Survivor recounts horror in Russian school
Holding up the corpse of a man just shot dead in front of hundreds of hostages at a Russian school, the rebel -- his pockets stuffed with ammunition and grenades -- warned: "If a child utters even a sound, we'll kill another one."
Hours after escaping alive, a woman who had been taken hostage with her 7-year-old son and her mother spoke of three days of unspeakable horror -- of children so wired with fear they couldn't sleep, of captors coolly threatening to kill off hostages one by one, of a gymnasium so cramped there was hardly room to move.
"We were in complete fear," said Alla Gadieyeva, 24, who spoke to an Associated Press reporter as she lay in a stretcher outside a hospital. "People were praying all the time and those that didn't know how to pray -- we taught them."
The woman told her tale after commandos stormed the school in this southern Russian town, bringing the nation's worst hostage crisis to a head Friday. The carnage left at least 250 people dead and more than 700 people wounded, according to officials.
Children faint, captors laugh
She thought the noise was part of school festivities.
Five rebels suddenly burst into the courtyard, shooting in the air and ordering people to get inside the school. Children, parents, and teachers -- Alla estimated there were about 1,000 in all -- were corralled into a corner on the ground floor and then pushed into the gymnasium.
Alla said children whimpered in fear, and all around there was screaming and crying. The hostages were forced to crouch, their hands folded over their heads.
For the rebels, the first order of business was confiscating cell phones. They smashed the phones and made the following threat: "If we find any mobile phones, we will shoot 20 people all around you."
On Day 1, people got a tiny bit of water to drink, but no food. From Day 2, Alla said, nothing.
When she asked the rebels for water for her mother, they laughed at her.
"My mother was terrified, and I thought she was having a heart attack. When I saw my son, my mother ... go unconscious, so tired, so thirsty, I wanted it all to come to an end," she said.
"When children began to faint, they laughed," Alla said. "They were totally indifferent."
During the ordeal, Zaur became so traumatized that he would flinch whenever someone would touch him, or even brush by him. Like other children, his only spells of sleep were the times he fell unconscious from thirst and exhaustion.
When asked how her son would remember the ordeal, Alla replied: "How can a person ever forget it? Would you ever forget it?"
Bombs hung from ceiling
She recounted how the hostage-takers eventually took off their masks. They had beards, long hair, and spoke with Chechen accents, she said.
When children started to faint from thirst, the adults urged them to urinate. It was so they could drink their own urine, Alla said.
The gymnasium was quickly transformed into an arsenal of explosives -- bombs dangling from the ceiling, set on the floor, strung up on walls. She said they seemed to be homemade, primitive packages containing bolts and nails.
"They're not human beings," Alla said. "What they did to us, I can't understand."
On Day 3, early in the afternoon, the explosions erupted, under circumstances that still remain somewhat unclear. What is known is that emergency workers had arrived at the time -- apparently with the militants' permission -- to collect the bodies of those who had been executed. Russian authorities insist they did not plan a raid.
Suddenly, there were blasts inside and outside the gym, Alla said. In the chaos, she couldn't figure out how they were set off. Gunfire followed. As the fight intensified, the rebels betrayed agitation for the first time.
"We'll shoot until our guns stop," a rebel announced to the crowd. "And when our guns stop, we'll blow up the building."
Making an escape
Alla said she helped her son and mother out of a window. She didn't manage to get out.
For some reason, a six-year-old boy -- whom she didn't know -- was drawn to Alla. She held him in her arms. He clung to her, she said, "as if he would never let go."
A group of hostages, including Alla and the boy, then made a rush for a set of doors in the gymnasium. As they fled, she noticed the bodies of captives strewn on the floor -- shot by the rebels, it seemed, as they battled Russian security forces who swarmed the area.
Some Russian soldiers appeared as they reached the doors. "At first I didn't believe it," she said. "I thought they were Chechens."
Her doubts soon vanished.
It's OK, the soldiers told her. "You're home now."
As Alla told her tale, townspeople kept coming up to her, asking her about the fate of their loved-ones.
A man, around 20, asked Alla if she knew what had happened to one of the captives, a woman.
She's dead, Alla replied.
The man bit his lip. He nodded.
And then he turned away.