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Woman Recounts Release From Chechen Rebels' Grip

Olga Treiman was allowed to leave Moscow theater because she is pregnant. 'How I wish they would stop this war forever,' she says.

October 25, 2002|Sergei L. Loiko and John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — In the hours since Chechen fighters took over a Moscow theater where about 700 people were watching a production of the musical romance "Nord-Ost," only a few dozen people have been fortunate enough to flee or be released from the guerrillas' terrifying grip.

If the Wednesday night takeover of the theater had happened five days later, Olga Treiman would not have been there. The 18-year-old is so far along in her pregnancy -- barely a month from her delivery date -- that she felt she could no longer work behind the refreshment counter that serves champagne and chocolate before the opening curtain and at intermission.

The crowd of theater-goers had just gone back inside the auditorium for Act 2 of the musical, and Treiman wearily hauled herself to the bathroom situated just off the lobby.

"It was one of my last nights at work. I was planning to go into a maternity home on Monday," she said Thursday after she was reunited with her husband and mother. "When the shooting began, I was in the toilet."

Alarmed, she stuck her head out the door just quickly enough to spy armed men running about "shouting in a tongue I did not understand." At that, she locked herself inside the bathroom and started to pray.

"It helped me for about two hours, which seemed like eternity," she said. But "at that point, someone came to the door and tried to open it, and then went away. Then someone came again and started to bang on the door with a hard object -- probably a gun....

"He shouted, 'Open up! Or I will break the door!'

"I tried to get off the toilet seat, but I could not bring myself to do it. I literally could not stir. Fear paralyzed me completely."

For a few agonizing minutes she just sat there, listening to the door gradually coming loose and the latch breaking.

"Finally, he broke the door in and came in slowly, gun first. The only thing I could whisper was, 'Don't shoot. I am pregnant.' "

She described her abductor as a tall young man wearing a black mask that exposed his face only above the nose. But he spoke to her softly: "Come with me. Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you."

She was led into the performing hall, where many people were gathered in the level called the "dress circle" and more were below on the main floor.

There was a huge crowd of captives, she said. "Mostly they were young adults, but I saw a lot of children too. My guard pointed to a seat and I obediently slumped into it. I sat for what seemed like several hours, looking about."

She said she did not see the guerrillas beating anyone but observed two hostages with blood on them.

"One had his shoulder bandaged with a cloth, with dark blood seeping through it, and had a bloodied face. The Chechens were walking around, mostly talking to each other in their own language."

She said some captors were sitting on the stage where the play had been performed, but most of them were just wandering around. In the auditorium itself, she counted 12 men and six women among the rebels, who are demanding an end to Russia's war on separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya.

"Lemon-shaped grenades were hanging from their camouflage jackets, and the women had oblong plastic bags tied about their waists. You could see through and see something inside that looked like gray metal objects, many of them, in the bags," she said. "When someone asked one of the women what it was, she said simply, 'Explosives.' "

The mood among the captives was one of barely suppressed panic.

"Many people were on the verge of a nervous breakdown," Treiman said. "And it was very stuffy. Some people would be led to the windows so they could breathe some fresh air. They also would lead people to toilets and wait for them by the door."

During this time, she heard from fellow hostages that the guerrillas had freed two pregnant women earlier.

"I decided that this was my chance; now or never," she recalled. "I called to my guard and told him that I felt my water breaking, that I might give birth right there and then. My guard shouted to another in Chechen, and then he turned to me and said, 'Let's go.' "

Before releasing her, he gave a speech, intending her to repeat it to the outside world. He gave his name as Aslan and told her: "My people are being killed by the dozens every day in Chechnya.

"We know we are not going back; we will die here," he added. "But we will die with all these hostages -- if they don't stop the killing in Chechnya and pull the troops out."

If they do, he continued, "We will free them -- all of them. If not, then we will all die together. Remember this and tell them," he instructed her.

Then Aslan led her to a door and slowly cracked it open.

"He told me to raise my arms over my head and keep waving them and walk slowly, so they [the police] would not shoot me," Treiman said.

"It felt very, very eerie walking 200 yards along a totally deserted street with my hands over my head and my big belly bulging out. The Chechens had not let me take my coat or bag.

"I know it must have been very cold, but I could not feel it because I was so happy."

After she was safe, however, she began to fear for a co-worker who is still captive.

"How I wish they would stop this war forever," she said. "Or else the killing will never stop."

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