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HostagesS.Kononova and E.Zinovieva tell their stories
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, 28 2002
In ‘Izvestiya’ 28/10/2002
Some of the hostages managed to escape even before commando units stormed the theatrical center. Svetlana Kononova is still hospitalized at the 7th municipal hospital. Shemanaged to escape from the theater on Thursday night, and was visited in her hospital room by ‘Izvestiya’ correspondent Dmitry Rudnev.
IZVESTIYA: Svetlana, tell us: how did it all happen?
SVETLANA KONONOVA: At first, most people could not understand what was going on. Suddenly, right in the middle of the show, these men in military clothing show up and they jump from the stage into the auditorium. Theyran along the walls and aisles and blocked the exits. Noone panicked, but that was probably because no one understood (what was happening). Initially, the militants behaved normally. Theyseparated the men from the women and seated them on opposite sides (of the hall). Mensat on the right and women on the left. Atour request, they brought drinks and food from the theater snack bar.
IZVESTIYA: Did they try to intimidate you?
SVETLANA KONONOVA: Yes. Justbefore Lena and Iescaped, the militants said: “We’re waiting for a call from Basayev, and we’re ready to blow ourselves up.” They lined up and grabbed for their detonators. Manyof the girls (in the audience) fainted. Itwas a big change from their normal attitude to an aggressive one. Onceagain, they made us move to different seats, though they allowed husbands and wives and friends to sit together. Wewere in the mezzanine. Someone named Aslan led the militants that were with us. Theyall wore masks and veils. Onlyone Chechen walked around without a mask. Fromtime to time Aslan took off his mask, but only one Chechen woman removed her veil, and then only once.
IZVESTIYA: What means of communication did the militants use?
SVETLANA KONONOVA: They took cell phones from a few people, so that every gunman had a phone. Theyalso had radios and they used these to talk inside (the theatrical center). Inaddition, they had a radio that they listened to, mostly to radio station ‘Mayak’, and there was a tiny little TV with a screen only the size of two packs of cigarettes. Itonly got one station.
The militants spoke to each other only in Chechen. Whenthey talked to us, they spoke in good Russian. Theysaid they did it (took hostages) because they were tired of the war. Themen were tired of living in the woods in the snow and the rain while children and old people were being killed in their land. Theysaid that they dead set on either winning, or dying in the process.
IZVESTIYA: Did the militants have contact with the outside world?
SVETLANA KONONOVA: Icannot say, but they often made calls on the phones that they took from the audience.
IZVESTIYA: How did the people in the auditorium act?
SVETLANA KONONOVA: Everyone kept a stiff upper lip. Yes, psychologically, it was very difficult, but after they released the children and pregnant women, the whole hall applauded.
IZVESTIYA: What do you feel while sitting in the hall?
SVETLANA KONONOVA: Fear. Itonly left me while Iwas asleep.
IZVESTIYA: How did the Chechens release people?
SVETLANA KONONOVA: Their commander always did this. Usually they would select two or three that they wanted to release, and without any warning they would talk about it in Chechen and then point to someone and say: “Stand up, you’re free.” Isaw this horrible scene when they were releasing this little girl. Sheand her mother were crying, and her mother was screaming: “Take her, take her away from here!” and the child wept bitterly.
IZVESTIYA: Were there any moments that relieved the tension, or that you remember more than any other?
SVETLANA KONONOVA: Yes. Itwas one of those moments after the women were released to their husbands, and we were sitting and waiting for them to start bringing us food. Oneof the girls sitting near me began joking that she felt like a little cake and clear water, and then right in front of us they carried a box of cakes. Shegot indignant that they did not give any to us. Thepastries were taken to the men. Onebox after another was taken to the men, and so the girl, more than a little upset, she gets and angry and rather loudly starts demanding some cake for herself.
There was some woman who was very calm and very balanced, and here she said to the girl and her friends: “Calm down and let the men eat. Wehave more than enough energy for a much longer time than men do, and we can take a lot more than they can without getting upset. Letthem eat the cakes and keep their cool, because if the men should start to complain, just imagine what the gunmen will do.” That gave us strength and we calmed down and figured out how we needed to behave.
At this point a couple of people enter Svetlana Kononova’s hospital room. Among them is Lena Zinovieva, the other girl who managed to escape the terrorists. Thegirls hug and remain locked in embrace. Lenaasks: “How are you?” and Sveta replies: “Everything is fine. Intwo weeks I’ll be discharged and in eight months I’ll be Russia’s finest ballerina.” “How are your legs?” asks Lena. Sveta raises one of her plaster-encased legs and says: “Look, I’ve got exclusive shoes that you don’t.”
While the girls are talking, the ‘Izvestiya’ reporter is asked to leave the room.
ELENA ZINOVIEVA, who escaped together with Svetlana, talks about what went on inside the captured theater:
IZVESTIYA: How did you manage to escape?
ELENA ZINOVIEVA: When the thugs grabbed at their detonators and said that it would be so easy to press the button, that they were only waiting for a phone call from Basayev, Irealized that Ihad to escape. Prior to this, when Iwould use to the bathroom, Ichecked which windows could be opened and which could not. Atthat moment, when the bandits were keeping their hands on the detonator buttons, some women and girls in the auditorium fainted. Istarted to insist to use the bathroom, and so we were allowed to go. Theyescorted us to the door and followed up on where we were going. Agunman was always sitting by the bathroom. Whenwe got there, we saw that besides us there was a woman with a baby in the bathroom. Weasked her to shut the door so they could not see what we were up to. Right then Iopened a window: Iknew that it could open from my scouting. Iwent to the window and saw down below the second-floor canopy, so jumping from the third floor was quite easy. Ijumped first, because Ihad boots on. Sveta jumped after me, she jumped barefoot because she had been wearing high heels. After Ijumped, Ilooked around and it was clear that we had to get past the corner as soon as possible. Thecanopy ran around the outside wall and ended at the corner, and this helped us. Atany moment they might start shooting at us from the windows, so Iran around the corner and motioned Sveta to run to me. Sveta said that she could not get up. Irushed over, grabbed her in my arms and dragged her past the corner, and after that Ijumped to the ground. Sveta was just hanging on the canopy, so Iforced her down so we were both on the ground. Fromthere, we saw some people waving at us and shouting: “Hurry on over here, get over to us quickly!” We were terribly afraid, because we thought they were the militants, but they turned out to be the commandos from ‘Alpha’. Oneof the guys grabbed Sveta in his arms and we ran and heard automatic fire directed at us. Ihad this feeling that the bullets were ricocheting right by our heels. While we were running, the ‘Alpha’ commando carrying Sveta got hit in the shoulder.
IZVESTIYA: What happened after you were free?
ELENA ZINOVIEVA: Right away they put Sveta on a stretcher and took her to the hospital, and an officer from the FSB started talking to me. After that, Imet my parents, whom they summoned right away, as soon as we were free.
IZVESTIYA: What did the FSB talk with you about?
ELENA ZINOVIEVA: We were asked about how people were acting in the auditorium, what was the mood there, what was their condition. Theyasked how the militants behaved. Theyasked how they were armed and about their bombs and grenades.
IZVESTIYA: Could you answer these questions for us?
ELENA ZINOVIEVA: Certainly, after all, we saw it all in great detail. Thegrenades were only in the women’s hands, and some of them, along with grenades, carried pistols. Thegrenades were cylindrical, but Icannot describe the pistols in detail. Ialso saw one of the gunmen’s bombs: it was two rows in front of us and looked like an ellipsoidal piece of metal, painted green, with holes drilled in it that, if my memory serves me correctly, had some wiring stuck in them.
IZVESTIYA: How do you feel now, living a normal life outside the walls of captured theatrical center?
ELENA ZINOVIEVA: You even cannot even imagine what real freedom is. Idrink it, Ieat it, and Irevel in it. Freedom is more than just life. WhenI jumped from the window of the theater, Ijumped from Hell. Icannot believe that Idid it, or how Iwould feel if Iwere still sitting there at gunpoint.
In ‘Gazeta’, 28/10/2002
On Thursday night, 18-year-old Elena Zinovieva and her friend Sveta Kononova fled the captured theatrical center. Themilitants fired at the girls, but they were not injured. Yesterday Elena spent the entire day by the gates of the 13th municipal hospital, where she was trying to learn the fate of friends who remained inside the hall.
Elena Zinovieva told (‘Gazeta’ reporter) Anastasia Zhokhova what she endured in the occupied building, and how she managed to escape:
From every door these masked gunmen appeared, and they ordered us: “Hands behind your head!” Those who disobeyed got a rifle butt to the head. Theneveryone was ordered split up. Themen were placed on the left side of the hall, while the women and children were on the right side.
After everybody was seated in their new places, the militants ordered us to throw our phones and handbags into the aisles, but awhile later they allowed people to call home and tell their families what demands the militants put forward. Theforeigners were forced to call abroad to France, Austria, and Belarus.
Our captors stood in the aisles. Sometimes they changed (with other militants) to get some sleep. Theterrorist women sat among us and tried to talk to us. Theymaintained that Russian troops in Chechnya were killing their children and our captors’ only wish was to end the war. Theterrorist women said that they came to die and had nothing to lose. Forevery Chechen killed in an assault, they promised to kill 10hostages.
The whole time Ihad this terrible feeling of fear, especially whenever they would start shooting. Wehid behind the seat backs and spread out on the floor (whenever this would happen). Itwas only two or three times, but there was no way to relax and try to sleep. Wheneverything was quiet, now and then we would get 20-minute naps. Forthe first few hours Ihad hope in my heart that we would soon be released, but over time it began to melt away.
Next to me in the mezzanine were mainly young women, but Inoticed one elderly woman. Manywept. Iwas with my friend Lena Kononova, and we sat next to a 7-year-old girl named Dasha. Thechild cried all the time, and her mother begged the terrorist women to release the child. Asa result, on Thursday morning, they finally agreed. Dasha was taken away, but she did not manage to get outside until 4or 5hours later, accompanied by a woman who was released from the building with two other children.
It was very hot where we were sitting in the hall, and it was almost impossible to breathe, but when the gunmen opened the corridor windows it got terribly cold.
They fed us from the snack bar supplies. Theterrorist women gave the best to the children cakes, chewing gum and other sweets. Theytreated them very well, but only a few broken pieces of chocolate would reach us, and just barely. Youwere lucky if four got to share one candy bar. Atfirst there was enough water, all you had to do was ask, but then the stocks quickly dried up. Wecollected the empty bottles and filled them with tap water and drank this.
There were a lot of sick people among the hostages. Somechildren started having asthma attacks, and there was a child with epilepsy and a woman with kidney failure. There was very little medicine. Allwe had was what was in our bags. Inorder to take out a pill, you have to spend a long time convincing the terrorist women, and then under their supervision get an over the counter medicine from the purses strewn about the aisles.
It was fortunate that one of the hostages was a pediatric cardiologist. Shehelped the sick. Theywere carried out into the corridor where they were assisted, but we did not see what exactly they did.
The militants treated us humanely, and no one was been. Theyeven let us use the bathroom. Thisis what saved Sveta and me. Every time Iwent to the bathroom, Ichecked which windows led where, and which could be opened. Ifound that the bathroom was located on the third floor, and that right underneath the windows, at the first-floor ceiling level, there was a canopy that we could jump onto.
On Thursday evening the atmosphere in the room suddenly got tense. Ido not know what happened, but at about half-past six the terrorist women jumped from their seats and grabbed at the wires that were attached to their bombs and started screaming that this time they were going to blow us all up. Thewhole auditorium started to panic. Wewere terribly afraid and we decided to try and get out simply out of desperation. There was nothing to lose. Weasked to go to the bathroom and it was amazing that they let us.
Out in the corridor there was an armed gunman sitting by the restroom door. Wewent inside and saw a woman with a little girl in there. Inorder to get out the window, we had to close the door and so we asked the woman shut it. Thenwe opened the window and jumped out first me, and then Sveta.
Only 10meters from us were soldiers from the ‘Alpha’ detachment, four of them, but we were afraid that the gunmen would open fire and so we tried to hide. Thecommandos ran over and grabbed us, covering us with their own bodies and they led us away from the building. Weheard shooting right behind us. Oneof the commandos was wounded, but we all managed to escape.
Once we were in a safe place, Iimmediately called up my parents and said that Sveta and Ihad escaped. Anambulance drove up and took us to the headquarters. There Igave testimony, while Sveta was taken to Hospital #1. Thedoctors found she had broken the heel bones on both legs. Nowshe has been transferred to Hospital #7. Thedoctors say that she will not be able to go home for two weeks. Everything is okay with me, but my spine still hurts a little. Forty minutes after we escaped, my parents arrived at the headquarters to take me home. Thenext day, at the rehabilitation center on Melnikov Street, they told us that the friends we went to the show with, Misha Maximov, Sasha Zaugolnikov, and Denis Kolomiitsev, were all alive and at Hospital #13. Noneof them has been released yet, but they promise to let two of them go home tomorrow.
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