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Bitter Tears Fall for Lost Hostages

Family members of the missing lose hope and fill with anger over the rescue and 'coverup.'

October 28, 2002|Robyn Dixon and John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — They came looking for their loved ones with photographs in their hands and tears in their eyes.

For many people who had not found their relatives after commandos stormed the House of Culture theater in Moscow early the day before, Sunday was cold, sodden and hopeless.

They had been summoned to a "vigil center" set up in a school, where they anxiously scanned lists put up on a wall.

But the lists contained only 568 names, while Moscow health authorities said 646 people were hospitalized.

Those who could not find the names they were looking for were assuming the worst, many bitterly blaming the authorities for a rescue operation they saw as cruelly botched.

The mood was anxious, quiet, sorrowful. One woman clutched an old photograph of her mother in a bathing costume, standing in the surf at a seaside resort. Others held faded military photos of men in uniform. Some brought personal documents, and others had simply scrawled out descriptions of their loved ones on note paper.

Pavel Sinelnikov, 21, had just graduated from medical school. Survivors who knew him described him giving first aid to hostages in the theater during the siege.

His father's heart nearly burst with pride at the account friends gave of his son acting like a professional amid the terror.

"My eyes welled with tears when I pictured Pasha walking among bearded and masked terrorists and doing his job," said Sergei Sinelnikov, 55, a burly man with salt and pepper hair who had not found Pavel by Sunday. "He behaved like a real man and did not forget about his professional duties even in such a horrible situation.

"I have a very bad feeling about it. In fact, I am pretty sure now that we have lost our son forever," said Sinelnikov, who was unshaven, with red-ringed eyes, and looked exhausted.

His face collapsed, and tears flowed as he struggled to contain his fear and grief.

"We did not lose hope until today," he said. Like many relatives, he was furious at what he saw as lies or evasions by the authorities about the gas used in the storming and the apparent attempt to cover up what he saw as a bungled undertaking.

"The authorities' main concern is to hide and cover up all mistakes that were made during the storming operation," he said, angrily criticizing the use of a gas that apparently killed so many hostages.

At night, he and his wife cannot sleep, Sinelnikov said.

"We just sit down on the edge of the bed, hold Pasha's photo in our hands, stroke it and silently cry," he said, weeping.

"And the authorities do not see the death of my son as a tragedy. To them, it is only collateral damage. It is twice as horrible to realize that Pavel was killed in downtown, in peacetime, while watching a musical."

Sinelnikov's anger and frustration reflected the feelings of many others at the vigil center.

Liana Usvaliyeva, 41, with mournful circles under her eyes, had not found her 19-year-old daughter, Yevgenia, known as Zhenya.

"I am afraid that the most horrible thing could have happened and Zhenya is dead. I do not know where to turn now and whom to ask to help me find my daughter," she said.

"The authorities lie to us about everything. First they lied to us that they would not storm the theater, then they lied about the negotiations, and now they are lying about the gas and the number of victims. So, how can we trust them?

"What was the point in the storming operation if the hostages are free but they continue to die in packs after they used this strange gas on them?

"They call the operation unique and successful. They say that they used some original Russian know-how. But it all sounds like a very bad joke. It only corroborates the popular belief that everything is screwed up in Russia," she said.

Although relatives of those missing saw the rescue operation as a failure, many other Russians felt there was no alternative but to storm the theater and use an incapacitating agent to prevent terrorists from triggering explosions that could have killed many more people.

Leonid Roshal, a pediatrician who helped deliver water and medicine to the hostages and give first aid, said that in hostage release operations, 20% are often sacrificed to save 80%.

"There is always a moral problem in defining the maximum acceptable number of victims in any forcible operation beyond which the operation stops being a rescue and turns into slaughter," Roshal said. "In any case, the mothers of those who died will never be able to accept the deaths of their children, even if this death was justified by the fact that hundreds of people lived."

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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