A survivor tells her story
Elena Yaroshuk from Ukraine became the most famous woman in her town last Tuesday, when she returned home from Moscow. Elena was one of the hostages of the Nord Ost musical in Moscow. A special flight took Elena and several other former hostages to Ukraine's capital Kiev. Here is the story that Elena told journalists:
“I went to Moscow to see my brother Vasily. He gave me a very good tour of the city. We were going to visit a circus and the Bolshoi Theatre, but we also decided to go to see the Nord Ost musical. It was very hard to get the tickets, but we finally did it. Vasily went to see the show with me.
“The first act was just perfect. The second one opened with the dancing of military pilots. All of a sudden, I saw a man in the left-hand corner of the stage. He was wearing khaki military uniform. At first, I thought that it was a part of the show, but then we saw men like that in the stalls and on the balcony. The show stopped and the man on stage said out loud: “Do you know that the war in Chechnya has been going on for four years already? We demand the Russian government withdraw its troops from Chechnya. You are going to be our hostages until our requirements are executed!” They used the Chechen language to talk with each other, but they spoke Russian to us. They told all foreigners to stand up and go on stage. I had my Ukrainian passport with me, but I was so worried about my only brother, so I decided to stay sitting. It seemed to me that the mess with the hostage-taking would last for two hours maximum.
“Later, they separated males from females and started checking men’s IDs. They were probably looking for military men. Aslan, one of the terrorists, was very happy to find a police officer among the hostages. He yelled out that it was his dream to take a police officer captive. The terrorists allowed us to use our cell phones to call our relatives and let them know about what happened. I was very surprised to listen to what some of the hostages were telling their relatives. They were telling them their bank account numbers, where they could get their money, and so on. They were talking about their wills and children. People were getting ready to die.
“We got acquainted with the people who were sitting next to us. A bit later, the terrorists allowed us to go to the bathroom. In the morning they ordered all foreigners to gather in a separate group. The majority of the foreigners were Ukrainians. They put us in the front row and ordered us to wait. We were waiting until Saturday.
“The terrorists did not allow us to walk around the hall. We could rest on the dismantled armchairs. We also used the parts of the chairs as shields when they were firing their guns. They were really angry about it: they told us to sit quiet; they said they were not going to kill us. They probably fired their guns to frighten people who were doing something outside. If they heard a suspicious noise, they opened fire immediately.
“Both we and they were afraid of the siege. Their women were standing around the hall, wearing those bomb belts. They told us that they had mined the entire hall. There was a big bomb in front of us, in the center of the hall. A Chechen woman was sitting next to it. The terrorists told us that there was another bomb like that on the first story. They said that the whole building was full of them.
“The people were basically quiet, and there was no panic. There was a group of schoolchildren near me. Their teacher was taking great care of them, asking for pills and warm clothes. She was a brave woman, and she knew that she was making the terrorists mad. They ordered her to sit down and shut up several times, but she just did not care.
“Soon, it was reported over the radio that everybody in the country knew about what was happening inside the music theatre. The terrorists started searching us. They made us give them our radios, phones, cassette and disk players.
“The children were doing just fine. They did not understand what was going on. They were just playing and having as much fun as possible. Only the gunshots frightened them. The Chechens were not treating us badly. They only thing that they asked us to do was to be quiet. One of the terrorists even found a pen for a little girl to draw with.
“The cafe inside the music theatre was the source of our food. The terrorists brought food from there and the adults gave it all to the children. When the mineral water was finished, we filled the bottles with water from the bathroom taps. When Red Cross representatives brought some food and water to us, the terrorists only took water. The Chechens said that they vowed not to eat or drink anything during the crisis, but I personally saw them eating and drinking. The Chechens became irritated about every little thing. They hated it when men and women were trying to hug or kiss each other. They also hated the short skirts that some of the girls were wearing. We listened to the radio and there was even a TV set in the hall, so we knew everything that was going on outside the theatre. It was very sad for all of us to hear that the terrorists’ requirements could not be fulfilled. The Chechens were laughing at us, and they were telling us that nobody needed us. When I returned home, I learned that the hostages took terrorists’ side on some occasions. It probably happened with us for a moment as well. The Chechen women said that they came to die, to take revenge for their husbands and children that were killed in the Chechen war. They said that they had nothing to lose in their lives. However, it seemed that male terrorists intended to leave alive.
“The first hostage they killed was a 25-year-old girl. She started insulting the terrorists, so they just took her out of the hall and shot her dead. The Chechens started running around the hall. We even thought that the siege started. I think that all the people in the hall were heroes. Everybody was trying to help each other. There was only one doctor among the hostages. She was doing her best to help all of us. There was a female terrorist who gave pills and towels to women. She never refused to help anyone. When it became cold in the hall, the Chechens ordered the men to take off their jackets and give them to women. A terrorist, whose name was Aslan, was in charge of the situation in the dress circle. We considered him the most humane terrorist. We talked to him about our problems, if we had any. However, could any of them be humane if they were standing next to a big bomb that they could blow up any moment?
“At about three o’clock in the morning, we found out that Viktor Kazantsev, the president’s aid in Russia’s south, was going to come to negotiate with the Chechens. The terrorists rejoiced. They told us that they would set us all free in the morning if the talks were successful. I was terribly tired. My brother gave me his sweater and jacket, and I put them on my chair and buried my face in the clothes. The clothes probably saved me from gas poisoning. The people who did not fall asleep said that they could hear explosions and gunshots. Then, there was the gas. The woman who was with me in the hospital remembered that one of the female terrorists was ordered to blew up her belt bomb. She did not have enough time to do that, because the gas knocked her out. I did not see anything. I fell asleep and recovered only at the hospital.
“The doctors would not let anyone come to see us. The first person I saw in my ward was Boris Sotnikov, a representative of the Ukrainian embassy. We had very good doctors there. They took great care of us, as if we were kids. I have to say that the people, who survived that hell did not give way to despair. We were talking and joking all the time. While listening to the radio, I learned that the Austrian woman who was sitting next to me during the show died. She was a very sociable woman with a very good sense of humor. She came to Moscow for an exhibition show to present her company’s products.
“When they checked me out of the hospital, they sent me to the embassy hotel. I was waiting for my plane there to leave for Kiev. My brother Vasily is ok now. He just caught a cold, because the rescuers put him on the ground when they were taking the hostages out of the music theatre.”
Translated by Dmitry Sudakov