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Terror in the Aisles

HBO's documentary on the Moscow theater hostage crisis is disturbing, wrenching, and definitely worth watching.

7:30 AM, Oct 23, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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"WE'VE COME TO RUSSIA'S CAPITAL CITY to stop the war or die here for Allah. . . . I swear to Allah, we desire death more than you want life." These words, spoken by Chechen terrorist Movsar Barayev, open "Terror in Moscow," a grim and stomach-churning look at the Moscow theater hostage crisis of October 2002. Producer/director Dan Reed was able to obtain (for the right price) videos from the FSB (formerly KGB), footage recorded by the terrorists themselves, and broadcasts from Radio Ekho Moskvy. The result is an HBO documentary on a par with the Academy Award-winning "One Day in September" about the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Over the last 10 years, more than 150,000 men, women, and children have been killed in the war in Chechnya. But the Russians have been fighting there much longer than that, instilling in the Chechen people a hostility best described by one author: "The feeling experienced by all the Chechens, from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hate. It was not hatred, for they did not regard those Russian dogs as human beings; but it was such repulsion, disgust, and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures, that the desire to exterminate them--like the desire to exterminate rats, poisonous spiders, or wolves--was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation."

Those were the words of Leo Tolstoy, written a century ago in one of his greatest stories, "Hadji Murad." A hundred years later, Tolstoy probably wouldn't be surprised that the fighting goes on, and that some Chechens would take to extreme measures.

ON A QUIET WEDNESDAY NIGHT in October of last year, more than 800 people gathered at Moscow's Ball-Bearing Factory Theater to watch the musical "Nord-Ost." The theater company was videotaping the show when, about three minutes into the second act, masked gunmen walk onto the stage. On the tape we watch as one of them fires his rifle into the air--the performers jolt back and are immediately escorted off. "What a clever theatrical concept. Very trendy," one woman remembers thinking as she watched the scene unfold. But as the staff of the theater filed in and sat down, a terrifying reality set in.

Twenty-five-year-old Movsar Barayev announced to everyone that unless Russia withdrew its forces from Chechnya, the entire theater and everyone in it would be blown up. Forty-one terrorists, 22 men and 19 women, stormed the theater--the men were armed with guns and grenades while the veiled women served as suicide bombers, wearing explosives around their waists.

The hostages were not even allowed to leave their seats without the permission of the female guards. Because no one was permitted to use the bathrooms, the orchestra pit was converted into an open-air latrine. "The stench was so foul that the faces of the hostages at the front ran with sweat," one survivor remembers. "The entire pit was awash." The co-writer of "Nord-Ost" was also in the audience (none of the eyewitnesses' names appear on screen) and was reminded of the plight of concentration camp victims during the war. "How could tens of thousands of people be meekly led to their slaughter, obeying without question, afraid of a single armed guard? It wasn't until I became a hostage that I understood the psychology of it. People's spirits were broken." When the standoff continued into Friday night and Barayev announced that the rebels would start executing their captives, the same co-writer envisioned how it would be done. "You, you, and you," he pictured a gunman pointing in the crowd. And the selected few would quietly walk out and everyone else would just turn away, "their spirits so crushed."

Finally, at 11:00 p.m. on Friday, the Russian envoy to Chechnya, Viktor Kazantsev, called Barayev and told him not to do anything. He would be back in Moscow in the morning to make a deal with them. The terrorists were exultant. Some took off their masks and veils. At last, they thought, they would be taken seriously and Russia would withdraw from Chechnya.

THEY WERE GRAVELY MISTAKEN. Vladimir Putin had no intention of caving in to the terrorists' demands. His government had already been embarrassed throughout the ordeal: Twice, Russian civilians somehow made it past the police cordon and into the theater. One woman, apparently drunk, tried to start an uprising. Another man, seemingly confused, came looking for a son who wasn't there. Both were executed. As if that wasn't bad enough, 10 days earlier, the Russian military claimed that they had killed Movsar Barayev. Now, with the media scrutinizing the authorities' handling of the crisis, Putin decided to mobilize the elite Alpha anti-terrorist unit (formerly Spetsnaz).

At around 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, as the hostages and some of the terrorists slept, a gray mist descended from the ceiling vents. One man remembered "a hissing sound and a curious, acrid smell." It was an anesthetic aerosol that was intended to render everyone inside unconscious. "It was like being stoned," said another man. But a number of terrorists realized what was happening and began shooting at the windows for ventilation. (Luckily, no one gave the order to detonate the explosives scattered throughout the theater.) Minutes later, the Alpha team launched its assault. There was no intention to take prisoners. The male Chechens were gunned down in the halls. Barayev was still alive when the Alpha team found him and finished the job. (Footage of the dead rebels is the most graphic segment of the film.) The female terrorists were asleep in their seats when the commandos stormed the aisles, shooting them on the spot.

Remarkably, not a single commando or hostage was killed in the rescue. But in the aftermath, as their unconscious bodies were being laid out on the pavement outside the theater, the operation went bad. Although there was enough antidote to the gas, there weren't enough physicians to dispense it. Many bodies were placed on their backs, people choked--either on their tongues or their vomit. In total, 129 hostages died. What was to be heralded as a flawless counterterrorist operation turned into a tragedy.

"THE WAY RUSSIA FIGHTS these terrorists does not serve their intentions," says Michael McFaul, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of "Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin." McFaul described the operation as "Soviet in style." Yes, both the United States and Russia face a common enemy in radical Islam, "but look at Baghdad and look at Grozny. This would never happen in a democracy."

"Terror in Moscow" airs tonight on HBO at 7:00 p.m.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.