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The buriedtruth
Written by (Stefanie Marsh)   
, 14 2006

By Stephanie Marsh

In The Times Online, Great Britain

Our correspondent Jeffrey Allen meets families fighting the apparatus of the Russian state to find out why 129hostages died in the 2002Moscow theatre siege

I asked to see the body. Itwas covered in a blue sheet. Onlyher face and her fingers were visible. Iwas not allowed to inspect her. Iasked to straighten out the hair covering her face. Inoticed a large swelling beneath her nose, also that her hands were almost black and hugely bloated.

This is Dmitri Milovidov, a middle-aged Muscovite, describing the body of his 14-year-old daughter Nina, discovered two days after her death. Ifwe are to take Vladimir Putins word for it, Nina died as a result of dehydration, chronic disease or the very fact that she had been confined in the building during the stand-off between Chechen terrorists and the Russian security services at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, which came to a sudden and messy end on October 26, 2002.

Not the least remarkable thing about Dmitri Milovidovs story is the fact that it happened on October 28. Thatis to say: 48hours after having been reassured that there had been no fatalities among the hostages; 46hours after having been told that fatalities had occurred but that there were no children among them; 31hours after having been notified of a government helpline for frantic relatives, a number which, when dialled, was never answered; and 24hours after Dmitri and his wife, Olga, bewildered by the official silence, began their long search for their daughter, at first through the chaotic hospitals of the capital and then, as hope drained, through its morgues. I was feeling Ninas existence until 10am on the 26th, Olga told me. At 10am there was no connection with my daughter. Icant prove thats when she died, but thats what Ifelt.

The story of the Moscow theatre siege is well known, up to a point. OnOctober 23, 2002, during a packed performance of the Russian musical Nord-Ost, around 40armed Chechen terrorists gained access to the Dubrovka theatre. The800 or so audience members and theatre staff were held hostage while the notoriously brutal terrorists demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Theworlds gaze swivelled on to the Dubrovka. Onthat mythical level where acts of violence gain or fail to gain the worlds attention, the audacity of the collision engineered by the terrorists between the blithe metropolitan theatregoers and the hardest edge of ultra-nationalism captivated the global media.

Three hostages were killed, probably inadvertently: 200other hostages were released during negotiations. Unlike at Beslan two years later, the siege of the Dubrovka wasnt a slaughterhouse. Butat around 5am on the 26th, the state security forces began to pump an opiate-based gas through the theatres air vents. TheRussian Government has refused to name the gas, but medical experts believe it was fentanyl. InBritain fentanyl is used primarily in intensive care wards as an analgesic: in excess it can be fatal. Itdisarmed the terrorists, certainly, and most probably killed some of them: those who werent fatally poisoned were shot dead when the theatre was subsequently stormed. WhatDmitri and Olga want to know is this: what did the gas do to the hostages?

And here we come up against the first of many riddles and contradictions that surround the events of October 26. Although a plaque recently erected outside the Dubrovka numbers 129dead among the former hostages, officially none of them was killed by gas. Shortly after the building was stormed, Russias health minister at the time stated: Similar preparations are widely used in medical practice and as such cannot cause a lethal outcome.

Mr Putin vigorously denied any connection between the gas and the subsequent fatalities: Those people did not die because of the effects of the gas, for the gas is not harmful, he emphasised in an interview with American journalists in 2003. And we can say that none of the hostages were injured in the course of the operation.

The 26th was a terrible day for the Milovidovs, followed by a terrible night, and then another terrible day among thousands of other desperate relatives (there were still at least 600hostages inside the theatre when the security services stormed it) and at the end of it all there was Nina, her face and hands swollen as if she had choked, her internal organs flooded with liquid as a doctor confided to them, and on her death certificate, along with Time of Death and Place of Death, was a simple entry next to Cause of Death: Terrorism.

I learnt about Sashas death on the radio on 27October 2002. Ilearned about the circumstances of her death, that she was crushed while being taken to hospital by bus, later on from the press and people who were present during formal identification.

Svetlana Gubareva

It isnt wholly inaccurate to say that terrorism killed Nina Milovidova, Sasha Gubareva and the other 127victims. Butterrorists didnt. AKremlin investigation into the hostages deaths has been quietly shelved. Thegassing and subsequent storming of the Dubrovka theatre was a success: all the terrorists were killed there and then. Andit was also a failure: by late on the 28th more than 100hostages had died, directly or indirectly as a result of terrorism.

Compensation has been derisory: the coffins provided for the dead were so undersized that one victims mother broke one trying to bend her sons rigid corpse into it. Andthat, in Russian life, would tend to be that, a country which, by official reckoning, suffered only 41casualties from the Chernobyl disaster; a country where, 24hours after the Kursk nuclear missile submarine sank with the loss of 118lives, Mr Putin was photographed hosting a barbecue on holiday. When, subsequently, a mother of one of the men killed in the disaster shouted abuse at a senior minister on television, she was forcibly sedated. InRussia you dont tend to respond to calamity by devoting four years of your life to pestering the government for answers.

But four years after the theatre siege a group of survivors and relatives called Nord Ost, has presented a case against the Russian Government at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Crucial to its case is a book, published just in time for the St Petersburg G8 summit, also entitled Nord Ost: a 192-page volume of testimonies from survivors, relatives, ambulance drivers, doctors, journalists and anyone who witnessed the theatre seige. Thebook, although harrowing, doesnt simply mourn the victims: it is a reconstruction. Thetestimonies, taken together, build a case against the Russian Government. Evenfive years ago, such a campaign was inconceivable.

Here are some of its grim highlights. Witnesses recall how, once the theatre was stormed, bodies were piled up on the pavement outside, before being loaded into ordinary buses the living, in the instance of one 13-year-old girl, crushed to death beneath the dead. Itquotes an ambulance driver, Dmitri, who watched as medically untrained and panic-stricken policemen haphazardly injected survivors, sometimes repeatedly, with antidote; how, in other cases, lack of antidote and plain ignorance led to others being left to die on hospital floors. Several witnesses describe seeing hostages emerge from the building, their skin sickly green and blue. Theyconjecture that acutely sick former hostages were prematurely discharged from hospital so as not to create a scandal, and that their medical documents were falsified. Survivors describe their ensuing and still unexplained kidney, heart, breathing and memory problems. Onewoman, four months pregnant at the time of the crisis, later gave birth to a disabled child: was there a connection? Shewants to know.

The abiding impression is of the collapse of state competence in the face of a self-inflicted calamity. Its thought that several hostages died of asphyxiation, having been left on their backs on the pavement. Ifthe Russian Government had wanted to broadcast the statement The destruction of our enemies is more important than the protection our citizens, it could not have done so more clearly.

Naturally the viewpoint of most contributors to the book is skewed against the Government. After a while the reader begins to hunger for the other side of the story and yet there isnt one. Three weeks after The Times contacted the Kremlin for a response there has been only silence. Amember of the British Embassy staff in Moscow who witnessed the evacuation scene at first hand told me: The security services made a very calculated decision to pump that building full of synthetic narcotic morphine. Butthere was simply no preparation for what would happen next: there was no fleet of ambulances; none of the hospitals had been notified; bodies, alive and dead, were being dragged along the street by their hands, there were grazes on their backs from this. Manypeople died needlessly. Itwas botched. Ina country like Britain there is no doubt in my mind that it would have brought down the government.

The hostages were already lying on the floor outside the theatre. There was a box of syringes and antidote capsules. Someman cried out, Begin injecting! We began opening up packaging and collecting syringes. Injections were given to hostages both by those who knew and who did not know how to give them: special forces soldiers, city rescue workers, the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) soldiers, even militiamen from the cordon. Nobody took notes about injections administered: two, three injections were given. Andthese are lethal doses. Thechaos was unimaginable.

Dmitri, ambulance driver

In a run-down café in a Moscow suburb Imeet Tatiana Karpova, her enormous squat frame wedged between those of her two sons, Nick and Ivan, who sit like respectful bouncers on either side of their mother while she talks and smokes and jabs the smouldering point of her slimline cigarette into the air for emphasis. Herthird son, Sasha, died during the theatre siege, or so she thought until she somehow she got her hands on a note written by the driver of the ambulance in which Sasha had died. Itread: Time of Death: 12.45pm. Place of Death: This ambulance. Seven hours after the theatre was stormed, she rages angrily at me. And this is what they call a brilliant military operation.

Karpova used to be a teacher and one can well imagine the effect her fierce rhetoric might have had on her students. Now, as the driving force behind Nord Ost, the woman who personally collated the information in the booklet, scraped together the money to have it published and then had it delivered to each of the G8 embassies, she is an intimidating, uninterruptible presence, even, one guesses, to the officials who tell her to wind up her peaceful demonstrations or try to talk her out of publishing controversial booklets.

She tells me that Sasha was a talented musician, the translator of the musical Chicago into Russian, and how, on hearing of his death, the American Embassy sent a letter of condolence and how she received nothing from her own Government. Between 1998and 2006there have been 16terrorist acts and after every terrorist act the government tries to cover it up, she says. They hoped the same would happen after Nord Ost. Theydidnt expect that the people would be brought together by this tragedy.

But in post-Soviet Russia that is just what happened. Andthese were people reeling from a whole series of events, not just Nord Ost. Karpovas organisation now includes survivors of all sorts of tragedies of the old Soviet Union: the explosion in a group of Moscow flats in 1999; another bomb attack, this time in the Moscow Underground in 2004; when Chechen terrorists bribed their way on to two planes at a Moscow airport before blowing them up, Karpova was there; Beslan; even the families of soldiers killed through maltreatment in Russias armed forces are in touch with Karpova.

Last month she attended the second anniversary of the crash of one of the planes and flew out to Beslan to mark the second anniversary of the tragedy. Nextmonth she is organising a memorial ceremony at Dubrovka. Normal people are supporting us, she says proudly. The Government doesnt understand. Theyare rich, they dont understand us poor. Dubrovka wasnt an operation to save hostages. Itwas an operation to save the reputation of the state. Manypeople dont realise that the state is actively keeping secrets. Youhave to understand that when you lose your family and nobody says anything, you want to die. Alot of people just wanted to die. Theygot no support, nothing.

Under her arm Karpova carries a lever arch file with the medical histories of 34former hostages: 14of them are now categorised as invalids. Shecant know everything, she says. Ofcourse there are people who wanted to put the past behind them. Andshe doesnt know for sure if theres a correlation between that gas and whats happened to these invalids, but theyre sick nonetheless, with kidney problems and memory loss. Karpova has obtained 117of the official post-mortem reports: 68of these contain the phrase No medical help given. Another 12of the survivors have totally or partially lost their hearing. Why?

The attendants seized the dead body by its hands and legs and carried it to a special room. Isaw how this young woman, thought to be dead, waggled her head. Shes alive! said a male nurse, crossing himself.

Yuri Snegiryov

A day later, in another run-down Moscow café, Alexander Shalmov turns up to meet me. Hewears a pinstripe suit, although since the siege he is practically unemployable. Shulmov miraculously survived the siege with both his son and wife, but he is not well. I do not feel like a father, he says. I feel like a ghost. Perhaps the most terrifying part of what Shalmov has to say is about what he experienced when he first came to after the siege. Histheory is that there were two gases pumped into the building. I remember a strange atmosphere for several hours before we were knocked out, he says. I think we must have been sedated because there was a feeling of nobody being afraid. ThenI remember seeing what looked like dust coming through the air vents. Iremember trying to cover my sons nose and mouth with cloth, nothing more.

Alexander was unconscious for 15hours. Whenhe came to the first thing he saw was a clock on the wall. Hebecame aware of an overwhelming animal terror. Ive been put under general anaesthetic before and Iknow how it feels to come out of that: a sort of joyful feeling and an urge to talk. Thiswas absolutely different. Iwas shaking so hard that Ifelt people holding me so that Iwouldnt fall off the bed. Mybody was shaking so hard that it was impossible for me to even say my own name. Somebody gave me an injection which must have been a sedative because Ibecame unconscious. ButI was so disorientated Icould only just make out human forms. Icouldnt tell whether the person who was giving me the injection was a man or a woman.

Relieved to have survived the ordeal, Shulmov carried on with his life. Three months later began a series of health problems, mostly related to his kidneys and heart. Since the siege he has spent a month in hospital every year. Hisgreatest dilemma is whether to use his dwindling financial resources to pay for a heart operation or to bribe the authorities not to conscript his son. Alexander worries that in the army his son will suffer a nervous breakdown.

In the theatre a group of us had a long conversation. Either way, we thought were going to die, says Shulmov. We knew that we were going to be killed: either by the people inside the theatre, or by the people outside, the Government. OurGovernment would never think about saving a life: everyone, the ordinary people, knows that. TheGovernment has a separate existence.

State security representatives were already waiting for us. Theysaid that if we wanted to bury her quickly and without any problems, we should not ask unnecessary questions. Iagreed. According to protocol, she died in the theatre. Butas we learned later, she died in hospital because she was not given any medical help.

Oleg Zhirov, Nord-Ost

Tomorrow sees the premiere of a play about the siege. Banned from Moscow (as is a film commemorating the events), the play has come to London. Natalia Pelevine wrote In Your Hands after conversations with survivors. Forthe campaigners, one or two of whom will be in the audience in the New End Theatre in Hampstead, this is a huge moment, an acknowledgement of their efforts and perhaps another step towards embarrassing their Government into a proper investigation.

Is it enough? ZoyaChernetsova is not sure. Imet Zoya in Moscow, her face a concentrated frown of grief. Herson Danila had been killed in the siege, three months after his wedding. Sheexplained how her daughter-in-law, pregnant at the time, lost the child; how she met Olga at the graveyard where her son is buried. Thetwo mothers struck up a friendship, a friendship cemented by a determination to uncover the truth.

Zoya says: We dont forget despite our Governments best efforts. TheGovernment has tried to forget the tragedy and whitewash the memory. Ihave waited four years to get this far. Timeis nothing to me: my life is over. Ican wait another ten years, twenty. Iwant to see the Government understand what they have done: they are guilty.

What killed the hostages: the deadly cocktail of gases

If an opiate like fentanyl was used in the theatre its effects would include respiratory depression, which could lead to death. Fatalities occurring at the time, or in the immediate aftermath, were almost definitely caused by the agent used. Acut-off of two to four weeks would be my guess for exposure-related death, unless the patient was in hospital for the whole time.

For the size of space in the theatre it is likely that a similar but more potent opiate than fentanyl could have been used. Again, too much of such a drug would cause a fatal suppression of breathing. Theafter-effects in survivors could include brain damage due to lack of oxygen. Atsmaller doses this might cause intellectual and memory loss, with a mixture of intellectual and motor impairment in severe cases. Ifthere is not a spectrum of these effects, depending on the degree of acute damage, this is very unlikely to be the explanation for the reported impairment of higher brain function.

There are reports of a period of mood change in the audience, preceding the end of the siege. Itseems likely therefore that some attempt at pre-treatment was used. Theagent causing death could have been one of a number of chemicals.

Small pupils are a feature of nerve agent and opiate poisoning, and this may have caused some confusion. Nerve agents kill quickly, and have a clear set of symptoms, such as excess salivation, abdominal cramps and blurred vision.

Professor Nicholas Bateman, director of the National Poisons Informations Service Centre, Edinburgh

What would the SAS have done?

You judge a successful outcome by how many hostages are saved and how few rescue team members are killed. Theproblem is that as soon as a rescue method is successful it becomes famous. Inthe Iranian Embassy siege in May 1980, the SAS had the element of surprise. Itwas amazing for viewers to watch it all live on TV, but when Israeli athletes were taken hostage at the 1972Munich Olympics, the terrorists could see the police operation on TV: bad planning.

Sometimes you have to use force because otherwise everyone will die. Inthe Moscow theatre siege Idoubt if there was much negotiation going on. Inthat scenario you might ask, why dont we set up a mobile hospital for the victims when they emerge? Butit wasnt fully planned.

The great thing about the British forces is that they train for errors, so theyre prepared. Other forces train only for situations where things go according to plan, and that doesnt always work.

Jeffrey Allen

The Risk Advisory Group


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