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Hostage Elena Yaroshchuk tells about the events
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, 01 2002

By Alexander Gorobets in Pravda.ru

Ukrainian Elena Yaroshchuk, who survived Nord-Ost, was a hostage twice

Resident of the city of Lutsk in western Ukraine, Elena Yaroshchuk became the most famous woman from that district center last Tuesday when she returned home from Moscow. On Monday the hostage at the Palace of Culture on Dubrovka was discharged from the Moscow hospital #68. A special flight brought her and several other former Nord-Ost hostages to Kiev, and she was driven almost 400 kilometers to Lutsk in a police car. Her tired, yet smiling and happy, mother Galina Fyodorovna, her worried husband, and 8-year-old daughter, met her. There were tears of joy and gentle embraces. While later, memories

Here is what Elena told the journalists:

I visited Moscow for first time when Iwas 5years old. This last time Iwas visiting my brother Vasily. He is our soldier, a colonel in the Russian army. He has served in Germany, the Far East, in the Urals, and later he was transferred to Moscow. Vasya came to Lutsk on leave in order to bring me to Moscow.

My brother turned out to be a marvelous guide: we went to the Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin Museum, and the Diamond Fund. On Wednesday we planned to do the Moscow Circus, and on Thursday the Bolshoi Theater. Friday was more or less free and Iwas supposed to return home on Saturday. On Wednesday my brother and Iwent around many ticket booths, hoping to go to the famous musical Nord-Ost, but there just were no tickets for Friday. So Vasya says: Buy a ticket for Wednesday, and go to the circus on Friday. I asked Vasya to accompany me, and he agreed.

We got tickets for the upper gallery. The first act was remarkable. During the intermission Icould not wait to see the rest. The second act began with the Dance of the Aviators. Suddenly from the left side of the stage this man in a spotted special forces uniform came out. At first we decided that it was some whim of the director, but then these strange, ominous people showed up in the gallery and the balcony. The performance ended and the man on the stage said loudly: You know that the war in Chechnya has been going on for four years. We demand that Russian forces leave its territory, and, until our demands are met, you are our hostages!

They ordered us to put our hands on our heads and remain seated and not move. They talked among themselves in Chechen, but they talked to us in Russian. They asked the foreigners to go on stage. I had my Ukrainian passport on me, but Iwas very worried for my only brother, so Istayed with him. I thought at the time that this nonsense with our capture would only last an hour or so.

After a time, the men and women were separated and seated apart from each other. The men were selected for document inspection. They were probably looking for someone, perhaps military people. Fortunately Vasya managed to hide his IDunder a seat cover. When they found one of the men with a police ID, Aslan, one of the terrorists, was he ever happy! He yelled to the whole auditorium that his whole life he had dreamed of taking a police officer prisoner! The wife of this major or captain, she was with him in the theater, and she turned out to be a police officer, too. The Chechens were going to trade them for their prisoners.

The terrorists allowed us to take cell phones (they had taken everyones bags away before this) and tell our loved ones about the situation and the conditions that had been put forward. The phone calls many of the hostages made amazed me: those who managed to get out (the reception was lousy) reported where to find money, named bank account numbers, and talked about their last wills and about how to bring up the children. People were preparing to die.

In half-whispers, we talked with the people sitting by us, and learned about each other and where everyone was from. After awhile they let us use the restroom. Towards morning they told the foreigners to gather in a separate group. I went down the aisle between the balcony and upper gallery. Most of the foreigners turned out to be Ukrainians. They led us downstairs, to the landing, but later they came back and ordered us to go sit down in the first row and wait. And so we waited until Saturday. My brother ended up three rows from me, and we talked to each other continuously in gestures. He calmed down and gradually became certain that everything would turn out all right.

The terrorists did not let us walk around the auditorium. We could lie down on the seats, which we took apart, and we leaned under the seats when the Chechens began shooting from a machinegun. It was maddening they demanded we sit still, and assured us that they would not shoot us, but then they started shooting probably because of what they thought were suspicious movements outside the auditorium. If a cat ran by, or they heard some other noise, then bullets would fly in that direction.

They worried about an assault, as did we. Their women stood around the perimeter of the auditorium with wires coming out of explosives belts, ready at any moment to blow us up. They told us that the auditorium was booby-trapped. Right before our eyes they set up a bomb shaped like a metal cylinder with a wire sticking out of it. A Chechen woman sat next to it. They said that there was a bomb like that on the first floor and that the whole building was full of explosives and bombs.

The Chechen women wore masks, though not all the time. One woman practically never wore hers, only when they assembled along the perimeter. Obviously when she had decided that the assault was beginning and it was time to blow us up, she would pull her mask on and grab the wires of her suicide belt. I was very interested in how it was made. It was a simple military belt with homemade, scotch-taped rectangles of bearings and metal spheres on the outside of explosives.

I could not tear my eyes from the belt of the terrorist woman standing next to my chair, and it irritated her. What are you looking at all the time? she asked several times. Out of fear Icould not say anything, and could only shrug my shoulders and look away.

People held up very well, and without panic. In the galleries with us sat a group of schoolchildren who got to go to the show because of good grades and behavior. The teacher worried about them as if they were her own children: she demanded pills from the Chechens, and asked for warm clothing And insisted on it in spite of this irritating the terrorists, and several times they threatened her and ordered to sit still. The brave women told them that these were her children and she had to take care of them.

There is no argument that this teacher risked her life. Her 9-year-old daughter, whom they released, Thank God, together with the rest of the children on the second day, amazed me. This was a remarkable child! She reminded me of my own daughter, light haired and dark-eyed. The girl played, and solved crossword puzzles, and quietly hummed to herself. I photographed this girl as she was sleeping between the rows on pillows from the seats, in the embrace of a plush teddy bear. It was an extraordinarily touching picture.

The journalists asked Elena: Did the terrorists actually allow you to take pictures?

In general, no. At a certain moment we heard by radio or TV that everything going on inside the theater was no secret to those outside, and then the terrorists searched us carefully. They were afraid of transmitters or other devices, and made us take off all watches, and they took away tape players, radios, and telephones. When Iwas taking my calculator out of my handbag, Ifound a camera that Id forgotten all about. When they were filming the video postcard of the hostages for Putin with our request that forces leave Chechnya, Itook a chance and asked one of the terrorists if Icould photograph the Ukrainians. He agreed, but warned me to be careful with the flash, because if they saw it downstairs then there would be problems. I took pictures standing with my back to towards the stage. Perhaps if other Chechens saw the flash they might take the film away in the best case, but in the worst case

How did the children act, what did they do?

They played and amused themselves as best they could. They did not really understand what was going on. They got scared when the shooting started. The Chechens treated them normally, in principle, they just told them not to make noise. One even looked for a pen for a little girl so that she could draw.

How was it with food and drink?

Until the food from the snack bar ran out, the Chechens got us water, jelly candies, and sweet rolls from it. We gave it all to the children. I personally did not feel like eating or drinking. The terrorists literally tossed gum and chocolates to us. It will probably be quite some time until Ican even look at dark chocolate again. I never really liked it before, but Iforced myself to eat at least a piece, since this is after all a good source of energy. When the mineral water ran out we collected water in bottles from the tap in the bathroom. On the second day representatives of the Red Cross brought in food and water, but the Chechens would only take water. I do not know why. They say that they had sworn an oath to not eat anything during our captivity, but Isaw them eating and drinking.

They say that they used narcotics.

I do not know; Inever saw it. If they used them, then it was not in front of us. They did not smoke, and they did not allow the hostages to, either. A fellow sat behind me, he could not take it, and he started sniffing an unlit cigarette. A Chechen woman asked him: What are you doing? Im smelling it. You wont let me smoke. Hide it! If Isee this one more time Ill shoot! A lot of things irritated them. After they separated the men and the women, sometimes they would let the men meet with their partners for a few minutes, but they could not stand it if somebody started hugging, even if only in a friendly manner. And they really did not like short skirts on the girls. That led to all sorts of remarks.

Did you have any hope of being rescued? What did you know about the negotiations?

We were listening to the radio and watching television the Chechens set up a television they had found in the directors office. It got crummy reception, but one could at least watch the news. We were up to date on all that was going on outside. It was very insulting when the anchorman said that it was impossible to meet the terrorists demands. So what were we supposed to do then, sit and wait for death?

The Chechens laughed at us and said: Look, no one has any use for you, your government doesnt care about you, they wrote you off! When Igot home Ifound out about the existence of Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages take the side of the terrorists. It perhaps affected us a bit at some point. The Chechen women said that they had come to die because their husbands and children had been killed and they had nothing else left in life. By the way, the terrorist men, judging from their behavior, they were hoping to get out of it alive.

The Chechens decisions were always changing: at one point they were going to release the foreigners, then not. They would say that they were going to take us to Grozny if their demands were not met, or that they were going to blow everything up. They would take up combat positions, and then just kick back and relax. Apparently they had no program, or specific plan of action. Whenever they relaxed we also had a chance to rest a bit.

The first person shot by the bandits was a 25-year-old girl. When Aslan heard the girls caustic remarks towards the Chechens, he ordered her taken out into the foyer and shot. The order was quickly carried out. The next was a man who was looking for his son. I never saw how he got onto the balcony. They made him put his hands on his bloody head and began to question him. When he said that he was looking for his son Roman, the Chechens order all boys with this name to stand up. But the mans son was not found among them, and so they took him downstairs.

(Trans note: the girl attempting to rouse the hostages to resistance on the first night was 25-year-old Olga Romanova, who was killed on Wednesday, October 23rd. The man searching for his son was 39-year-old Gennady Vlakh, and he was killed on Friday, October 25th. He was mistaken for one of the terrorists, and his body was cremated in secret. It was not until almost 8months later that Vlakhs family, including his son, Roman, found out about his death.)

The terrorists began to run about the auditorium, and we decided that the assault had started. A machinegun started firing. The Chechen who shot the man who was looking for his son accidentally shot a hostage woman in the eye. Her husband, who was sitting next to her, jumped up and yelled: Lord, what are you doing?! He also got shot

(Trans note: early in the morning of Saturday, October 26th, the Chechens fired on a hostage who was attempting to disarm a bomb, in the process they wounded hostage Tamara Starkova in the abdomen, and Pavel Zaharov in the head. Pavel Zaharov died on the operating table several hours later. Tamara Starkova survived her wounds, but her husband, Alexander, and 16-year-old daughter, Liza, both succumbed to the gas.)

It seems to me that everyone who made it through that Hell is a real hero! Everyone tried to help each other. Among us was the only woman doctor, and she did the impossible. Her patients had every possible diagnosis: asthma, liver colic A terrorist woman who provided us with pills and feminine hygiene products never refused anyone assistance, but when the auditorium got cold, the Chechens asked our men to remove their jackets and give them to the women.

We considered Aslan, the commander on the upper gallery, to be the most humane of the terrorists, and we went to him with our problems, and in principle he would find a compromise. This was sort of humane, but How could you talk about being humane, helping someone while all the while you are standing next to a bomb and they are ready at any moment to set it off?

How did the assault go?

At about 3 in the morning they told us that Kazantsev was supposed to arrive for talks with the Chechens. They were very happy and said something along the lines of if the talks ended well then at 11 in the morning we would be released. I thought that Icould rest a bit from the never-ending expectation of death. Vasya sent over his golf sweater and jacket, and Ilaid them on the back of the seat and covered my face in the fabric, which probably save me from severe poisoning by the gas. Those who did not sleep tried to save themselves using handkerchiefs and clothing they had moistened in water. They said that during the assault they first heard explosions and lots of shooting. Later they released gas.

My neighbor in the hospital ward, Veronika, a violinist from the musical, recalled that a Chechen woman sitting in front of her with a suicide belt had received the order to connect the wires, but at the very last minute her eyes suddenly glazed over the gas had hit her so there was no explosion. I never saw anything like this, because Ihad fallen asleep, but Iwoke up in the ambulance.

The nurse there gave me a lot of compliments: Thank God that youre alive! What a clever girl you are! Breathe, dont give up, hold on! I lost unconsciousness again and woke up on an IV. They would not let anyone see us in the hospital, not even relatives. The first visitor Ihad was an employee of the Ukrainian embassy in Russia, Boris Ivanovich Sotnikov.

Some extraordinary medical personnel work at municipal clinical hospital 68, where they had taken me. The doctors and nurses took care of us as if we were their own children. Because of the severe, continuous stress that we had gone through, they tried humor on us, and so it was very cheerful in our ward. Day and night we talked and joked and when we were discharged we bid them farewell as if they were our loved ones.

But there was a lot that was sad. One day, while listening to the radio in the hospital, Iliterally screamed from what Iheard: the woman who sat next to me in the theater, Emily from Austria, had died. It turns out that she suffered from bronchitis. This lively, very sociable woman had come to Moscow for an exhibition of her art. All on her own, she decided to go to the theater. I also took her picture. I hope the film turns out representatives of the Moscow prosecutors office took it for study.

After discharge on Monday they sent me to the embassy hotel. The plane to Kiev was supposed to arrive at five in the afternoon. Vasily had been discharged at 4, but he was able to come see me. We were so happy to see each other! Unfortunately, he still has some health problems. When we were carried out of the theater and laid right on the ground, he apparently caught cold Now my brother and Iwill live a long time, since twice for me is more than enough.

With a smile, Elena continued:

Yes, many years ago Iwas a hostage. When the Baltic countries separated from the USSR, Iwas coming back from Riga by myself on the train. There was a lot of unrest. And so, waking up one morning in my compartment, Isaw with surprise that instead of arriving at Rovno (on the Ukrainian border), we were still in the Baltic states. They would not let our train through and were demanding some conditions be met. I remember that outside on the street they were throwing Molotov cocktails about. Fortunately they released us after a day. So Ihave been a hostage twice.Thus Elena Yaroshchuk ends her story.

Agree with us that for one person this is quite a lot.

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