Unsolved mystery of Moscow theatre siege

Ten years on from event still shrouded in mystery, Russia’s authorities believe there are no more questions to answer.

Nikolay Lyubimov speaks with the thoughtful calm of a man who’s been granted ten more years of life than he should have had.

“They shot the sleeping Chechens,” he says, “but I think they should have left them alive to prosecute”.

It is not the expression of trauma and vengefulness I was expecting from someone who experienced the horror of Nord-Ost first hand.

Now 81, he was working as a security guard at a Moscow theatre a decade ago, when Chechen fighters burst in, and took nearly everyone in the building hostage. At least 850 people.

From the auditorium seat the Chechens had forced him to take, Nikolay watched. And waited.

“They were frightening us – shooting from time to time to maintain silence. I was 71 then, so I thought, “Why am I hiding from them?’ So I stopped hiding”.

As negotiations between Russian security forces and the fighters started and then ground to a halt, the siege dragged on.

But secret plans were being drawn up by the special forces that would have drastic consequences for many of the people sitting, terrified, in the theatre hall.

A gas, the identity of which still hasn’t been officially released, was pumped through the building’s ventilation system.

Nikolay says no one remembers the moment of the assault.

“I sensed a sweet smell in my nose. I told people around me that it is probably gas, but they said it couldn’t be. I started coughing, and heard that in other parts of the room they started coughing too. That is the last thing I remember,” he said.

When the special forces stormed the theatre, the eery sight of hundreds of unconscious hostages and their captors greeted them. They went from Chechen to Chechen, methodically shooting each one in the head.

So far, so brutally effective. But after that things started to go wrong.

Vomiting and unconscious hostages were carried outside, and dumped on the cold pavement. There were not enough ambulances at the ready. The authorities wouldn’t tell medics what the gas was that had knocked everyone out. Motionless bodies were stacked on top of each other in buses with no one checking whether they were alive or dead. The drivers did not know the way to the nearest hospitals.

130 hostages died – but it’s thought only ten, or fewer, of those deaths were at the hands of the Chechen fighters. The rest were put to sleep by the gas, and never woke up. Many suffocated – choking on vomit or their tongues.

Nikolay was almost one of them. While unconscious in hospital he had a strange experience.

“I felt like I was in a tunnel, I was flying and praying. But I realised I couldn’t die because my wife would not make it. I woke up in my body.”

Dmitry Milovidov’s two daughters were at the theatre watching the Nord-Ost musical. The younger one was released by the Chechens early in the crisis. But her older sister was kept captive, and didn’t survive the rescue operation.

Dmitry has campaigned ever since for a full investigation into why so many hostages died. It is a campaign that has the full support of the European Union.

“We demand that the Russian government fulfils the decision from the Human Rights court”, Dmitry told me.

“The verdict was stated on December, 20, 2011, and this year on June 3, it came into force. The decision says the Russian government should conduct a proper investigation into people’s deaths at the Nord-Ost siege.”

It also ordered Russia to pay $1.6m to 64 claimants, including survivors and the relatives of dead hostages.

But Europe’s pronouncements carry little weight with the Russian government, and there’s no sign that its investigative committee is going to reopen the inquiry.

Ten years on from event still swirling in confusion and pain, Russia’s authorities believe there are no more questions to answer.

Follow Rory Challands on Twitter: @rorychallandsAJ

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