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Theatergoers Sat With Fear for Three Days of Hostage Crisis

Survivors recount ordeal at the hands of Chechen captors and the police raid that freed them. One woman was just rows from a bomb.

October 28, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — For Anna Artyomova, one of more than 750 hostages held for three days in a Moscow theater, a terrible moment came when terrorists planted a large bomb just three rows in front of her.

But it was not the worst experience.

That came after the hostages' Chechen captors announced Wednesday, the first day of the siege, that children would be allowed to leave, and she realized she must be separated from her 11-year-old daughter, Anastasia.

"I understood that was maybe the only chance to save her life. But my heart was literally breaking when I saw her being led away, looking at me over her little shoulder with tears in her eyes," Artyomova recalled Sunday after her own release from a Moscow hospital.

"This picture lodged in my head and in my heart, and I tried to push away the insistent thought that it would be the last I would see of my daughter," she said.

Near her in the theater, a couple in their 60s had their granddaughter, aged about 11, with them. They agonized, but when the time came to release children, they did not send the girl out.

"This old woman would not let go of the child. She said: 'What will I tell my son if something happens to her? No, I can't let her go.' So they sat there, all three, embracing each other all the time."

On Sunday, the fate of the child and the couple could not be ascertained, although authorities reported the youngest casualty of the rescue operation that ended the siege early Saturday was a 13-year-old girl.

At least 60 hostages were released from Moscow hospitals Sunday after treatment necessitated by authorities' use of a gas to knock out both the terrorists and their captives before the rescue operation.

Hostages who endured the three-day ordeal recalled the growing edginess of the terrorists as the siege wore on. They described their fear that they would all die if Russian troops tried to storm the building.

For most, the last thing they recalled was the smell of the gas before they regained consciousness in the hospital. Some described the effects of the gas: feelings of floating or slow motion, distorted hearing, weakness in the limbs and an inability to move.

Artyomova said the fact that her daughter was safe was her only comfort during the siege. She was sure that she would die after terrorists placed the bomb so close to her.

"I sat there and watched that bomb all day, and I could not take my eyes off it. There was my death sitting right in front of me, and that was how it looked. I just sat there and couldn't think of anything else," she recalled.

Thursday night, the second of the crisis, Artyomova said, hostages could clearly hear footsteps on the roof of the theater, as though someone was running.

"All the Chechens jumped up, pointed their guns at the ceiling and ordered us to lie down on the floor. I thought that the assault was beginning and we should prepare for the worst. It was very scary," she said.

Alexandra Smyk, 22, said all the hostages were praying for a peaceful solution to the crisis.

"I was very afraid of the storming. I thought it would definitely kill us all. But as the days dragged by, everyone grew tired and edgy, both hostages and terrorists," she said.

"It was getting more and more tense, and I thought the situation could get out of hand at any time."

Smyk said that at one point, one of the female Chechens fell asleep in her seat and dropped her pistol with a thud.

"It gave us a real shock. She could have pushed some button in the explosive bag around her waist in the same way, and that would have detonated all the other explosives around us and we would have been blown to pieces before we knew what had happened."

On the last day, Artyomova said, the leader of the terrorists, Movsar Barayev, told the hostages that they would all be killed unless Russian President Vladimir V. Putin sent his envoy, Viktor Kazantsev, to negotiate a withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

"Barayev said, 'If Kazantsev doesn't come by 11 a.m. tomorrow and no deal is made, we will begin to slaughter you and throw your heads out.' It was a horrible moment," she said.

"Another terrible moment happened when a man who was sitting not far from the bomb jumped up and threw a glass bottle at a Chechen woman and began running toward her like mad.

"Somebody shot at him and he fell, but he was not hit. Another man was shot in the eye, and a woman. The man probably died immediately, but the woman was screaming and moaning. She was sitting with her husband and daughter and they were screaming: 'You killed her! She is dying! She needs help!'

"Then some male hostages carried them out of the auditorium escorted by Chechens with guns ready." Both shooting victims died.

As the tension built and the siege entered a third day, some hostages, like Smyk, began longing for a storming operation, although they had dreaded one earlier.

"I was so sick of it at the end that I was ready for the storming," she said. "I just couldn't stand the uncertainty any longer."

At the end, as the smell of gas reached those in the theater, the hostages said, the Chechen gunmen grabbed masks or pieces of clothing to cover their faces and rushed toward doors leading out to a corridor.

"I remember how somebody, I think it was a Chechen on the stage, screamed out, 'Gas!' " said another hostage, Anna Guseva, 27, who fell to the floor but felt little effect from the gas.

"There was some shooting, then silence. Then I stood up."

She crawled toward the stage, where confiscated mobile phones had been collected, so she could call her family. But she felt too weak, and then a soldier helped her out of the hall.

Hostages interviewed by The Times had not learned what gas was used in the operation, nor did they have any idea of what injections were administered as antidotes.

"They never told me what kind of gas it was," Smyk said. "But I never really asked -- I was so happy to be alive."

*

Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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