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Surviving terrorist attack helps to appreciate life’s value

The name of the Nord-Ost musical on the Moscow stage became a synonym for tragedy and horror. It’s been seven years since a terrorist attack on a Moscow theater claimed the lives of 130 people.

On October 23, 2002 terrorists burst into the theater right in the middle of the performance. The hostages spent three days there before being released by Special Forces.

One of the survivors has shared her experiences with Sophie Shevardnadze.

RT: Hello, Olga. Thank you very much for being with us. Olga is actually one of our RT members. She works with us, and she agreed to share with us some of her thoughts and experiences – quite unfortunate experiences – that she had seven years ago at Nord-Ost. Olya, thanks a lot for agreeing to talk to us. Now seven years have passed and are you able to forget, or maybe make peace with, what happened?

Olga Protas: I try not to remember that experience that happened to me seven years ago. But I think after such experience people either have fear inside them or it makes them stronger. And I hope that that type of experience, I hope that made me stronger.

RT: When you first entered the theater, did anything seem strange at all?

OP: I remember after the first part of the performance there was a short break. And during that short break one of my friends wanted to leave the theater. She had a nervous breakdown. She started to cry and she kept asking teachers to let her go home. And that I found really strange. Probably she got a feeling that something’s gonna be wrong.

RT: Did she go home?

OP: Yes, she went home. And we felt jealous after that. We didn't use this chance.

RT: What was your reaction when the terrorists first came. Did you understand what was going on?

OP: But we thought it's just part of the show. Because when it happened by that time on the stage there was group of actors wearing soldier uniform almost similar to the one the terrorists wore. So when the terrorists burst into the theater we thought it's just part of the show. We couldn't believe it's real. We thought it's just a show.

RT: Do you remember chronologically? Can you describe what you saw?

OP: Actors were dancing. And then we heard several shots somewhere backstage. And then the music stopped and we saw one man wearing that uniform with a mask and a gun. He started to shout something. Then he made several shots to the roof and straight after that the others started bursting to the theater. And I remember one of the terrorists hit one of my friends with a gun.

RT: Right away? When they came in?

OP: Yeah. Just to show that they are serious. That it's not a joke.

RT: Did any of the terrorists make contact with you or say something to you?

OP: I had a chance to speak with Musa Baraev. When I was crying, when I had a nervous breakdown he walked, he passed me and he stopped. And he asked me "Hey girl why are you crying? Don't worry, you are not gonna die. We came here to die. So you will survive. But we will die." And we had a chance to speak with suicide bomber women.

RT: What did they look like? I mean being a woman and a suicide bomber. Did they seem like they have more sympathy for women and children who were in that theater?

OP: I would say that they were more cruel comparable to men. Men were really calm with us and talked to us but women they were more aggressive – they shout at us, they played with their guns showing if they are gonna kill us right now. So they were more cruel. But they told us about their life before they became terrorists. They told they lost all their family. They lost all their brothers, fathers and they have nothing to live for right now.

RT: So they were mainly people who have no children?

OP: Yeah. Most of all had no family at all.

RT: Were you guys allowed to talk to each other inside the theater?

OP: For the first time we were not allowed to talk or to use a toilet when we need. But after five or six hours we were allowed to use the restroom. If we wanted to drink we could ask them and they brought us a bottle of water.

RT: What did their faces look like – worried, calm?

OP: Most of the time they were calm. And seem to be outgoing, ready to communicate with us. But I remember one day when one of the main terrorists moved to the stage and that was straight after he understood from a news channel that the government is still doing nothing of what they want. So he said that right now he is gonna choose any ten person among the hostages and he is gonna kill them. Just on the stage.

RT: How long were you there? Till the very end? Because it did last for three days.

OP: Yeah, I've been there all three days. But I remember when I first came to restroom I came to the window and I was thinking – should I stay, should I go?

RT: You thought of escaping?

OP: Yeah, I thought of escaping. And probably I spent there so [much] time thinking what should I do that one of the suicide bomber women she came to the restroom and started to shout at me using her gun and…

RT: Saying what?

OP: Saying why are you still staying here so long. Move to entire theater. Move to your chair.

RT: But did some people who tried to escape get killed?

OP: I know that several people escaped, especially people who were actors, some of them. And I know that one woman who came to the theater she was drunk. She was killed.

RT: Because she was drunk?

OP: No, because she came to the terrorists and kept calling [them] bad words, asked them to release all the people.

RT: How did this psychological state of your mind change during these three days?

OP: For the first days I had fear. I didn't want to die and I had questions coming to my head why it happened with me, I am so young. But I remember the third day of staying there. I lost belief that I could survive. I started thinking that I am gonna die anyway – either they shoot me, either the bomb will detonate. So I lost all the feeling I could see my family again. And I wrote down my phone number and address on my body in case parents want to find me… some piece of my body. And that will help them to realize who I am. To realize that, for example, that's my hand or my leg.

RT: So the fear was gone at the third day?

OP: Yeah

RT: You made peace with that you are gonna die?

OP: Yeah, almost everybody around me was sure that we gonna die. It was so difficult to stay there for three days. It was… We were so exhausted that we had no idea about how we are gonna survive.

RT: How do you come to that state of mind when you know you are going to die and you are not panicking?

OP: There was panic during the first and second day but after… it didn’t matter, we just wanted to finish that story and it didn't matter for us – who will win in such a situation. We just wanted that it finished somehow.

RT: Many criticize the way the operation to free the hostages was conducted. More the 130 hostages died due to the gas that was used. Do you think the terrorists could have spared the last of those people or were they ready to blow up the whole theater with all the people in it?

OP: They seemed to be ready to blow out everybody. So we didn't… They seemed to be really serious with that.

RT: Do you remember anything how were the terrorists killed and the hostages were released or did the gas knock you out right away?

OP: I woke up when the storm operation started. It was very hard to breathe because of the gas. And I could see green cloud coming from the roof to the ground. One of my teachers didn't sleep as well.

RT: So you were sleeping?

OP: I was sleeping before…

RT: Just sleeping?

OP: Just sleeping, yeah.

RT: And then – ok?

OP: And then I woke up because of that strong gas, it was really impossible to breathe. And my teacher had napkins close to her nose so she gave several of them to me so I won't die because of that gas. And I brought some of them to the nearest fiends and then I don't remember anything. I was asleep.

RT: When did you wake up afterwards?

OP: The second time I woke up in the hospital. When it was finished. I woke up next morning.

RT: What was it like – waking up in the hospital?

OP: I didn't feel happiness. I was…Probably I was so tired after these three days so I didn't feel any emotions. I was just exhausted of having emotions at all. Yes, I saw them on TV and I started to cry, I could not stop myself. They became kind of heroes for us.

RT: You were crying for the people who were gonna kill you?

OP: Yeah, it's very strange. It's very strange and my parents spent much time with me telling that it's not the right way how I should think about it, about this situation.

RT: How do you feel like it has changed your life?

OP: I didn't want to feel fear at all. And almost like two or three months later I decided to watch this particular musical again. I came back to the Nord-Ost musical just to stop this fear in my life. So I watched it for the second time. I think such an experience… maybe you start to appreciate your life more maybe you have a more philosophical way of thinking. But I'm happy I'm alive.

RT: Thank you very much for sharing this experience with us.