest episodes: who Ihappened to bump into during intermission, who Isatnext to during the first act. No, Ithink the boy survived.
The action begins. Iam impressed by the first act. Itwas an original idea, to turn Kaverin’s novel into a fairy tale with good music and stagecraft. Theysay that the second act is even better. Ido not know. ByOctober 23rd, the musical has been showing for a year and four days, and almost every month they add something new. Thewhole ninety minutes Iwas watching the show with one main thought: how nicely everything has come together. Inexpensive, and pretty. Intwo days Ihave to leave Moscow, so ‘Nord-Ost’ is exactly what Iwished to see of the Moscow’s selection of musicals.
Intermission. Awoman in a lower row gets dressed: she puts a black scarf on her face. Well, clearly she is Muslim, and she has to do this to go to the lobby. Amina is a little older than 16, and will subsequently spend the next three days guarding our half of the mezzanine. Asto how many terrorists of both sexes were already in the auditorium during the first act, only the FSB knows for sure, if it even does.
The music breaks in. Theactors come out onto the stage on cue. Theyfinish singing the first song of the second act, and then from somewhere in the hall, a masked man in camouflage jumps onto the stage. Heshoots into the air. Behind him are a few more. AsI remember it now, the events seem to be greatly compressed, and speeded up. Icannot see very clearly, but it seems that confusion reigns in the stalls (main seating). Mythoughts are still configured for the show, but they begin to scroll through options: Perhaps the security forces are catching somebody? Orsomeone is settling accounts (probably people from the Caucasus)? Maybe it is an exercise? Orsome idiot made a bomb threat? Well, it is rather strange that the security services would shoot in an auditorium. No, no matter what, these people are not from security. Somewomen in Muslim outfits and masks come onto our balcony. Intheir hands are pistols. Chechens, for sure. Well, now Iam in a jam! Yes, it sure was worth coming all the way to Moscow just to get caught in a real terrorist attack! Whata creepy reality show this is turning out to be. “Yes, of course we’re real,” says one of the militants, clearly responding to someone and making his way through the rows. “Do you know what’s going on in Chechnya?” Now for certain Iknow that Iam in a fix. Thewar over there, even further from the Ukraine, has now moved to the center of Moscow. Ontothe stage walks a new character: Movsar Barayev. Itis evident at once that he is one of the main characters, but as to who and what he is, one can certainly not tell right away. Yes, everything is clear. Weare all hostages. “Hands behind your head!” And so the first day begins
Barayev’s monologue is well known, so Iwill not repeat it. Nordo Ireally want to. Themain phrase that Iremember is: “We’ll throw grenades at you, if there’s an assault.” Very good! Okay, we will watch things. Iam not the only one here, and will try to attract as little attention as possible. Theheroes can get along fine without me.
And they do: someone does not want to put his hands behind his head. Ablow from a rifle butt, and the bloodied man falls into the seat across from me. Hisear is half torn away. Invarious places in the hall there is occasional panic and screaming. Weare reseated: the men separate from the women. Ido not have to budge, since my part of the mezzanine turns out to be ‘male’. Toone side sits an intelligent-looking guy, while on the other side is one of the child actors. Theboy is in quiet hysterics: “Maybe they’ll release the children?” he asks me a breaking voice. Hisface is pale, and his hands shake. Inthe next row is a hefty man. Judging from his imposing look, he is clearly an actor or from the art world. Heturns out be Alexander Karpov, the bard and author who translated the lyrics for the musical ‘Chicago’. There are a few other ‘Chicagoans’ in the hall besides him. Pugacheva will later come and try to save him, but to no avail.
By my feet Ifind a large bottle of water. Iknow that Iwill probably have to sit here for at least a day, so every mouthful is going to be as valuable as if Iwere in the desert. Inthe hall reigns the sound of ripping tape: the suicide bombers are wrapping explosives. Theother militants, meanwhile, inspect ventilation ducts, rip out audio equipment, and set up bombs up on stage and out in the auditorium. Theyare clearly preparing for a long and serious siege. Itis not prohibited to speak, so Ishare impressions with my neighbors. Myneighbor on the right, the intelligent-looking guy, is named Dima (Dmitry). Hissurname, Ilearn later from the list of the dead, is Rodionov. Thatevening we agree that one does not need to “stand out”, but should sit quietly. Anhour and a half later they allow us to put our hands down.
The gunmen meanwhile do their own “publicity” and allow us to phone relatives to report our whereabouts. Special emphasis is put on international calls to America and Israel. Theylook for anyone who speaks English. Ihumbly demur. Alexander Karpov, under supervision of the militants, calls the Turkish branch of CNN. Soonthey tell us that (Moscow Mayor) Luzhkov has arrived at the theatrical center building. Oursigh of relief is soon replaced by alarmed suspense: there is no progress.
Soon they allow us to use the toilet. Theimprovised men’s room on the first floor is a vast room with parquet flooring, where earlier the children’s troupe rehearsed. Onthe hangers are costumes, and a piano stands in the middle of the room. Bythe end of the third day the smell of wet, feces-reeking parquet penetrates even through the closed doors of the auditorium. Though compared with orchestra pit, where in convoys of five the audience from the stalls has to go, our “toilet” is still a pretty comfortable place. Women sitting in the mezzanine have it even better: there is a ladies’ room on the third floor.
Foreigners, to the exit!
The first night is a night of adaptation. Ifyou fall asleep, it means your body has returned to normal, and is trying to operate in the usual way. Attwo o’clock in the morning the seat beneath me collapses with a crash: the bolts attaching it to the nearby seat could not hold out. ThusI end up an unwitting “pioneer”, and it is revealed that sitting on the floor is must more comfortable than in a seat, particularly for those taller than one meter seventy: Ifinally have somewhere to put my legs.
I try to sleep again. Ataround half past three in the morning Iget bumped. Theforeigners are being moved to the rows below. Ido not have my documents, since my passport has already been two weeks at the notorious Moscow registration bureau, while my IDis in my jacket. Igo downstairs, clutching my coat check token. Ihold it out to Aslan, the “senior” terrorist in the main seating area. Thatevening the Chechens say that they do not need the foreigners, and after this the number of persons willing to become Ukrainians, Belarusians, and the like, increases dramatically. People give themselves strange surnames and hid their documents. Ihave already managed to tell the militants that Iam a citizen of the Ukraine, and now, even without any proof of my citizenship on me, Iget permission to sit with other the foreigners in separate seating near the entrance. Inthis part of the mezzanine there are quite a few people: there is a young Serbian man and his wife, a mother and child from Kazakhstan, several Ukrainians (real or imaginary?), a man from Belarus, and another woman who recently became a citizen of Austria. Forsome reason they put me in the ‘children’s sector’, where there are the young actors from the ‘Nord-Ost’ troupe, who were captured in the room that has now been turned into the men’s room. Mynew neighbors are Masha Rozovskaya, the daughter of the famous Moscow theater director, and her friend Kristina Kurbatova. Kristina was 14. Bythe end of out second day of captivity, she has come down with pneumonia, but children over the age of thirteen are not released, not even into the hands of Dr. Roshal. Kristina is no more.
On Thursday morning Itry to connect with the Ukrainian Embassy. Noluck. Iam also unable to phone Odessa. Thecell phones are gathered in a single pile by the militants, and issued to the hostages under strict supervision. After several unsuccessful attempts, they take the phone away from me. Ofall of the foreigners, only the Serbs are able to contact their embassy; the rest also fail.
My memory once again tosses me a scene, one of countless in the mosaic of those terrible days: Barayev is walking across the stage, talking on a cell phone. Hesort of promises to release the foreigners, including Ukrainians, but “it all depends on when they fulfill our demands.” One thing is clear: Ihave to maintain my patience. Patience is the talisman of our fifty-seven difficult hours. Hereis another scene: a man has gone mad man and is singing and shaking his head from side to side. Butit seems that this was already on the third day, on Friday. Thelonger we sit, the more the people are seized by apathy and resignation. Themilitants are counting on just that.
On the same day, October 24th, Iam able to speak with one of the main terrorists, Aslan. Speaking frankly, Ithought he was the most senior of the militants. Aslan calls me over and starts asking me who Iam and where Iam from. The“brave highlander” has views about Odessa that very peculiar. Inparticular, he is sure that our mayor at the time is a Chechen. Ihave to disappoint him. Aslan, moreover, says that their plan was originally to capture the Bolshoi, but the latter proved too great a challenge. “Putin’s approval ratings fell sharply today,” the militant say. Iagree with him, after which Igo on an incurable journalistic streak and ask about Basayev and the other major commanders. Aslan assures me that Khattab is still. Frommy side, of course, there is no contradiction.
Accustomed to Hell
The second day passes in a strange mode of ‘unreal reality’. Thephantasmagoria of the hall, in which art reigned until recently, and where now 800sit locked in an anticipation of death, is already familiar. Weare fed chocolates and given water: supplies looted from the snack bar. Eachhour we watch TV on a set on the edge of the (sound and light) operator’s cabin. Thenegotiations are going slowly. Theterrorists are nervous. Atthe end of the day Dr. Roshal appears in the hall. Forseveral hours the militants do not let him in, and he departs almost at midnight, leaving with most of the drugs. Inthe auditorium there are diabetics, heart patients, and asthmatics. Manyhave fallen into depression. Somedo not eat or even drink. These, it is true, are a minority. Others continue to joke, read, and talk with one another. People exchange addresses. Atthe same time, everyone is looking at their neighbor, and wondering: which of us will leave first? Orwill neither of us? Thebomb on the seats in the center of the hall stands like a silent threat. Thatnight we are re-shuffled again, and end up closer to it. Theempty seats next to me are filled with people. Bymid-day on Friday my back begins to ache. Ido some brief exercises during a hike to the toilet, and afterwards Ioccupy myself with reading: under the nearby seat is Griboyedov’s “Woe from Wit”. Inever thought that under such circumstances Iwould need to re-think my elementary school curriculum!
The nightmare continues. OnFriday evening, a man in the hall is administered a beating. Heclaims that his son is here, but nobody recognizes him. Twomilitants drag him off into the wings. Shots, and shock in the hall. Virtually everyone’s senses are dulled, but not dull enough. Somestart again with hysterics, and suddenly there is a panic in the stalls: one of the militants is shooting from onstage. Istill do not know what happened there. Later, from stories of my neighbors in the hospital, Ireconstruct that one of the hostages ran at one of the female militants with a glass bottle of mineral water. Theshooting from the stage did not hit him, but instead wounded two people in the audience: a man is bleeding from his eye, and a woman is wounded. OnBarayev’s orders, they are carried out of the room so as to avoid panic. Thiswas at about two o’clock in the morning. Spilled brains and blood are on the seats. TheChechen women wipe it up, since the hostages have neither the strength, nor the courage. Thehero of this calamity is tied up and put in a corner. Barayev promises that he will be executed tomorrow on stage, in public.
“We will put into action the second part of our plan”
The night of Thursday-Friday begins with Barayev’s statement that the next morning General Kazantsev is to arrive for negotiations. Theysay all who came before were just a diversion, and had no real authority. “If his proposals do not satisfy us, we will put into action the second part of our plan,” Barayev says. Everyone, with whom Ilater spoke, thought that he was referring to executions. Atthe time Ithought he was talking about new terrorist attacks.
The same night, Barayev comes up to our mezzanine. Hereis where a high official in the traffic police is located a major general or colonel general or something. Hissurname, it seems, is Olkhovnikov. Hecame to the musical with his wife, who is also a police official, and their two children. Barayev “fingered” him from documents found in the coat check. Theytell the general that he is coming with them to Chechnya, where he will be exchanged for jailed rebels. Thenthe whole family is seated away from us, and put under them a separate guard. After that, everyone is ordered to ‘stand down’. Inabout an hour and a half the gas is released.
I was sitting almost by the exit, and so Iwas one of the first that the ‘Alpha’ commandos carried out (or rather, as it turned out, led out). Those sleeping on the floor were not so lucky: they suffocated almost immediately. Thecardiac cases died, among them Alexander Karpov. Those who suffered from respiratory diseases died, among them Sergey Senchenko, a performer in the show ‘Harem’, who was sitting down in the stalls. Fromthe balcony Isaw him a few times, as he nervously paced around the hall, coughing up the aftereffects of a recent bout of strep throat. DimaRodionov died. Hewas only 19. Theywere searching for Dima for more than a week. Theyfound in the morgue, covered up under a jacket with someone else’s ID.
Later, in my spare time at the hospital, Icounted: there were 10of my neighbors from the hall there in the hospital, of various genders and ages. Sixof them died, two survived, and the fate of the other two Isimply do not know. Suchare the dry figures from my terrible personal accounting.
Epilogue
I woke rather quickly, on the bus as we drove to the 7th municipal hospital, the same hospital where the victims of the Kashirskoye Highway bombings were taken. Already on the bus, Iidentified myself and asked to call Odessa. Idid not manage to let people know about me until Saturday evening, thanks to my compatriot Elena Burban, who was lying in a nearby hospital room. Sheasked her Moscow friends to call Odessa. Lenalost her husband, with whom she was traveling on honeymoon. Theyonly had a day to spend in Moscow.
Already by Sunday, October 27th, representatives of the Ukrainian Embassy came into my hospital room, and Iceased being “an unaccounted for Odessan”, as Iwas recently described by the Ukrainian press.
I could write a whole other story about my stay at the hospital, about how the doctors pulled some people back from clinical death five times, and tell the stories of all who were fated to be my neighbors in the ward. Eachof these stories could be the topic of a separate story. But “The pen falls from the hand.” 129of my comrades in misfortune lie in the ground, ages from 9to 73. Fatelaid out their cards in solitaire, but not everyone was dealt a good hand.
 
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