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Hostage Margarita Dubina tells about the events
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, 29 2003

By Violetta Mitskyavichyute


In Respublika (The Republic) magazine, Lithuania

The 'Nord-Ost' drama did not end with freedom

The tragedy in the Moscow theater turned life upside-down for Latvian hostages there



Riga resident Margarita Dubina still sees pictures that remind her of the tragedy that happened almost a year ago in Moscow. She was held hostage along with her adult son and daughter and the audience that on October 23rd of last year decided to see the popular musical Nord-Ost, and became the hostages of group of Chechen terrorists. Her cool thinking, and the invisible hand of fate, helped the woman and her children survive their 58hours of captivity, but life afterwards forever changed. Now Respublika will print the story of an eyewitness to the drama in the theater.

Had we not survived, our family could never have handled the pain. My cousins wife worked on the 101st floor of the World Trade Center and never returned home from work on September 11th. My husbands cousin lost his wife and child on the ferry SS Estonia, says Margarita Dubina, recalling the tragedy she survived about a year ago.

This Riga resident was one of the 800people who on October 23rd of last year decided to see the latest play of the season in one of the most modern theaters in Moscow: the musical Nord-Ost. The people who came to the theater for an evening remained there 58hours. For 129of them the Moscow theater at Dubrovka became the gates to the next world after an armed band of Chechens, headed by Movsar Barayev, took the audience and actors of the show hostage.

Margarita, together with her grown son and daughter, survived three days in captivity. All three remained alive, but afterwards they were no longer the same people who entered the theater on that October evening.

Talk about the drama is taboo

Riga teacher Margarita Dubina nowadays can speak calmly about what she went through almost a year ago.

After that day a different life began. We all have changed, weve become much calmer and worry less about trifles, says Margarita. This woman, who is just a little over 50, does not look like someone who spent three days in a building full of explosives and terrorists who were ready to blow her up at any moment. The shadow of the pain she endured is not visible on her face, even when Margarita remembers her thoughts and the smells and sounds around her during those 58hours.

In October of last year Margarita and her son Alexander went to Moscow on business, and met their daughter Kira there. Kira was studying in the Russian capital business psychology. For a long time they thought about where to go, then decided to buy tickets for the musical. Oneof the tickets, a crumpled witness to history, is taped to a shelf in her little office in school where Dubina works, along with her son and husband. Her little experimental school is perched here in Riga, a school that the Latvian press calls the wunderkind incubator.

Friends are always asking how Im feeling, but Istill see those pictures. I suffer insomnia at night, and tire of reading serious books. The pictures, perhaps, will stay with me my whole life, says Margarita, recounting the aftermath of the drama. The best medicine against these memories is work. I work so hard that when Iget home Ijust want to fall into bed without any time to think about anything.

But the events of those days are reluctant to quit her memory. Not long ago Iasked my husband if the name of the man who directed the seizure of hostages was really named Barayev. Perhaps Id wiped his name from my memory at the moment when he saw him laying there shot, says the woman, as if trying to convince not only the journalist, but herself as well, and here she gives herself away: Even individual sounds remind me of the horror of those days. It is frightening to recall all of this, the prayers of these women. Not long ago during a lesson Ihad a frightening moment. A boy unwound some sticky tape and Igot goose bumps. This innocent sound, the unwinding of scotch tape, brought me back in an instant to Dubrovka, to when THEY were wrapping tape around the explosives. I asked the children never to do that again. For me this sound is associated with Nord-Ost. But its even worse for my husband.

My interlocutors voice was shaking. Margaritas husband Bronislav, after seeing his wife and son off to Moscow for their conference, never suspected that in two days he would be traveling to Russia himself. When he found out about the capture of the theater on that fateful October evening, that morning he took the earliest flight to Moscow.

Workers from the Latvian embassy were waiting for him there, and they did not live this man, who was worrying about the fate of his loved ones, alone for a single minute. The suffering of those days later showed up in his heart, and he had to be hospitalized. The emotional trauma, from almost losing his family, was even stronger.

The pain he went though was not removed by a course of rehabilitation in a sanatorium, nor by the attempts of his loved ones to shield the head of the family from the depressing memories: talk about THOSE days are taboo in the family. They politely ask Bronislav to leave during conversations with journalists.

I only believed in the special forces

The hostage drama began with shots in the air, which the spectators took for one of the shows special effects. Soon, however, the dramatized war story turned into a real war.

Forty-one persons (according the data from the Russian representatives), both men and women, wearing camouflage dispersed themselves throughout the auditorium. Women, hands on your head, to the left! Men, hands on your head, to the right! The orders to the audience and artists were played on the local radio.

Only those who had tarried in the makeup room managed to escape from the captured theater. The rest were driven into the auditorium.

I was raised during the Soviet days when they said that our special forces were the best in the world, that they could rescue people under any conditions. I expected for them to show up at the doors. I dont believe in God, but Ithought: if he really is, then save us, recounts Margarita.

Not wishing to spoil relationships with foreign governments whose citizens were in the auditorium, the Chechen separated the Ukrainians, Bulgarians, British, Americans, Azerbaijanis, Swedes, and Latvians from the Russians. Their promise to release the foreigners, however, was never fulfilled, and the foreigners all went through the same ordeals as the Russian citizens.

She has no hate towards the terrorists

The woman tries to look for the hand of fate in the events of those days, and yet she still does not understand why her family was caught up in the whirlpool of one of the largest tragedies of the last few years.

Not being extremely healthy, Margarita finds it hard to understand how she survived the gas attack that many younger people could not. Some guardian angel helped her to be among the lucky few who ended up in the ambulances. Hundreds of other victims were carried from the scene of the tragedy in buses and died, never regaining consciousness.

Perhaps she survived because she never lost her composure for a minute, in contrast to the fellow who during the last hours of the drama ran across the chairs and then fell like a ninepin under the Chechen bullets. That fellow and a girl who came from out of nowhere and insolently threw herself at THEM, they themselves were guilty.

If hed sat quietly, hed have remained alive, Margarita believes. We even couldnt believe that theyd shot the girl. Weonly became convinced when we saw her body on the way to the toilet. THEY, after all, had to frighten the auditorium.

Admitting that she had never before been absorbed in politics, even after the tragedy at Dubrovka, Margarita has not changed her outlook on the Chechens and has no scorn for those persons who captured her. THEY didnt think it up, THEY were also victims of the politicians, of their ideological and religious convictions. For the two hours of our conversation, this woman who almost died has not once called these people terrorists, but only used the word THEY.

After three days Iwas on a ty (familiar) basis with two of the Chechen women, and we talked. They asked my nationality and Isaid the truth Iam a Latvian Jew. Lie about it? I didnt see any point. I asked the younger one if she had children and what awaited them if their mother died. She replied: No problem, Ihave a lot of relatives, theyll take care of them. THEY let me go to the restroom, gave me water to drink, and in general all that was in the snack bar to eat. If they had wanted to blow everything up, then they could have done that right away. THEY had to be killed, however. After all, THEY had explosives on them.

The woman reasoned logically, but without hate. She regrets only one thing: that the terrorists released only a few of the sick. Margarita later recognized one of the Chechen women in a news report filmed in the auditorium after the assault. But they werent sitting that way, like they showed in the frames. They werent all in one spot, but spread out through the auditorium, says the woman.

When asked if she had heard a lot of exaggeration about what the drama of the hostages, Margarita shakes her head: Nothing. No one told us what could say or not say, for that matter. But each of us in the same situation sees things our own way, and that is why we can only sign (official statements) under our own words.

Saved by cold reason

Later, when they had rescued us, when for the first time Igot to wash, and any woman can understand how much it means to see water after 58hours, Icould almost not breath, smiles Margarita.

Here is the cosmetics case that made it through Nord-Ost, as well as her glasses. Here are some rags that were clothes before they were searched, and here is the perfume. That little bottle of perfume saved Margarita whenever she went down into the orchestra pit that had been turned into a toilet. The woman perfumed her hands and covered her nose with them.

In time the atmosphere in the hall heated up. The nearness of the gunmen with their explosive belts, the physical fatigue, and the loss of their sense of time acted on everyone. Some kept looking to the door, hoping to see the rescuers, while others after their panic were seized by apathy, while a third group kept making plans to escape. Even the Chechens were nervous.

THEY, perhaps, had not been expecting the operation to last so long. THEY began to run out of food. Their nerves gave out, and then THEY began to panic, recalls Margarita.

The assault began on the dawn of the dramas third day. For the hostages it was as unexpected as it was for the terrorists.

Sasha had studied civil defense, so he said that they had used gas and right away he covered his nose with his sweater and made Kira do the same. I probably also covered myself somehow. When we dropped down, we all started counting, said Margarita, recalling the last minutes of the disaster. Suddenly a girl appeared between Kira and me. She had not made it to the toilet, and started to jump between the seats to look for cover. She crawled between us, and Ibumped into her. I had some paper handkerchiefs in my hands. Fortunately Id brought a packet with me.

I covered my head with my purse, which is funny when you think about it now, this thing all buttoned up like a helmet against bullets. I took off my shoes so that my heels didnt interfere with crawling under the chairs. Soon my consciousness became muddled, while from the television screens Iheard a sigh of relief: the drama was over, the hostages were free.

Have to wait for the truth

Official documents speak of 129dead during the rescue of the hostages. An absolute majority of them died during the use of the gas during the assault. Fentanyl, an extremely dangerous drug, was used, and it acted not just on the terrorists, but on their victims as well.

The woman believes that her family was saved from the gas by their improvised self-defense. However, she does not try to guess what killed their comrades in misfortune.

Some were asleep, some were healthy, and some were sick with something. The same quantity of gas worked on each of us differently. Perhaps some died because they were improperly loaded onto the buses. I dont know. I was taken by ambulance. Ithink that we dont know a lot and a lot will become known only after a few years, but the fact that there was gas, an assault, and Iended up in the hospital, all this is true.

The woman remembers that when she felt better the doctors would not let her go home for a while. They made me drink a lot. They knew that it was some kind of a poison, and that Ineeded to clean myself out.

For all that she went through, and the tragic results of the rescue operation, the hostage blames no one.

They told us why the special forces did not assault the building on the second day. They were practicing in a building identical to our theater. I think that none of the physicians and other people who saved us wanted unnecessary deaths. Its possible that they forgot about civil defense, which they had so diligently learned during the Soviet years. Perhaps they forgot how to transport people with such intoxications, and in such numbers.

Possibly because of her dark skin, one time Margarita fell under suspicion. One day an internist came up to me, listened and looked, and after some time she returned and stared suspiciously at my shoulder. Did Ihave a certain bruise that supposedly some missing woman had? I became suspicious about this, after all, Ihad given my name and surname.

Margarita understood the real reason for the doctors strange visit only much later. The medic was looking for terrorists who, it was supposed, could have changed clothes and escaped from the theater with the hostages. Those who carry a rifle on their shoulder for some time often have a mark on that spot.

Compensation for a life

In Moscow Hospital #13 Margarita went through what was almost like her second birth. In the embraces of the Latvian diplomats, Margarita left the hospital in slippers and the ambassadors raincoat. Most of her clothes were found later.

Imagine this: nothing went missing from my purse not my bank card, nor 100Lats, nor my documents. 150 dollars in a hidden place were untouched. Even my glasses were found.

The rescue was much more expensive for her 28-year-old son, Alexander. The dark-browed fellow along with several other hostages aroused the suspicions of the rescuers. Before he managed to taste the joy of freedom, he ended up in the hands of the Federal Security Service. The mistake was clarified, but his leather coat disappeared, along with the money that he had planned to use to buy sporting shoes for the football team he was training, as well as another 400dollars that a friend gave him to buy computer parts. The woman does not complain about the possessions, and besides, they received compensation for them.

We got everything that Russia promised us: 50thousand rubles each (about$2000) for living through the drama, 10thousand rubles ($400) for lost or ruined clothing. I got treatment with the money Ireceived, and my daughter paid for her education, recounts Margarita.

This compensation was only a small part of the sum that Margaritas family had to spend as a result of the hostage drama. Medical treatment, lost documents and possessions all had to be paid for. But the woman is surprised that several comrades in misfortune filed lawsuits asking for compensation for psychological damages.

Right now the European human rights court is looking at the suits of several dozen victims who were refused satisfaction in the Russian courts. In their complaint, directed at the European human rights court, their lawyers are asking for 50thousand Euros to be paid to each victim as compensation for violations of their rights.

Everyone has such a right, but Iwill not demand another ruble. Even if Iwere a citizen of Russian, Iwouldnt have filed a lawsuit. But Icannot speak for other people who lost relatives and children. Perhaps they are acting out of desperation, Margarita tries to explain.

Help from the government of Latvia? Everyone received a vacation in a sanatorium, where several hostages from Russia also rested.

Freedom separated the hostages

The days spent in captivity turned perfect strangers into comrades-in-arms who shared with each other water worth its weight in gold, and advice. The majority of them, brought together for not so long a time, were later separated by destiny.

The three Riga residents sought out several comrades in misfortune. Alexander conversed by Internet with a Bulgarian who now lives in Canada. At the theater they had together made plans to escape. They decided who would open what door, talking in English because THEY didnt understand a thing they were saying, says Margarita.

I dont know any sites on the Internet, or any other means to find the other people. Id like to find Irina from Vladivostok. She was in the theater and stayed a week in Moscow on her way to Paris. I dont even know if shes alive, says the woman.

Margarita still hopes to receive an invitation to meet with other former hostages at the anniversary. If she gets one, then she will certainly go to Moscow Hospital #13, where she ended up after regaining her freedom.

Not one foot in the Moscow theater

A passionate lover of the cinema and theater, never missing a chance when in Moscow to go to one or another of the theaters, now Margarita does not know if she can find the strength in herself to walk across their thresholds ever again. Her daughter fells the same.

Riga is another matter. Here the former hostages feel completely safe. In May of this year they even attended the touring performance of Nord-Ost. Here they saw the producer and actor from the musical, Marat, free for the first time.

Marat is a Tatar or a Kazakh. He was arrested together with Sasha. I remembered him because there, in the auditorium, his ulcer perforated and we made a cot for him out of broken seats, recalls the woman, remembering the events of the previous October.

You know, when Ireturned to Riga, Iwent to work by taxi for two weeks. I couldnt bear the looks people gave me when Igot on the trolley. Now everything is different. It sometimes happens that someone recognizes me, but then they cant remember why they saw me on the television. But Iknow that it could only be in connection with Nord-Ost.

Margaritas phrase hangs in the air, together with almost imperceptible bitterness with regards to how the majority of us have already forgotten about the drama at Dubrovka. She has become merely another news report about a tense subject that caught our attention for just a little while, and then was quickly forgotten.

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