On a drizzly Wednesday night in October several hundred people were watching a musical at the Ball-Bearing Factory Theater in Moscow. The show was a romantic love story set in Stalin’s Russia. As the audience settled down to the second half of the show, dozens of heavily-armed men and women laden with explosives arrived at the theatre in three vans. The attackers raked the foyer with gunfire and swarmed into the building.
Inside the auditorium, the theatregoers were watching the show and heard nothing. That night’s performance was recorded, as was usual, by the theatre’s video camera. As gunmen sealed off the auditorium, the sound and the video were cut. The audience heard the terrorist leader Movsar Barayev announce that if the Russian army did not get out of Chechnya, he would command his followers to blow up the theatre and everyone inside it. By now the police had sealed off the surrounding streets. From inside the theatre, a hostage used her mobile phone to call a local radio station.
The suicide squad numbered 22 men and 19 women. The woman’s job was to guard the hostages and on command to detonate the explosives strapped to their bodies. It was clear from the start that the Kremlin, humiliated by such a bold attack, would never give in to the Chechen demands. Relatives and friends prayed for the hostages to be saved, but everyone expected a bloodbath.
The Russians could not use their troops until they knew more about what awaited them inside the theatre. A few children, some Muslims, and two pregnant women were released, but no one dared to go in. Then, 6 hours into the siege, a young woman was seen making a way across the theatre car park. No one knew who she was or how she got through the police cordon.
Thursday morning dawned and still no sign of a Russian counterattack. Inside the theatre the minutes ticked by. In a quiet moment, the gunman with the video camera focused on his leader. 25-year-old Movsar Barayev was the nephew of the notorious Chechen rebel. Embarrassingly for the Russians, they claimed to have killed him ten days earlier in Chechnya.
Despite the slogans in Arabic and the women Saudi style costumes, the terrorists were native Chechens, with one exception – a Gulf Arab volunteer who would shave his bushy beard in order not to stand out on the streets of Moscow.
As the Chechens grew more confident they allowed some Russian MPs to enter the theatre. Later in the day, two doctors volunteered to go in. Before they could treat any hostages they were made to carry out the body of the terrorists’ first victim. She was 26-year-old shop assistant who lived nearby.