Friday, October 26, 2007
Five-year Flashback; or, How I Almost Became a Hostage
Five years ago this week, a Moscow theater crowded with an audience of over 800 people was taken over by 42 armed Chechen rebels. They held everyone in the building hostage for almost three days, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. In the meantime, they had mined the building with explosives and had bombs strapped to their bodies.
In one of those bizarre "close calls" that we all have at one time or another, Jeremy and I were supposed to be members of that audience, but by a twist of fate, we were safe at home. We'd made plans with a few friends to go see the play on that night, but the woman in charge of buying tickets for everyone got sick and ended up not getting any (the show was sold out on that Wednesday night).
We were living in Moscow at the time, working for the US Embassy. As far as I can remember, we were alerted to the situation by a call from the embassy warden not long after it happened. Since it was already late evening, we went to bed and woke up in the morning to hear more details on the local news.
The outlook was certainly grim. I remember going to work as usual and the mood on the streets was unbelievably tense. Personally, I couldn't see any way for the situation to be resolved without everyone being killed. And as the days went by, it looked more and more like that was what was going to happen.
Then, on the third day of the crisis, something happened* to trigger a storming of the building by Russian special forces. They pumped a mystery gas into the building through the ventilation system and then went in and eliminated all the hostage-takers. The hostages were evacuated, some on their own two feet and some carried out by the troops. In classic Russian style, the conscious and unconscious hostages were loaded onto common city buses recruited for the purpose and taken off to hospitals around Moscow. The images of all the above are clearly imprinted on my memory from watching local Russian news (completely uncensored, of course).
It took a while for casualty counts to reach us, but I will be honest and say that when we and fellow Muscovites first heard that "only" 129 of the 800+ hostages had been killed, there was an overwhelming feeling of relief that the number was so low. Everyone had been expecting a far higher death toll.
Of course, if you read anything about the hostage crisis now, that initial positive reaction is not mentioned. And in hindsight, it is not such a successful outcome - especially when we found out that most of those deaths were caused by the rescue gas, not the hostage-takers. But at the time, it was considered to be almost a miracle.
I think not attending the play that night was the closest call I've had in my life, at least that I know of (I'm convinced we all have many similar - if less dramatic or obvious - experiences almost every day).
*I can't find this referenced in any of the accounts online, but it was reported at the time that a child hostage started to have a breakdown after being without his parents for almost three days and threw a water bottle at a hostage-taker. The terrorist then opened fire and spurred the special forces into action.