Moscow Theater Siege Survivors Are Haunted Two Decades Later

Photos by Yuri Kadobnov. Video by stringer

Twenty years after Chechen separatists seized a crowded theater in Moscow, sparking a hostage crisis that ended in more than a hundred deaths, survivors are haunted by memories and plagued by unanswered questions.

On October 23, 2002, as the Second Chechen War raged in southern Russia, armed militants burst into Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater during a sold-out performance of the musical “Nord-Ost.”

Demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic in the North Caucasus, the attackers held 900 people for three nights until Russian forces stormed the theater in the early hours of October 26, 2002.

Two decades later, Svetlana Gubareva, 65, can’t stop thinking about the ordeal that turned out to be her last outing with her 13-year-old daughter Sasha and her American fiancé Sandy Alan Booker.

“Sandy understood better than me what was happening and told us to lie on the ground between the rows of seats,” she told AFP, recounting the moment when the armed men rushed on stage.

She had met Booker, a 49-year-old engineer from Oklahoma, on a dating site and that day they were celebrating after she submitted her US visa application to the embassy.

They had bought the last three tickets to see the show.

It all started at the start of the second act as the audience waited for a highly anticipated performance moment that would see a large propeller plane landing on stage.

Special forces dispersed an unknown gas into the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow to knock out Chechen militants and hostages, before storming the building

Alexander NEMENOV

Instead, masked men in camouflage gear burst onto the scene.

“A lot of people sitting near me thought it was some kind of artistic decision or part of the show,” she said.

“They didn’t believe it was a takeover – until one of the Chechens fired a flurry of bullets at the ceiling.”

There followed a 57-hour siege that Gubareva constantly relives: hundreds of hostages paralyzed with fear; activists wearing belts with explosives; the stench of the orchestra pit used as a toilet.

Along with Booker, Gubareva and her daughter – both citizens of Kazakhstan – were part of a group of foreigners whom activists promised to release after several embassies intervened.

On the last night of the takeover, the three fell asleep thinking about their promised release at 8:00 a.m. the next day.

But in the early hours of October 26, Russian forces dispersed an unknown gas into the ventilation systems, knocking out both hostages and attackers before storming the building.

Svetlana Gubareva, a survivor of the Moscow theater hostage siege, lost her daughter Sasha and her American fiancé Sandy Alan Booker in the attack 20 years ago.


In the end, 125 people, including 10 children, were dead and five other people were executed by the attackers.

Gubareva woke up in a hospital hours later to hear on the radio that her daughter and her fiancé were among the dead.

“For me, it was all over,” she told AFP.

The three-day horror was a national tragedy and sparked a moment of realization in Russia with questions that still plague some of the survivors.

Why were so many people killed? Why did the doctors run out of an antidote? Why were the ambulances stuck in traffic?

And these are matters for which the Russian authorities have never been held accountable. In 2007, investigators launched a years-long investigation into the tragedy.

Russian courts have also repeatedly dismissed complaints the families filed with the European Court of Human Rights in 2011, urging Moscow to hold accountable those responsible for the deaths.

“We will not be able to avoid attacks in the future if we do not investigate those of the past,” Dmitri Milovidov, head of an association of victims’ families called “Nord-Ost”, told AFP.

Now 59, Milovidov lost his 14-year-old daughter in the attack.

On Monday, the Kremlin acknowledged the “pain” associated with the loss felt by the Russians after repeated attacks.

“We have learned a lot in the fight against terrorism, and of course we will always remember those who died as a result of these attacks, including in the northeast,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry said. Peskov.

Kremlin on 20th anniversary of takeover acknowledges ‘pain’ associated with loss felt by Russians after repeated terror attacks

Alexander NEMENOV

But two years after the Dubrovka Theater siege, Chechen separatists again staged a hostage crisis, taking more than a thousand people hostage at a school in Beslan, a town in the Caucasus republic of South Ossetia. North.

This tragedy – on the first day of the school year – left 330 people dead, including 186 children, as Russian forces were criticized for their disorderly assault on the building.

“By forgetting our mistakes, we make them again,” said Irina Khramtsova, a 39-year-old businesswoman who lost her father in the Dubrovka Theater bombing.

“Until the authorities learn to correct their mistakes, these attacks will happen again. And it’s my worst nightmare.

Comments are closed.