Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

My Hours Inside The Moscow Theatre

Russian journalist Anna Polikovskaya tells what happened when Chechen extremists asked her to negotiate towards the end of the hostage crisis.
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The main events in my role in this drama began at around 2pm on October 25. Earlier, I had spoken to the hostage-takers for the first time and they agreed to meet me. I arrived at the operation headquarters two hours later.


Around another half hour was taken up agreeing details - an unknown person was deciding something behind closed doors.


Finally, I was taken to the final cordon of trucks. I was told, "Go and try. Maybe it will work." I went with Dr. Leonid Roshal. I don't know how we made our way to the door. It was very frightening. And then we were entering the building, shouting, "Hey! Anyone there?"


The answer was silence. It feels like there isn't a soul in the building. I shout, "Its Politkovskaya! Politkovskaya!" We slowly climb the right-hand staircase - the doctor says he knows the way. In the foyer of the second floor, there's silence again, darkness and cold. Not a soul. I shout again, "It's Politkovskaya!" Finally, a figure moves out from the former bar. His head is covered by a thin black mask, through which all the features of his face can be seen.


I ask for permission to sit on the only chair in the centre of the foyer, five metres from the bar, because my legs are failing me. The permission is given immediately. The soles of my shoes slip on some red filth on the floor. I look down warily, because I'm very scared that I'll appear too curious, but I'm even more afraid of putting my foot in cooled blood. Thankfully, it's just the remains of some cake or ice cream, perhaps. The shivering subsides slightly.


We wait for twenty minutes while they send for "a senior". During this period, from up on the balcony, mask-covered heads keep peeking out. Some are thick, preventing any features to be made out through them. Others are light, as had been he case with the first at the bar. "Was it you that was in Khotuni?" they ask, and I reply "yes".


The "heads" are satisfied. Khotuni (a village in the Vedeno region) is like a pass that got me here - she was there, so we can talk. An unclear, blurry tragedy in process follows. Masks come and go, the time fading away grips the heart with foreboding, and the senior still doesn't come. Maybe they'll just shoot us now?


Finally, a man comes out in camouflage and a totally covered face, stocky and bulky, with the exactly the same bearing as one of our special-forces officers, drawing attention to his physical training. He asks us to follow him. My legs are totally giving out, but I stumble on. It turns out that this is the senior.


We find ourselves in the dirty surroundings of the destroyed cafe. Somebody walks behind us, and I look round. I know it looks nervy, but what else can I do?


"Don't look round! Talk with me, and look at me too."


"Who are you? What should we call you?" I ask, none too sure that I'll get an answer.


"Bakar, Abubakar," he replies.


He's already raised his mask up onto his forehead. His face is open, bony, also very typically military. On his knees, there's a machinegun. Only at the very end of the conversation does he put it on his back, even apologising, "I'm so used to it, that I don't even feel it. I sleep with, I'm always with it."


Even without these explanations, I can see it all already - he's from the generation of Chechens that has been fighting for its entire life.


This is a certain generation of modern Chechens. Bakar is one of those who has known nothing but a machinegun and the forest for the last decade, and before that he'd only just finished school. And so, gradually, the forest became the only life that is possible.


There are five requests on my list. Food for the hostages, personal hygiene supplies for the women, water and blankets. Jumping ahead a little, we will only manage to agree on water and juice - at least I'll carry it, shout from below that I've brought it, and then they'll let me in.


I begin to ask what they want, but, in political terms, Bakar isn't on firm ground. He's "just a soldier", and nothing more. He explains what it all means to him, at length and precisely, and four points can be identified from what he says. Firstly, Putin should "give the word" and declare the end of the war. Secondly, in the course of a day, he should demonstrate that his words aren't empty by, for example, taking the armed forces out of one region.


My brain is struggling with the unbearable task of how to make things as easy as possible for the hostages, but also not to lose my dignity - and it's all getting stuck, alas. Often, I don't know what to say, so I talk nonsense, just to stop Bakar from saying "Out!" - and I would have to leave, not having achieved anything.


Bakar then receives a telephone call from [Russian liberal politician] Boris Nemtsov. The phone, taken from a Nord-Ost musician hostage by one of the gunmen, is now being used for negotiations. After Nemtsov, Bakar is phoned on the same mobile from "home" - the Vedeno region of Chechnya.


While talking to Nemtsov, Bakar begins to get very nervous. Later he tells me that the politician is leading him by the nose, that he said the evening before that the war in Chechnya could be stopped, and today, on October 25, the sweeping operations have been renewed.


Then I ask, "Who do you trust? Whose word on the withdrawal of the armed forces would you believe?" It turns out that it's Lord Judd.


And we turn to their third point. It's very simple - if the first two points are met, the hostages will be released. And as for the extremists themselves? "We'll stay to fight. We'll die in battle," he tells me.


Then I ask them who they really are, and am suddenly frightened. Have I gone too far?


"A reconnaissance-sabotage battalion," he tells me, adding that their number is a small elite group hand-picked for the operation.


I see confusion when I ask them if they obey Chechnya's rebel leader Maskhadov, and then extreme dissatisfaction again. The broken explanation can be reduced to, "Yes, he is our president, but we're fighting of our own accord."


This, essentially, is confirmation of our worst fears. The detachment is one of those that is entirely independent in Chechnya. They have their own autonomous war, which is extremely radical, and they really couldn't give a damn about Maskhadov, because he doesn't share their extremism.


Bakar throws in a lot of strong words on his own behalf. "For a year and a half, people have begged to come here as kamikazes," he tells me, adding, "We've come to die".


I have no doubt that they are doomed and ready to die, taking with them as many lives as they wish. The mobile rings. Bakar listens, then begins to shout, "Don't ever phone here again. This is an office. You're interfering with my business!"


I ask to speak to one of the hostages, and while he initially refuses, Bakar relents and asks one of his colleagues to bring one.


He returns with a petrified but beautiful young girl named Masha from the hall. She can't say anything because of fear weakness - the hostages haven't had anything to eat.


Bakar, annoyed by her mumbling, orders her to be taken away replaced by an older hostage. While his colleague is doing so, Bakar explains how noble they all are. So many beautiful girls under their control - and Masha really is beautiful - but they have no desire, because all their strength is given over to the struggle to free their land.


From his words, I understand I'm supposed to be grateful to him for the fact that they haven't raped Masha.


We talk only a very little about morality, if it can be put that way. "Hard to believe but, morally, we feel better here than in all the three years of the war. We're finally working. We know what we're doing here. It's better than ever for us. We will die well. The fact that we've taken part in history is a great honour. You don't believe it? I see that you don't believe it."


But I really do believe it. Talk like this has been heard in Chechen military circles for a year. Against the background of the lack of action coming from the virtual Maskhadov, many military detachments have sat out the winter in the forest and been worn out - they can't escape and they can't fight - something has to be done, and there are no orders coming from the commander in chief. As these sentiments have grown, detachments have either broken up or become more radical, in effect creating a parallel, isolated war over which Maskhadov has no authority.


We agree that I will start bringing water into the building. Bakar suddenly throws in, on his own initiative, "And you can bring juice."


I ask him if I can also bring food for the children being held inside, but he refuses. "No. Ours go hungry, so yours can too," he says.


That day in history ended. The building was stormed. And now I think, did we do everything we could to avoid losses? Was is it a real victory - with 119 victims before they even got to the hospital? And was I any help to anybody, with my juice and last-ditch efforts?


My answer: I was needed. But we didn't do everything. Because there is a lot ahead of us, even though too many have already been left behind.


The tragedy of Nord-Ost happened for a reason, and it's not over yet.


Anna Politkovskaya is a journalist with Novaya Gazeta


Copyright: Novaya Gazeta