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After 25 Years, Budyonnovsk Hostage Crisis Seen As Horrific Harbinger Of Terror

Hostages pass Russian troops as they emerge from a hospital in Budyonnovsk on June 19, 1995.

Nadezhda Alyokhina was hauling a refrigerator home with a friend when the first of a string of deadly hostage dramas began to unfold in the south of Russia 25 years ago.

Chechen militants led by Shamil Basayev on June 14, 1995, took about 1,500 people hostage and seized a hospital in Budyonnovsk, in Russia's southern Stavropol region.

As she was driving the city streets, Alyokhina said she witnessed firsthand as the militants rounded up hostages across the city.

"A woman...was running down the street, a man with an automatic weapon behind her. I thought it was her husband chasing her," Alyokhina told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

"He then pointed in the direction of our car. These guys were armed to the teeth, and fired on whatever they wanted to. They saw a house they didn't like, broke down the front gate, and shot out the windows. It didn't matter who they shot at -- kids, men, women, it was all the same, " Alyokhina recounted from the family furniture store in Budyonnovsk, adding she was convinced she would die that day.

'I Went There To Die': Hostage Breaks 25-Year Silence On Budyonnovsk Siege
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When it ended five days later, a total of 129 people would be dead owing to the militant assault and a botched Russian commando raid. As for Basayev and his fighters, they were given free passage out of the city after agreeing to release their hostages.

Human Rights Watch in 1996 called the assault in Budyonnovsk "perhaps the most heinous humanitarian law violation known to have been committed by Chechen forces."

The hostage drama would not be an isolated incident -- it was to be followed by the Beslan, Nord-Ost, and Kislyar-Pervomaysk hostage crises -- nor would the reaction of Russian forces, who would come to rely on an array of tactics to deal with hostage crises, usually with much innocent blood spilled.

In December 1994, the Russian Army marched into Chechnya, a restive region in Russia's North Caucasus where separatists yearned for independence from Moscow. Basayev organized the defense of Grozny, the regional capital that would eventually be reduced to rubble as a result of Russian bombing.

Shamil Basayev (center) gives a press conference on June 15, 1995, after he and his fighters took over 1,500 hostages in Budyonnovsk.
Shamil Basayev (center) gives a press conference on June 15, 1995, after he and his fighters took over 1,500 hostages in Budyonnovsk.

Basayev began his campaign against Russian rule over Chechnya in 1991, when he participated in the hijacking of a Russian passenger aircraft flying from the southern town of Mineralnye Vody to Turkey and onward to Grozny.

Also in 1991, he signed up with the unofficial Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus, and in 1992 led a battalion of volunteers from the North Caucasus who fought on the side of separatist region Abkhazia in its 1992-93 war against Georgia.

Seeking Revenge

In May 1995, some 11 members of Basayev's family, including a wife and two children, were killed in a Russian bombing raid on his home village of Vedeno.

Apparently in retaliation for their deaths, Basayev and a group of some 130 fighters set out to drive north into the Russian heartland to stage a major reprisal.

On June 14, 1995, they made it as far as Budyonnovsk, where they were halted by traffic police.

The militants led by Basayev seized several administrative buildings in the city, taking about 1,500 people hostage in the process. They eventually took refuge in the main city hospital, where Basayev demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities in Chechnya and the start of peace negotiations.

After two attempts by Russian forces to free the hostages failed, resulting in the deaths of some 100 people, Basayev negotiated their release and his own safe conduct back to Chechnya live on Russian television with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was later excoriated for allowing the Chechens to escape while Basayev was lionized by many Chechens for that feat.

Members of an elite Russian unit advance toward the hospital in Budyonnovsk on June 17, 1995, during an assault on the building.
Members of an elite Russian unit advance toward the hospital in Budyonnovsk on June 17, 1995, during an assault on the building.

In August 1996, Basayev played a key role in the successful attack on Grozny that led to the signing of a cease-fire and the Khasavyurt accord that ended the war.

In 1997, Basayev ran unsuccessfully for president of Chechnya, although he later held various government posts, including prime minister. In late 1999, however, he and fellow field commander Khatab launched ill-fated incursions into neighboring Daghestan that helped lead to a new war.

Basayev, Russia's most wanted man, was killed by Russian special forces in neighboring Ingushetia in 2006.

'Blood Everywhere'

For those like Alyokhina who were taken hostage in Budyonnovsk in June 1995, his legacy is not remembered kindly.

Now in her 50s, Alyokhina said that as the militants marched the hostages down Pushkin Street toward the hospital, she felt resigned that they were to be killed, given the carnage she had witnessed.

"I can never forget that feeling that I was being marched away to die. I still have that feeling today. We had seen how they had killed people," Alyokhina said, adding she was one of several women used as human shields by the Chechen gunmen during the five-day ordeal.

Nikolai Karmazov saw up close the scale of the violence, working as a doctor in the besieged hospital in the trauma unit.

"There was blood everywhere, and no place to get help," Karmazov told Current Time. "I had to work at gunpoint. They almost shot me twice because I didn't treat the militants first, but those who needed help most: those with gunshot wounds, with blood coming out from tourniquets," Karmazov explained, added the situation calmed a bit after a Basayev deputy intervened.

A family unloads a body from a truck during a funeral for victims in Budyonnovsk on June 16, 1995.
A family unloads a body from a truck during a funeral for victims in Budyonnovsk on June 16, 1995.

The siege at the hospital came to an end on June 20 when the Chechen militants rode in a slow convoy of buses out of Budyonnovsk -- including more than 100 people acting as human shields -- in keeping with the deal negotiated between Basayev and Chernomyrdin.

Among the voluntary hostages was human rights activist Valery Borshchev. He arrived in Budyonnovsk as part of a team of negotiators.

"We got on buses. A hostage would sit by the window, so if they shoot, they would kill him, and the militant would be sitting next to him," Borshchev recalled. "Some people then came on the bus and handed out papers for us to sign, which said: 'I so-and-so voluntarily join Basayev's gang. I take full responsibility for my decision,'" Borshchev explained, adding that he kept the paper, refusing to sign it, like many others.

Valery Borshchev shows the paper he was given in 1995, at his home in Moscow on May 29, 2020.
Valery Borshchev shows the paper he was given in 1995, at his home in Moscow on May 29, 2020.

Russia's heavy-handed handling of the Budyonnovsk crisis would be repeated in other hostage showdowns with Chechen militants.

"The Russians have got huge pride, huge arrogance, but their military is not very effective. It's full of conscripts," Paul Beaver, an intelligence and defense analyst, told RFE/RL in 2004.

Russia's hunt for the Chechen fighters involved in the Budyonnovsk hospital raid continued over the years. In the most recent convictions, two Chechen men were sentenced to prison in December 2017.

The North Caucasus Regional Military Court in the city of Rostov-on-Don found Ramzan Belyalov and Magomed Mazdayev guilty of hostage taking and organizing a terrorist attack and sentenced them to 15 and 13 years in prison, respectively. Both pleaded not guilty.

Besides Basayev, six other participants in the attack had been killed, 26 sentenced to prison terms and 23 are still being sought, according to Russia's Investigative Committee in 2015.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Current Time correspondent Yevgenia Kotlyar
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    Yevgenia Kotlyar

    Yevgenia Kotlyar is a Kyiv-based correspondent for Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Born in Russia, she is a graduate of St. Petersburg State University and the Danish School of Media and Journalism. Before joining Current Time as a Moscow correspondent in 2019, she worked for the independent Russian television channel TV Rain.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.