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Russia: Nord-Ost Relatives Turn To Each Other For Comfort, But Still Seek Answers From State (Part 2)

  • Sophie Lambroschini

One year later, relatives of the more than 120 victims of the Nord-Ost hostage crisis are still living with grief over the loss of their loved ones. In many instances, spouses and children have had to struggle for survival after losing the family's primary breadwinner. But for most, the worst is grappling with the apparent indifference of a government that has failed to explain its role in the tragedy - or compensate families for their loss. Now the relatives of Nord-Ost victims are launching a grassroots organization to help survivors and get the answers they say they deserve. RFE/RL spoke with co-founder Tatyana Karpova, whose son Aleksandr died in the Dubrovka siege.

Moscow, 22 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The dark hallway of Tatyana Karpova's drab apartment opens onto a direct view of the flat's most hallowed corner. There, visitors see a comfortable chair; a guitar rests on the cushion, sheet music lies scattered nearby.

The scene looks as though the musician had just gotten up moments earlier to get a cup of tea from the kitchen. But Karpova's son Aleksandr has been dead for nearly a year -- one of at least 129 people to die after Russian security forces stormed Moscow's Dubrovka theater, using a potent narcotic gas to bring the city's worst hostage crisis to a quick but tragic end.

Karpova has obviously taken pains to preserve the shrine to her singer-songwriter son, a fluent English speaker who did translation work to supplement the modest living he made as a bard. She keeps recordings of his music to play for guests. The room is covered with dozens of photographs of Aleksandr, a chubby, bearded 30-year-old. Even the china in Karpova's living-room cabinet is hidden behind snapshots and other reminders of her eldest son, who left behind a wife and a 10-year-old daughter.

The room is a somber reminder of the legacy of grief left behind by last year's hostage crisis. But sitting at a small table in another corner of the room, Karpova is all business. She says the most important thing now -- and the goal behind the newly registered Nord-Ost nongovernmental organization -- is to help the victims' families, and to find out what happened during the three-day siege. "They want to forget," she said, referring to the Kremlin and the Moscow city government. "But we won't let them."

"It's shameful to have let such a horrible terrorist act happen, to have let so many terrorists [enter Moscow.] It's not to [the government's] advantage. I think if something like that happened in any country, any government would try to forget about it -- to make people stop talking about it, to make them calm down," Karova said.

The crisis -- which began on 23 October with some 50 heavily armed Chechen fighters storming Moscow's Dubrovka theater during a performance of the popular musical "Nord-Ost" -- brought the then-three-year-old Chechen war to Russia's front door. Many Russians were relieved when the three-day siege ended, with special forces storming the building after incapacitating hostages and hostage takers alike with a strong narcotic gas. A number of the Chechen fighters had been strapped with explosives and the outcome, some said, could have been far worse.

Many observers praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his decisive resolution of the standoff, and officials in Moscow hailed the operation as a success that saved hundreds of lives. The Russian leader, eager to avoid a Kursk-style public relations disaster, offered a public apology for the lives lost during the rescue, saying: "We couldn't save everyone. Forgive us."

But such words are cold comfort for the friends and relatives of the Nord-Ost victims. Many basic questions about the rescue operation remain unanswered: Why was the type of gas kept a secret? Why weren't hospitals informed about an antidote? And why were so many hostages left without proper emergency care even once they were carried from the building? Karpova said an autopsy showed Aleksandr survived eight hours, but died from lack of medical care after being left untended on an ice-cold sidewalk.

"There was no ambulance for my son, no stretcher, no doctor," she said. "My son didn't get an antidote. Until 12:35, he was just lying outside of the theater, without any medical help."

Karpova and the some 200 members of the Nord-Ost NGO are still waiting for an explanation from the federal authorities on why and how the raid was organized. But it is unclear if a case against the state will ever be launched. Dozens of suits have been filed against the Moscow city government for failing to respond adequately to the medical emergency precipitated by the rescue operation. But all of them have been dismissed:

"When we told the government that we demand compensation for the moral damages that each one of us has to bear, the main one being that we lost our family and loved ones, we were refused. Without an explanation, they just refused. 'It's not our fault,' they say. 'It's the Chechen terrorists.' But we can't ask anything from them, because none of them are alive. So it's just going around in a circle," she said.

Apart from a few families who received paid vacations at a Turkish sea resort, and several claims for material damage, Nord-Ost survivors and relatives have received no compensation, and very little public recognition.

But they are not giving up. Lawyers representing dozens of Nord-Ost families have petitioned to have their cases heard by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The court has registered the appeal but a decision on its admissibility has yet to be made. For now, Karpova says, the Nord-Ost organization is concentrating on providing much-needed emotional support for the victims' survivors. The group's office, she said, will be a place where people can come when they need a shoulder to cry on.

"It's difficult to bear one's pain when you're with your family. It often makes it a lot harder, [because] you don't want to make things worse for your loved ones with your tears, with the weight you [drag around]. But when other victims of misfortune come together, then people open up, and all the weight, the pain flows out. People feel better," she said.

Karpova said the experience of living through the siege has proven hardest for young children and adolescents. With this in mind, she said the Nord-Ost group is planning to lobby the state for a reprieve from military service for young men affected by the hostage crisis. She said many survivors continue to experience panic at the sight of a soldier in uniform or camouflage gear -- forcing young men to don a uniform and take up a weapon so soon after a deeply traumatizing experience is "absolutely unacceptable."

"When I go to a market and see someone who looks like he's from the Caucasus, for me it's all the same -- it reminds me of Chechnya and I feel uncomfortable. And there's nothing I can do about it. I just have to leave immediately. But you understand that I'm an adult who can control my emotions. But these children have only fear and hatred. And if now, as they become soldiers, you put weapons in their hands -- it's impossible to say what kind of tragedy could come of that," she said.

In a voice that is clipped and hard, Karpova said, "The hate just won't go away."