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Russians Mourn Hostage Deaths but Many Reluctant to Criticize Government Action - 2002-10-28


Russia is observing a day of mourning for the more than 100 hostages who died in the Moscow theater standoff, most from the effects of poison gas used to disable their captors.

They came carrying flowers, along with handkerchiefs to catch the tears. They came to honor the dead, as well as the survivors. And they came to show that the nation would not be held hostage by fear.

One day after Russians saw the first grainy, bloody pictures of the Special Forces siege, they transformed the lawn outside the theater into a sea of red carnations. The carnation is the traditional flower of funerals and mourning in Russia.

"It is mostly carnations, carnations, carnations they want," said a flower seller, who says she was nearly sold out within an hour of opening her stall. "Usually you can see someone's mood lifting as the flowers are placed in their hands. Today," she said, "there is only sorrow."

A lone blue teddy bear lies among the flowers on the lawn, a reminder of the many children caught up in the crisis.

Most of the people questioned at the site Monday expressed sheer wonder and relief that more people were not killed in the rescue operation. But while they hesitated to openly criticize the Russian government response, this young man in his twenties, named Pasha, expressed the mixed feelings many Russians share.

"The death toll was definitely too high," Pasha says. "At the same time, he says the Russian government really had no other choice. Not to storm the building," he said, "would only have led to far greater casualties."

He believes the Chechen hostage-takers would have surely blown up the theatre building if they had had more time, killing all the hostages inside.

One former hostage spoke to VOA after he and his sister were released from the hospital. He identified himself only as Dima. He said he never doubted that he and his sister would survive the ordeal.

But Dima says his doctor told him they might suffer lingering liver problems as a result of the gas used in the storming of the building. "The doctors admitted to him that they did not have an antidote for the gas used by special forces and so treated people with common methods of treating gas poisoning," he said. "Treatment included injections to clear the bloodstream of toxins."

But he says he was seriously ill, at times unconscious, and in intensive care for up to four hours after he was taken out of the theater.

Asked whether he thought the government was to blame for his illness and the deaths of the other hostages, he hesitated only a moment before responding that he would not want to judge.

Dima also said he would hate to think about what could have happened had the government used too little of the substance and failed to knock out the hostage-takers, many of whom had strapped heavy explosives around their bodies.

The former hostage also spoke briefly about his countrymen's attitude toward Chechens living in Russia. He said he did not think attitudes toward Chechens would change. As he put it, "not everyone is a terrorist or hostage-taker."

Dima said he was not sure about whether Russia should be conducting the current second military campaign in Chechnya long before he was taken captive in the theatre. And he said he remains undecided about the campaign today.

But if there is one thing Russians are sure about it is the importance of getting on with life.

There is perhaps no better proof than reports of ticket sellers being overwhelmed by phone calls from people wanting to know how soon the theatre will re-open for business.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov has said the city will help the theatre with its recovery and reconstruction so the show can go on. According to the mayor, the first performance will be staged for the commandos who stormed the theatre and freed the hostages.

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