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Gray folder ofdeath
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, 29 2002

People in line to identify their loved ones let each other go first

Standing in line to enter are people with pale, tear-stained faces. Theyhave lost all hope, but still have a glimmer of faith in a miracle perhaps their loved ones will not be in there. Ravaged dolls leave the building, walking on cottony legs, and their empty eyes have aged by decades. Nomiracle took place, and now the way before them leads to a morgue, the number of which has already beennamed.

Never in my life have Istood in line at such a terrible place. TheCenter for Psychological Rehabilitation, located at No. 2Melnikov Street, has no less than three hundred people gathered there, searching for those whose names were not on the lists of the lucky those who are now in hospital wards or even intensive care. Onthe door there is a sign, which reads “Prosecutor's office”, while below, written by hand: “photographs of dead individuals who have not yet been identified.” Entrance is by passport, after having already passed through two cordons of riot police. Those asking for IDrequire information about the missing person name, surname, patronymic, place of birth, age, and physical description, including clothing.

I am ashamed to stand in this line, because Ihave no one who has died, but the living truth requires that Ispeak of those who will not live to see their loved ones come home from the musical ‘Nord-Ost’. Ilook into these detached faces and soon begin to feel a psychological effect that is strange, and very frightening. Theemotions that people do not show on the surface are held deep inside, and for some reason they are transmitted to me. Myhead begins to ache sharply, a small shiver shakes me, and Ibegin to worry that Iwill now start toweep.

“I called all the hospitals," whispers a man in military uniform standing in front of me. “I was on the phone all night, you know, the receiver got so hot that in the morning my ear was completely numb Butmy daughter was nowhere. Whatcould Ido? Early in the morning Iwent to Mortuary number 2and talked them into letting me in. Theyshowed me right away all these corpses, what a horror, it was awful to look it. Themedics showed me one body after another, and Ihad but a single thought in my head: it’s her, it’s her Butit wasn’t, thank God. Istarted to hope, but the medics said that there are a lot of morgues and they said Ishould come here What’ll Ido if Ifind her photograph Ican’t even think about it.”

“There are a lot of unidentified bodies at Morgue Number 6." A very elderly woman, perhaps a grandmother, enters into the conversation. “I went there, but they aren’t letting people in, and so Icouldn’t.”

“Today three people in intensive care said their names,” another old woman says timidly. “Maybe they are ours?”

People with but one question immediately surround her: in which hospital was it that these people came to their senses?

Near the entrance are several tables with psychologists. Itake my place in line. Lord, why such a commonplace crowd, like used to line up twenty years ago in the grocery stores? ThenI walk over to the bulletin boards where there are photographs of people being sought by their families: Margarita Yurievna Sokolova a pretty, young, blonde woman, 32years of age. Grigory Markovich Burban a pleasant and serious-looking man in glasses. Thensome psychologists jump up and walk over tome.

“Are you looking for somebody? Doyou need any information or assistance?”

“I’d like to see a list of the dead.”

“This isn’t available right now.”

It takes two hours of endless standing in that sad line. People are on their last legs, and still have not seen that for which there are here a thick, gray folder, in which both sides of the pages have a large photograph of a deceased hostage, followed by a brief caption at the bottom: male / female, approximate age, clothing description, distinguishing features, and the morgue where the body is located. Relatives of the victims are talking with each other, describing who has been where, and what they have been doing to find their lovedones.

A small room has been adapted for use as a first aid station. Doctors are at work, equipped with gear on up to resuscitation equipment, almost, and yelling out loud at the people those who have seen the album of sorrow and bringing them around with injections.

Now it is my turn. Theroom is lit only by daylight streaming from the large window, but it, alas, is sufficient to identify the corpse in the photo. Entering the room at the same time with each person is a psychologist and a detective. Ifyou are looking for a very close relative a child or a spouse they do not leave you until the very end. Ifa person says they are looking for a more distant relative, they move to the side. Theyinterrogate me, and thenleave.

Before me a still-young investigator opens the album. Heis very nervous. Since this morning he has probably seen enough grief to last a lifetime.

“Which is yours?”

Idescribe the person a man for whom Iwas asked to look by his relatives, who are now standing near Hospital number 13, carrying a sign that reads: “Help find this man”. Theyare simply too afraid to come here, and have no strengthleft.

Slowly, as if in slow motion, he turns the pages before my eyes. People are naked to the waist, with sunken eyes and distorted faces. Forsome reason many of them have their mouths half-opened, apparently the result of suffocation. Their hair is slicked back, and in the background is the rail of a gurney. Theyare young, and old, and thin, and fat, and for some reason they all look like each other. Thank God there are no children. There is no picture of the man whose picture his relatives showedme.

“Look closely,” says the investigator. “Death dramatically changes a person.”

“No,” Ishake my head. “Still not here.”

“Any chance the man you’re looking for looks Chechen?” the investigator asks thoughtfully.

“Actually, his hair is black,” Isay.

“There is another morgue, and I’m telling you this unofficially. It’s under FSB jurisdiction, and there, as Iknow, they brought those who look like militants.”

Despite the fact that the person Iwas looking is in now way related to me, and Ihave never in my life seen him, Ifeel a great relief that Icould not find his photograph in that gray folder. Others are not so lucky. Moreoften than not, people are unable to leave that room on their own and must be led out, leaning on an arm, and brought to their senses withshots.

I see the same soldier who was standing in front of me in line for two hours, and Imarvel at how one single second can break the life of a man. Hecannot cry. Hejust looks around helplessly, and is gasping for breath. Heis immediately gathered up and taken away. Idid not ask him anything everything is perfectlyclear.

“Nicky, Nicky He’s in Morgue number nine!” A young woman in a frozen voice repeats this. Forsome reason she is beating her fists on the shoulders of man herage.

“Your loved one?” Iask.

They do not hearme.

“Forgive me, my son, forgive me!” A man in an old woolen coat is crying out loud, and sliding down the wall he leans against.

He is picked up by the psychologists, but for some reason he addresses me. “That night Irefused to buy him that CDplayer he asked me for,” he says through his tears. Hegives me a very confusedlook.

The lobby is getting crowded as more and more people show up, but more chairs are brought in from somewhere. Somebody tries to cut inline.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?” asks a very pale man in a terribly calm voice. “I'll let you go ahead of me.”

In ‘Moskovsky Komsomolets’, #43, October 29th, 2002

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