Relatives say many of the victims died because they were denied medical help and accuse the Russian government of covering up its role in the carnage. Ten years on, the probe into the deaths is still underway and investigators have failed to release even preliminary findings. To the anger of survivors and victims' relatives, authorities have consistently refused to disclose the content of the gas.
At the time, authorities claimed no child died in the siege. The families of the dead, however, say as many as 10 children were killed and another 69 lost at least one parent in the tragedy. Officials also initially praised a successful operation during which all the militants were killed with no loss of life among security forces. But soon, the grisly details began to emerge. Footage showed how unconscious hostages were clumsily dragged out of the theatre and dumped into buses. The few doctors at the scene, not knowing what type of gas they were dealing with, were unable to save many lives. Countless hostages choked on their own vomit, others swallowed their tongues or suffocated to death in cramped buses.
Tatiana Karpova, the mother of well-known songwriter Aleksander Karpov, claims he died in an ambulance after spending seven hours in a bus packed with corpses. He was 31. "My son died an awful death that I would not even wish on my enemies," she says. "He spent seven hours lying alive among dead bodies without any medical help. There were many such instances, and we will never forgive this."
Karpova has been spearheading efforts to seek legal redress for the botched rescue. Relatives of the victims pin the blame squarely on President Vladimir Putin, who they say gave the orders to use the poisonous gas and helped cover up the deadly rescue operation. They got a boost last December when the European Court of Human Rights upheld their complaint and ordered Russia to pay the 64 plaintiffs a total of 1.3 million euros ($1.7 million) for moral compensation. The court, in particular, rejected the Kremlin's claim that the gas was not directly responsible for the hostages' deaths, which authorities have blamed on various illnesses, food and water deprivation, psychological stress, and a lack of fresh air.
Emboldened by their victory, relatives this month formally asked Russian investigators to open a new probe taking into account the European Court's decision. Ten years on, however, their chances of uncovering the whole truth about the rescue operation appear slim at best. "Public interest has faded, and finding leads is very difficult from a procedural point of view after so many years," says security specialist Ivan Sukhov. "Of course, they keep their relevance as a group that seeks to draw attention to the low regard for life in the Russian Federation. But, as regards the investigation, I don't think they are in a position to achieve anything."
Nonetheless, families of the Dubrovka victims say it's not only the truth they have been fighting for over the past decade. "No one can guarantee that such a situation won't repeat itself and that these same people won't conduct another botched rescue operation," Karpova says. "We are doing all this to make sure there aren't any more tragedies like the one we endured, any more broken families. That's what we are fighting for."