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Russia: Moscow City Officials, Victims' Relatives, Hold Separate Nord-Ost Services Outside Theater

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Today marked the one-year anniversary of the "Nord-Ost" hostage crisis, where 129 people died. Many of the relatives of those who lost their lives are still battling with the authorities to find out what happened and why.

Moscow, 23 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- City officials and public figures inaugurated a memorial in Moscow today on the one-year anniversary of the start of the deadly hostage-taking by Chechen separatists at the Dubrovka theater, while grieving relatives gathered nearby for a separate service.

"They came to see a show, but instead they met a monster," said Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who opened the ceremony. Officials stood on a stage set up next to the monument, a seven-meter-high granite pillar bearing three cranes (birds) frozen in mid-flight. The memorial makes no specific mention of the Dubrovka tragedy, but is dedicated simply to "victims of terrorism."

"We have to draw conclusions," said Luzhkov. "The state has to draw conclusions about how to fight more effectively, about how to eliminate the causes of such terrorism in our country. Another conclusion is that we ourselves should be more vigilant. Terrorism will not break us!"

On 23 October 2002, a group of between 40 and 50 Chechen separatists seized the Moscow theater in the middle of a performance of the popular musical "Nord-Ost," taking roughly 800 actors and theatergoers hostage, and demanding the end of Russian military operations in Chechnya.

Three days later, Russian forces pumped a strong anesthetic gas into the building and stormed it, killing most of the hostage-takers. But at least 129 of the hostages also died, with doctors attributing most of their deaths to the gas. Russian authorities hailed the operation as a success, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying the rescue "proved it is impossible to bring Russia to its knees." But many were critical of the government's heavy-handed tactics.

A year later, many of the victims' families continue to seek information about the way the rescue operation was handled.

Leonid Roshal, a doctor who acted as a peace broker during the siege and secured the release of some hostages as well as food and water supplies, tried today to justify the authorities' actions. "Is it a victory or not? I am convinced that it is a victory. But a victory with big tears in our eyes. Once more, may those who left never be forgotten, and those who lost, with God's help, find the strength to bear all this."

Popular Russian crooner Yosif Kobzon had also gone inside the theater during the siege and saved several children. Kobzon dedicated a song to the Nord-Ost tragedy, calling on all to "wipe away their tears." "Let's wipe away our tears, doctors, artists, mayor, president, and the brave spetznaz [special forces], let's each of us stand as a fortress against the dark forces."

The crowd of several hundred people at the memorial service was made up of friends and relatives of the victims, officials, and a number of sympathetic Muscovites. One school from a town 30 kilometers outside the city sent a "delegation" of teenage boys to lay a wreath of yellow flowers.

About 100 meters away, several dozen relatives and friends of victims held a separate vigil of remembrance. Huddled next to the main entrance of the theater, they laid their own flowers and photos of the victims below a bronze memorial plaque inscribed with the names of the dead. An inscription reads: "In eternal memory of the victims of the terrorist act at the Dubrovka theater center."

The right to put up the plaque -- and some of the money to pay for it -- was the outcome of months spent battling federal and local authorities, said Tatyana Karpova, co-director of an NGO dedicated to supporting the victims' families.

Valentina Khramtsova came to look at her husband's name on the list and place a photo of him, playing the trumpet, by the wall. She glanced in the direction of the official monument, surrounded by expensive wreaths and floral bouquets and attended by a host of city officials, who did not acknowledge the smaller service taking place by the plaque. She fought to control her anger.

"After all this, [Luzhkov] still [dares] to stand up and make speeches? Putin and Luzhkov decided of their own free will to defend their citizens. No one forced them [to take up public office] -- they made the decision themselves to take up those obligations. I think they should fulfill them. But they didn't," Khramtsova said.

Some grieving relatives stood apart from the group, sobbing alone. But other mourners gathered around Valentina and poured out their grievances. "They just threw them right over there, on the snow, in the rain," one woman said. "Without medical help," added another. "That's what they call a brilliant operation?" asked one mourner wryly. "Let them breathe some of that gas, and let's see how healthy they feel." "I'm ready to go down on my knees and [thank] those kids [from the special forces] that went in, but not Luzhkov, not Putin."

One woman told her story. "What about us, the ones tied to those 129 [people who died]? What are we supposed to do, how are we supposed to live? My husband died on our son's birthday. Now the day of his father's death is his birthday. He tells me, 'Mama, I don't have a birthday.' How can I live with that?"

No Kremlin officials attended the unveiling of the terrorism memorial. President Putin today issued a statement from Kyrgyzstan, where he was attending the opening of a new Russian air base.

The Nord-Ost hostage crisis "is a severe wound in our heart that will take a long time to heal," Putin said. "But you and I know well that once you let terrorists raise their heads in one place they will immediately appear in another place using territories they are comfortable in as bases of rear support."