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Nord-Ost. 26 October: Day of Remembrance and Sorrow

26 October 2012

Aleksandr Cherkasov


Ten years ago we were all hoping for a miracle. We wanted to believe that all the hostages of Nord-Ost would be alive and free, as General Vasiliev of the operation headquarters, now Deputy Vasiliev, told us on television. 

But there was no miracle. Of the 912 people taken hostage on 23rd October 2002 in the Dubrovka Theatre, 128 people were killed. Three of them died from bullet wounds, but 125 died after the release of gas by the assault team. The contents of this gas have remained secret to this day.

The truth just seems to be that all 40 Chechen terrorists were killed and not brought to trial, and then the full materials of the case have not been made available to the victims, their lawyers or the public. The truth has not simply been covered up - just a few individual details are known – but possibly will never be fully known. The investigation was undertaken by the same FSB that conducted the “counter-terrorist operation”, which is a clear conflict of interests. The names of those members of the operation headquarters who planned the assault and gave the orders, have been kept as secret as the contents of the gas.

Preparation for the attack went on from the very beginning, and the negotiations were only a cover-up. The operation headquarters had full information about what was happening inside: for days before the assault, members of the special force were situated behind the walls of the auditorium, and had planted microphones and cameras. There was no mass shooting of hostages, that allegedly brought on the inevitable assault. 

In correspondence with the European Court of Human Rights, Russia has nevertheless admitted that the gas was not harmless. Moreover, the European Court has commented that the assault operation was successful, but there were problems in the rescue operation for hostages. Generally, the court is repeating here the statements by Russian officials, who move responsibility for the operation headquarters, which worked excellently (“they prevented the blowing up of the building, and the death of all hostages”) to the city authorities which should have organised ensured the hostages were saved and given medical assistance. It is obvious that the use of gas demanded a co-ordinated and very rapid attack and rescue operation that would last no more than a few minutes. However, from the moment the gas was introduced into the theatre to the start of the evacuation of the hostages there passed a significantly longer period of time. At least 67 of the hostages were already dead at the start of the effort to save them. The doctors, who did not know the content of the gas and had no antidote, and were allowed to start their work too late, saved almost 800 people.

The Nord-Ost tragedy has not become a national one. It has neither been discussed nor analysed, despite the fact that terrorism in Russia is continuing. Even last year, when a more aware public sought to bring the authorities to account, there is no mention of such a suicidal “war with terrorism.” Is it not because this bringing to account is directed against oneself, and against one’s own past indifference? After all, all these years society if it did not approve, then it at least tolerated, the war in the North Caucasus. The refusal to take part in negotiations to save human lives; the exercise of force; and the realisation of one’s aims at any price – that is what returned to Moscow, to the Dubrovka theatre centre ten years ago.

For ten years the hostages themselves and their relatives, journalists and lawyers have done a great deal. The main thing is that the tragedy has not just become a statistic. The hostages who died have not remained anonymous: a year ago the non-profit organisation Nord-Ost published a book in memory of the victims, “We Shall Not Die”, where all those 130 killed at Dubrovka have found a place.

Today is a day of sorrow for all of us. And for those members of Memorial, wherever they may be. Ten years ago we all hoped for a miracle, which did not happen. The only thing we can do is to preserve the memory of those who died, and to find out the truth.

About the author: Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre. This article was first published on the author’s blog on the website of Ekho of Moscow radio station.