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Victory at the cost of 130lives
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, 23 2007

ImageExactly five years ago in Moscow, Chechen terrorists seized the theatrical center on Dubrovka. Theytook hostage 900spectators, who had come to see the musical ‘Nord-Ost’. After three days, the first act of a terrible tragedy played out, claiming the lives of 130innocent hostages, as well as the 40bandits. Weremember those dramatic days together with writer Eduard Topol, author of the documentary book ‘A Novel about Love and Terror, or Two at Nord-Ost’.
- Edward, why did you, a famous master of the detective genre, suddenly take up nonfiction?

Back during those slushy Moscow days when the tragedy was being played out on Dubrovka, Iwas home sick with the flu, and Iwas lying around with a fever and watching TV, and on every channel this scary news was being broadcast around the clock. Bythe second day Irealized that Imust write about this drama, but not some artistic love affair with an invented story line, but in the documentary genre, with which Iam acquainted since Istarted out as a journalist and was a special correspondent for ‘Komsomolskaya Pravda’ and ‘Literaturnaya Gazeta’.

As soon as the hostages were released, Iwent to Hospital No. 13, where they reportedly brought the bulk of the victims. Their relatives were thronging at the hospital gates, as well as hundreds of reporters, photographers, and television cameramen, who standing guard, waiting to interview the victims. Anicy wind blew, and rain mixed with snow was falling. Theformer hostages left the hospital, like orphans, blinking guiltily from the flashbulbs. Justthen Ithought that they should have been met with flowers, like conquering heroes. There should have been some generous flower shops willing to provide this kind act. Chocolate factories, fruit stores, and supermarkets should have gotten involved Imade an agreement with my publisher and brought hundreds of new books to the hospital, and got the head physician to pass these out. This, of course, was but a drop in the bucket. Butstill

Are people are more generous in similar cases in other countries?

Iremember in America, where Ilive six months out of the year, how it was during the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. Howit rallied the nation. During the early days volunteers donated so much blood that the medics went on TV to ask them to stop, all storage was already full. During the course of a month an assistance fund for the victims received private donations of one billion dollars. Thewhole country was seized by a strong sense of empathy. Nothing like this was observed in Russia, alas.

How did you start to gather material for this future book?

ImageAt the hospital gate Imet with former hostage Svetlana Gubareva, an engineer from Karaganda, who lost in this terrible tragedy her 12-year-old daughter and her American fiancé, Sandy Booker. Their love story became the basis of the plot of the book. Itook Svetlana to a restaurant, though after intensive care she could take nothing but broth, and there she told me a typical tale of Russian bureaucracy. Valentina Matvienko, who back then working for the government in the social sphere, promised that all victims of ‘Nord-Ost’ would receive free treatment at health resorts, but when Svetlana called the telephone number she was told that it only applied to Moscow residents. “If you end up dying there, then sending you home to Karaganda in a coffin would be too costly for the Treasury,” a heartless bureaucrat told her.

When she told me this, my high blood pressure sent the blood rushing to my head, and angrily Icalled up Matvienko with whom Ihad a nodding acquaintance. Shewas on a business trip, but a half hour later the bureaucrat, who did not love people from outside Moscow, called back proposing to issue Svetlana a pass to any resort in Russia, if only Iwould hush up the story. Butfirst, though, he shouted at me, how dare Icomplain to him, but, in general, it all ended happily, and Svetlana went to a rehabilitation center in Chernogolovka, where dozens of other victims were being treated. Imet a lot of them there.

Did any of the hostages get ‘Stockholm syndrome’, in which they felt sorry for their tormentors?

While they were sitting at gunpoint at Dubrovka and listening to the female suicide bombers tell about the war in Chechnya and the death of their relatives, some of the hostages felt sorry for these destitute women. After the hostages finally went through all this hell with their release and found that one in five of them did not survive, however, there was no sympathy for the terrorists anymore.

So only hate remained?

They felt great fatigue, emotional devastation, and a sense of irreparable grief, since so many of them lost their loved ones, and only through some miracle did they themselves manage to survive. These people took every moment of life, every breath of air, to be sort of a miracle. Theysimply had no more strength left to hate.

Did any of the commandos who stormed Dubrovka willingly get in touch with the writer?

In the early days, when the exact number of deaths was still not known, Iwas invited to one very respected institution, and they said that the Russian government had requested that a book be written about this brilliantly planned operation, later to be made into a movie. Theysaid that Ihad been entrusted with the creation of this product. Ireplied that Iwas already working on it, and that it would be great if they could help me with some documents. Iwas promised cooperation at the highest levels, and access to all of the investigative materials. Justas soon as it became known 130people were killed and it all turned into a terrible melodrama, however, my senior ‘curators’ proved powerless, and, conversely, there was a blockade on information. Itturned out that there were some readers of my books among the real participants of the assault, the ‘Alfa’ commandos. Theyagreed to meet with me on a condition of anonymity: Idid not know their names or ranks. Their documentary evidence was included in the book.

In your opinion, would it have been possible to avoid so many casualties?

The book cited findings by the SPS public commission of inquiry led by Boris Nemtsov, on which worked experts, rescue workers, doctors, and representatives from the intelligence agencies. Fromthis document it was shown that most of the hostages died because they did not receive properly administered first aid. Toavoid warning the terrorists of an impending gas attack, doctors were not informed in advance that a soporific gas would be used, and so they did not know how to bring the unconscious people back to life. Ina rush, the victims were dragged from the auditorium and dumped in piles of five or six in ambulances, which, incidentally, were catastrophically lacking. Theycould not drive to the scene because heavy trucks blocked all the roads. Manysimply did not make it to the hospital: they died in route, or suffocated because they were lying on their backs with their tongue blocking their airway. Parallel to this story of self-sacrificing heroism on the part of the security services and the physicians, was one of a purely Russian muddle. Oneexpert said as much: “People died, not because the gas was something horrible or disgusting, but because of an elementary inability to figure things out.”

You describe the stories of several amorous couples. Didthey agree to appear in the book under their real names?

Everything, in everyway, is true to the topic in the novel, and every character bears their own name: Leonid Roshal, Yuri Luzhkov, Joseph Kobzon, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Georgiy Vasilyev, Aslambek Aslakhanov, Sergei Tsoy, Nikolai Patrushev, and many others. ThusI deprived myself of the right to speculate or write fiction, but there were several scenes in which Ihad to change the names. Forexample, in the story about the ‘love triangle’, one was killed and the other two became reconciled to his death, but all the other former hostages agreed to remain in the novel under their names. Howare their personal lives now? Atthe time when they were confessing what they experienced in the auditorium at 'Nord-Ost', they were all together and gently holding hands. Ido not wish to lie about a happy ending, however. Idid not keep track of their later destinies.

You know, Ispent seven months collecting materials, running through the revelations of hundreds of people, recollections that froze the blood in my veins. Itis not easy to live with this. Together with Svetlana, we wrote everything out on huge sheets of poster board, all 57hours of the tragedy. Ateach moment we had testimony and every possible publication on what happened inside the theatrical center on Dubrovka, and what was happening on the outside in the hostage rescue headquarters and in the Kremlin. Then, for another three months, Itransformed this chronograph into the form of a novel. Ithink that this will suffice. Hopefully Iwill never again have to go through this, or, God forbid, participate in it.

Did any families of the destroyed terrorists come to see you?

None of the relatives ‘from the other side’ spoke with me. There was only a brief email correspondence with the last lover of bandit leader Movsar Barayev. Thiswas a Russian college student. Shesaid she recognized Movsar from the various television reports and called him up on the cell phone and hysterically begged him to release everyone. Shecomplained that she could not mourn or bury her beloved, as the authorities would not give anyone the bodies of the terrorists. Sheended up in a hospital with a nervous breakdown, and so our contact was broken.

A few days ago it was reported that the ‘Beslan Mothers’ organization had filed a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, in hopes that they will condemn the Russian government, which during the hostage crisis in the school in Beslan in September of 2004allegedly did not make sufficient effort to save its citizens. Obviously, claims for compensation will follow, but why do the ‘Nor’easters’ not exhibit such activity?

‘Nord-Ost’ former hostages received from government financial aid of 50to 100thousand rubles. Iwas at the first hearing, where the victims demanded more substantial compensation. Their lawyer, Igor Trunov, told me that they have the right to appeal to Strasburg only after their case has been denied by every Russian entity.

People choose a government so that it will protect them, and if the circumstances are unfavorable then government should help, not dismiss them with: “Did you survive? Well, go and live as well as you can with your wounds.” Iremember an old woman spoke in court. Shetold how, as a result of the assault on ‘Nord-Ost’, her son, the breadwinner, had died, and now she had two underage grandchildren on her hands. “How do Ifeed them? Helpme, at least award some kid of a pension,” she begged. So, why can these problems not be decided in some humane manner? Ifthe Russian state was impoverished, than that is but one issue, but if it has these huge foreign exchange reserves, then Ibelieve that we have a sacred duty to help the people who have suffered.

You would not know, by the way, how much compensation do people in the developed countries receive in such situations?

Allow me to once again recall the September 11th tragedy in New York, where my brother was among the victims. Hewas near the collapsed towers of the World Trade Center and breathed the cement dust. Mybrother was given health insurance for life. Inaddition, the U.S. government allocated from its budget one billion dollars to help the victims of the terrorist act, and everyone eventually got a large amount. Itis true, though, that America also has a big bureaucracy and a lot of red tape, and so for months people could not get their money. Still, these obstacles are surmountable and this is why Americans in the face of global catastrophes feel more or less secure and proud of their country. Whydoes Russia not learn from this experience?

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