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HostageE.Fedotova tells herstory
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, 30 2002
In ‘Trud’, October 30th, 2002
During the assault, Elena Fedotova’s daughter shielded her mother with her own body, then lost consciousness
For Elena Fedotova, administrator of the Hotel Central in suburban Orekhovo-Zuevo, it is all behind her now. Shesurvived the living Hell that the theatrical center on Moscow’s Melnikov Street had become, and is now home, but those terrible days and nights are unlikely to be erased from her memory.
We booked at the city ticket agency for October 19th. Thehotel paid the expenses, but something went wrong and dates were changed to the 23rd. Someof the hotel staff refused, so we decided to give the tickets to children and close relatives. Icalled up Katya in Moscow: “Daughter, want to go to a musical?” She said: “I do.” Katya is 19and a third-year student at the Bauman Higher Technical School. Shehad lessons all the way to seven at night, but she could get out early. Werode with the senior housekeeper, Nina Solomonova. Herson Vitaly drove.
We had no premonitions. Asthe organizer of trip, and union chairman for the hotel, Iwas afraid something would go wrong on the road, but it turned out to be a fun drive. There were 15of us, and we joked and drank wine. Katerina Titova somehow let it slip out of her mouth: “Let’s drink to our last trip!”
My Katya was waiting by the entrance. Wedid not notice anything suspicious. During intermission, we walked around the foyer and lobby, and went to the snack bar. Katya bought a cake soufflé, sprinkled with chocolate. Later the militants gave these to the children, only the men (terrorists) did this, by the way. Thewomen (terrorists) always had their hands full. Intheir left hand they carried a grenade, and in the right a pistol. Andtheir finger was always on the trigger. Evenwhen they took turns sleeping on the floor, their finger stayed on the trigger.
During intermission we did not notice anything either. Itall started about five minutes after the start of the second act. Wewere in the mezzanine, and all at once here and on stage and in the main seating are these armed men jumped out, shouting: “Hands behind your heads! Thisis a capture!” and they began to fire into the air at the ceiling. “We’ll shoot whomever doesn’t carry out our commands! We’ll shoot whomever we find with a cell phone!” Just like the Nazis, all the time: “Shoot, shoot, shoot!”
It was like a bad dream. Initially we thought it was some twist by the director. Wedid not believe that it was true. Manypeople looked all around, craning their necks, and then (the (terrorists) used rifle butts to beat some of the audience about the head, (they beat them) bloody, but no one who got beat up yelled. Thenthey ordered us to throw our handbags into the aisles. Idid not even try to pull out any money. Shock. Inmy purse there were three thousand rubles and documents. Today my husband went to Moscow maybe they will return my things. Butto heck with the bag, the most important thing is that we stayed alive.
The first hour it seemed that it was just about over and that it had been a misunderstanding. Theyordered: “If there are any Georgians, Muslims, or foreigners, they can leave. We’re letting them go.”
Ten people guarded us constantly: four women and six men. Others came and went. Theringleader, Barayev, was always downstairs. Three of our guards were masked. Oneof the youngest was 16, with a very open and childlike face. Shewore a black dress and a black shawl that covered her forehead, but she was the cruelest one of them all. Theother bandits warned us: “She was brought up in the Muslim spirit, a fanatical Islamist. Ifthey give the order to blow up everything, she’ll do it immediately and it’ll be her joy.” When they took us to the toilet, she always kept her pistol ready.
They called the senior one in our group Aslan. Healso went around without a mask. Weasked him: “Where are you from?” He said that he was from Grozny. Ialso remember that there was a woman named Aishat, and a second one, Salva or Selva. Among the men there was a Rashid. Ido not remember the rest of the names. Allthe terrorists were young, age 20, and all of them, as we understood it, were from Chechnya. Oneof them was older: he was more than 30. Hewore glasses like they do to go swimming, and on top of them he wore a mask. Somecovered their entire face, while others just the nose and chin.
Even now Iwake up at night, Istill cannot sleep well, and Isee these terrible faces before me. While Iwas sitting there, Iswore at myself a hundred times for organizing the damn trip. Ina whisper, Iasked my daughter’s forgiveness for taking her to the show. Katya, however, the whole time we were sitting together, she calmly said: “Come now, Mama, don’t worry, everything will be fine.” But Iwas still cursing myself. Somepeople from our group were killed, two, to be precise: Galya Litvinova from the snack bar, and her husband, Boris. Theystill cannot find Taisiya Petrova. Sheis retired, and elderly, so it is unlikely that she stood a chance.
- Did you talk to the terrorists a lot?
Yes, we asked them questions. Wewanted to understand and explain that we did not want the war, either, so why torment us? Butthey quickly stopped this talk: “That’s enough, shut up!” In principle they were not polite in talking with us, but neither were they rude. Theydid not beat up any of us who were sitting in the mezzanine. Theyallowed us to get medicines from our bags, when it was necessary.
- How did you ask to do this?
Just like in school, by raising our hand. Wewere afraid to do anything else, so as not to anger the bandits. First they pointed a pistol at the person with his hand raised, and then they asked what he wanted.And they would take him under escort to his things. Theytook a maximum of two at a time to the toilet, but when they were in a very good mood, then three or four hostages at a time.
Then they divided us up. Women were put on the right, as you look at the stage, and men on the left. Inthe main seating they all stayed where they were, but Ithought it to be scarier down there. Theywere often shooting down there. Notlong before the assault, some kid Ithink lost his nerve. Hejumped up and ran along the seat backs up to the stage. Thebandits were shooting bursts at him from their machineguns, but they missed and hit two spectators. Aman got hit in the head, and a woman in the stomach. Downbelow the people began screaming: “Blood, blood, blood!” The bandits dragged the man out by his arms along the floor. Thekid they took out the door to the lobby, and there Iheard shooting. Thenthe bandits explained that their cruelty was because the boy supposedly was running at the bomb. Wehad exactly the same bomb in the front rows, and both were connected with wires. Oneof the female suicide bombers ‘comforted’ us by saying we should not cringe in fear or try to hide, because the charges would kill everyone up to a distance of 200meters anyway. Thatprobably might have happened.
- How did the bandits behave? Howdid their mood change?
The first night they were very sure of themselves. Youcould feel that. Theyhad no doubts that their plan would succeed. Every now and then they stated: “Either we die, or we win.” But they were sure that they would win, and the whole time they were talking on their cell phones. Theyhad chargers for them. Theysaid that they had prepared for the capture for a long time. Theyhad first prepared to do it on Vladimir Putin’s birthday, but some little thing delayed them, and then they began to get nervous and the longer they waited the worse it got, and so it did not work out the way they wanted. Before the assault they got especially twitchy. Barayev started shouting something to his people in Chechen, and then started shooting.
“This third night is the last,” said the bandits. “If there is no progress then we will begin the second phase of the operation.” What that was, he did not explain, but it was clear that something awful was in store for us.
Later the bandits started yelling: “A spy, a spy!” and shots rang out. Theybrought some man into the hall. Theman went on to explain that he came to get his son, who was being held hostage. Thebandits demanded that the man say his son’s name. Theystarted shouting the name, but nobody in the room responded. Thenthey beat the man with their rifle butts and took him out. Iheard three shots. Thehall grew restless and loud voices came in waves. TheyBarayev went on stage and said: “Calm down, sit down! Ijust had a talk with Primakov. Wedidn’t reach an agreement, but now I’ve received information that tomorrow at 11am Kazantsev is arriving. Wewill talk with him.” So, at least we would live until the morning, Ithought. “Lord,” Iprayed. “Save us and have mercy on us so that all survive. Godhelp us.” Perhaps everyone was praying in his or her own way, but they were all asking for the same thing, of course.
- Did they watch TV in theater center auditorium?
- Yes. Though Icould not see the picture, there was a unit on the director’s console, and Icould hear it. Thebandits had small receivers that they listened to all the time, and sometimes they let us.
- Were you not afraid that the broadcasts would infuriate the bandits?
Of course we were. Theybroadcast a lot of unnecessary things. Forexample, they recalled highlights of the hostage taking and each time they said how many people were killed during it. Youcannot imagine how unnerving it was for us, and how it worked on Barayev’s terrorists. Thenthey had some report that Maskhadov allegedly had nothing to do with the capture (of the theater). Thebandits laughed and winked at each other over this. Theytold us that they were waiting for a call from Chechnya. AsI understood it, it was to be from Maskhadov, with news that the troops were being withdrawn. Itold one of my guards that this could not be done quickly. Shesaid: “We’ve got time. Wecan wait a week and more if necessary.”
Then on TV, Tsekalo for some reason said that they were trying to get inside the theater as quietly as possible. Thebandits went around tearing the panels from the walls and ceiling, in search of ventilation ducts. Theyfound them and immediately booby-trapped these. Right there on the air they showed how the special forces were trying to get into the building.
- How did they feed you?
The first day they handed out one chocolate bar to a row, for about 15people. Wecut it up and shared. Aliter of juice, too, per row. Wetook sip after sip. Onthe second day they only brought small candies and bottles of carbonated water, and that was it. Later we took the empty bottles to the restroom for water. Thebandits themselves did not eat. Theyonly took some pills. Theydid not drink juice or water.
- Experts say that hostages gain sympathy for those who hold them prisoner. Didyou have anything like this?
If there was anything, there was fear, especially when there was shooting. Wethought that the assault was starting, and with all these bombs right next to us. Itwas clear that our captors were ready for anything. Onstage they carried a canister of gasoline, or at least that is what the bandits said. Werepeatedly tried to explain to them that none of us had anything to do with it, especially the children. “You’re a mother yourself,” Isaid to one of the suicide bombers. “Don’t you feel any pity for the kids?” and she replied: “My relatives were killed, so why should Ihave any pity for yours? Dying is easy. Don’t be afraid. Together we’ll fly to heaven. Youwon’t even feel a thing.”
- Did you sleep at all during this time?
No. Onlymaybe 15minutes of oblivion. Myheart was pounding the whole time. Idid not even have to take my pulse. Ionly had the strength to wind my watch.
- How did the children act?
With fortitude. Nohysterics, only once in awhile one of them would sob quietly.
- Tell me about the assault.
I do not really remember. Ilost consciousness very quickly. Ionly saw how the gas came out, as if from the ceiling, and began quickly to descend. Igot dizzy. Iwoke up at 10in the morning with a tube in my mouth, hooked up to a respirator. Icould not breathe by myself. Iheard the doctor, as if from somewhere far away, asking me: “Breathe in deeply.” But Icould not do it. Iprobably discharged myself a little early. Allmy muscles still ache, and Ihave anxiety. ButKatya is still at the 68th hospital. Herhusband and Iwent to see her, and she told me details about the gas attack, how she wet my denim shirt and put it to my face and shielded me with her own body and passed out. Iwas supposed to be the one protecting her. Mydaughter actually saved me. Katyusha woke up quickly, already in the lobby while she was being carried on a commando’s shoulder. Hestroked her head and reassured her: “Now everything is alright.”
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