Ten years ago, Chechen militants took hostage an entire Moscow theatre and its audience in a siege which ended in heavy loss of life, as Russian security forces used gas to knock out the captors.
Svetlana Gubareva, from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, was caught up in the siege along with her daughter Sasha, 13, and her US fiance, Sandy Booker.
She spoke to the BBC World Service about both the terror of the siege and the horror of the aftermath. This is an edited transcript of her words.
“That day I was in a good mood. We had collected our visas from the American embassy, which meant that we would be able to go to America and live happily ever after.
At the beginning of the second part of the play we saw armed men appearing in the theatre. At that time there was a war in Chechnya and everybody was talking about it, so our first thought was that the scriptwriters had decided to write this into the plot.
One of the terrorists went up on stage, fired his gun in the air and announced that we were all being taken hostage.
At first I thought it was a joke. Then I said to myself: “Isn’t it just my luck that on the day I come to Moscow this is where I end up?”
I wasn’t afraid, at first. Then I saw a group of people in the left-hand aisle – men and women. The women were all dressed in black and the men were wearing their best uniforms. The women were carrying grenades and pistols and the men were holding guns.
People in the audience reacted in a different ways. Some remained calm while others panicked. The women hostage-takers offered mild sedatives to those who were panicking.
Sasha thought it was an interesting, unusual situation. Then she got scared – but she still behaved in a really brave way.
The terrorists would fire their weapons every now and then. But they said they didn’t want anybody to get hurt, so they started moving people away from the aisles, into the middle of rows.
There was a bag containing a bomb in the theatre. When it was our turn to be moved, there was no option but to sit very close to this bomb – it was in row nine and we sat down in row 11. But the woman terrorist who was nearby, she said: “Don’t worry – if it goes off, the entire theatre will go sky high.”
Movsar Barayev, the leader of the hostage-takers] sat down on one of the seats right behind us. Everybody turned to him and started asking: “Why us? Why didn’t you take any officials hostage?” And he said: “Because they are very well-protected and secure.”
And then people started saying: “We support your cause!” And he said: “In that case why don’t you protest about the atrocities that are happening in Chechnya? We are suffering there but here you are living a comfortable life and going to the theatre!”
I spoke to several of the hostage-takers over the next few days. One of them was a boy who was probably the same age as my daughter. You could see the fire in his eyes. And Barayev too had this excitement, but later you could see it starting to disappear as they thought “OK, now what?”
They had all these people who needed to eat, who needed to drink, who needed to go to the toilet and they didn’t know what to do with us.
They stole water, juice and food from the theatre cafeteria and they piled it up along the walls. If you wanted to have something you had to raise your hand – and it was the same with going to the toilet. Backstage, there was a room on the right and they just sent everybody there.
When Sasha went to the toilet she was really surprised. She asked “Where is the actual toilet?” Later on, it became impossible to go to that same room because the slime was overflowing. So towards the very end of the siege, they just used the orchestra pit. The smell was terrible, particularly in the first few rows.
“Nobody was brought to account for the deaths of 119 people in hospital after the liberation operation was completed, or the inability of intelligence services to prevent the attack….”
They deliberately killed Olga Romanova, who broke into the theatre from outside. And another two who died from bullets were Denis Gribkov and Pavel Zakharov. Denis Gribkov’s nerves went – it happened not long before the rescue operation started. He ran towards the terrorists with a small glass bottle in his hands. They started shooting and ended up wounding Pavel Zakharov and Tamara Starkova. Pavel Zakharov later died in hospital.
Hope never quite left me. But there were a number of times we were about to get released and it didn’t happen – that really brought me down.
On the third evening, the evening before the rescue operation, we called the American embassy and Barayev told them that he was going to release the three of us at 08:00 the following morning.
To pass the time until then more quickly, we decided to fall asleep as soon as we could. The last time I looked at my watch it was 04:00. Then came the gas and then, coma. They pumped the gas through the air vents and we were sitting right next to one, so we all received a large dose.
On Sunday, the day after the siege, I was lying in a hospital ward, having come out of my coma. In the ward next to mine a man was listening to the radio and I heard Sasha’s name amongst a list of victims.
On Monday morning my sister came to collect me from the hospital so I could attend Sasha’s funeral.
After I was discharged from hospital I called the American embassy to find out what had happened to Sandy. They said that he was also dead, and I was asked to go to the mortuary to identify the body.
In time, I learned that he had not been treated by doctors at all, but was taken straight from the theatre into the mortuary. And later, when we were looking at papers relating the siege, we realised that there were 68 people like this, who did not receive any medical attendance at all.
Svetlana Gubareva profile
- Lives in Kazakhstan and works as an accountant
- Co-founded the Nord-Ost survivors’ association, which was instrumental in suing the Russian government for the way it conducted the rescue attempt
- This year Gubareva and other ex-hostages had their case against the Russian government upheld by the European Court of Human Rights
- Gubareva received 26,400 euros (£21,300; $34,000) in compensation for the loss of her fiance and daughter, and her own injuries
- Her story inspired a book by Edward Topol
- After the siege she corresponded with Barayev’s girlfriend
The ambassador of Kazakhstan himself went to look for my daughter. He found her in the mortuary of Hospital Number One in Moscow. He learned that they had packed people into buses – just piling them up – with up to 32 people in one bus. My daughter had been at the bottom of a pile like that. So even if she had been lucky enough to survive the gas attack, there was just no way she could have survived that journey.
What do I think of the hostage-takers? I think they are criminals. No matter how bad your problems are you can’t try to resolve them at a cost of other people’s lives.
But if you take Barayev, he was not much older than 20 and at the time of the first Chechen war he was only 12 years old. So during the time of war his understanding of what was right and what was wrong had become completely mixed up.
And those women as well – their entire families had been killed. In their place I would probably have done the same.
For me, they are less guilty than the Russian authorities. They didn’t pump the gas in. And just think about how Sasha died – all those indifferent people, piling three dozen people on top of my daughter’s body.
Representatives of the Kazakh authorities came to me to ask for forgiveness but nobody from the Russian authorities has ever come.
Putin made a speech to say sorry to his fellow citizens but he didn’t say sorry to me. I am nothing to them.
How can I forgive this?
In the documentary below, the mother of one of the female hostage takers speaks of circumstances that lead to her daughter taking part in the theater assault (minute 21:40)