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A Decade On, Still No Closure for Families Of Russian Theater Siege Victims

A woman looks at photographs of victims at a commemoration ceremony recalling the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, which resulted in 130 deaths.
A woman looks at photographs of victims at a commemoration ceremony recalling the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, which resulted in 130 deaths.
MOSCOW -- Time has not eased Dmitry Milovidov's grief over the death of his 14-year old daughter, Nina, in the Moscow theater siege.

Milovidov stills struggles to contain his anger as he recounts Nina's 57-hour ordeal at the hands of Chechen rebels and the botched rescue operation that took her life 10 years ago.

Like most of the 130 hostages who died in the siege, Nina was killed by the knockout gas pumped into the Dubrovka theater to subdue the militants.

"The chemical affected her respiratory system and halted her breathing," Milovidov says. "How long can a person live without breathing? Then her heart stopped beating. That's what was done to our children."
Nina Milovidova with her brother Maksim
Nina Milovidova with her brother Maksim

Milovidov was not in the Dubrovka theater on the fateful evening of October 23, 2002, when some 50 armed militants barged onto the stage during a performance of the Nord-Ost musical and took the actors and audience -- more than 700 people -- hostage to demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

Nina had gone to the show along with her 12-year-old sister, Yelena. When the militants agreed to free some of the children, Nina pleaded for her and her sister's release.

Only the younger Yelena was freed.

"Nina remained in that hall...forever," Milovidov says. "They never took her to a hospital, they never offered her any medical help, as the documents show. They just threw her into a bus to hide her from television cameras."

Lingering Anger

Relatives say many of the victims died because they were denied medical help and accuse the Russian government of covering up its role in the carnage.

Ten years on, the probe into the deaths is still under way and investigators have failed to release even preliminary findings. To the anger of survivors and victims' relatives, authorities have consistently refused to disclose the content of the gas.

At the time, authorities claimed no child died in the siege.

The families of the dead, however, say as many as 10 children were killed and another 69 lost at least one parent in the tragedy that unfolded on October 26, 2002.

Officials also initially praised a successful operation during which all the militants were killed with no loss of life among security forces.

But soon, the grisly details began to emerge.

PHOTO GALLERY: The four-day siege at Moscow's Dubrovka theater

Footage showed how unconscious hostages were clumsily dragged out of the theater and dumped into buses.

The few doctors at the scene, not knowing what type of gas they were dealing with, were unable to save many lives. Countless hostages choked on their own vomit, others swallowed their tongues or suffocated to death in cramped buses.

Tatiana Karpova, the mother of well-known songwriter Aleksander Karpov, claims he died in an ambulance after spending seven hours in a bus packed with corpses. He was 31.

"My son died an awful death that I would not even wish on my enemies," she says. "He spent seven hours lying alive among dead bodies without any medical help. There were many such instances, and we will never forgive this."

Legal Redress

Karpova has been spearheading efforts to seek legal redress for the botched rescue.

Relatives of the victims pin the blame squarely on President Vladimir Putin, who they say gave the orders to use the poisonous gas and helped cover up the deadly rescue operation.

They got a boost last December when the European Court of Human Rights upheld their complaint and ordered Russia to pay the 64 plaintiffs a total of 1.3 million euros ($1.7 million) for moral compensation.

The court, in particular, rejected the Kremlin's claim that the gas was not directly responsible for the hostages' deaths, which authorities have blamed on various illnesses, food and water deprivation, psychological stress, and a lack of fresh air.

Emboldened by their victory, relatives this month formally asked Russian investigators to open a new probe taking into account the European Court's decision.

Ten years on, however, their chances of uncovering the whole truth about the rescue operation appear slim at best.

"Public interest has faded, and finding leads is very difficult from a procedural point of view after so many years," says security specialist Ivan Sukhov. "Of course, they keep their relevance as a group that seeks to draw attention to the low regard for life in the Russian Federation. But, as regards the investigation, I don't think they are in a position to achieve anything."

Nonetheless, families of the Dubrovka victims say it's not only the truth they have been fighting for over the past decade.

"No one can guarantee that such a situation won't repeat itself and that these same people won't conduct another botched rescue operation," Karpova says. "We are doing all this to make sure there aren't any more tragedies like the one we endured, any more broken families. That's what we are fighting for."

Written and reported by Claire Bigg in Prague with additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow

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