. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hostages Tell of Run Through Russian Hellfire

Eastern Chechnya -- They slept like the dead. Side by side on boards the length of a long underground bunker, 37 men lay motionless with an exhaustion that only comes from living through a battle.


Seized as hostages by the Chechen rebels in Dagestan nearly two weeks ago, they survived the bombardment launched by Russian security forces against their captors until they escaped under fire across the border into Chechnya on Thursday.


Now safe from Russian firepower in a secret location in eastern Chechnya, they said they feared for their future. Branded collaborators by the Russian authorities, they are more nervous of the treatment they will get at home than their present predicament.


General Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Service, described the hostages, who number at least 60 according to Nazar Edilkhadzhiyev, one of the Chechen commanders, as going "with enthusiasm."


Arkady, a math teacher and father of four who agreed to go on the buses to Chechnya in the deal to win the release of the more than 2,000 hostages in Kizlyar hospital, said, "I don't believe in my future now.


"I volunteered because I feared a storm on the hospital in which many could die," he said.


Now he faces returning home a criminal rather then a hero. "I want rehabilitation," he said.


"If you call carrying the wounded and saving your own life collaboration ... well how can you?" he asked in exasperation.


After living through three days of heavy bombardment and helicopter attacks, the Chechen plan to break through the Russian cordon and make for the border, seemed their only chance of survival.


"In the mornings, we would look at our watches for the start of the helicopters. We understood we would be wiped out with the fighters. We did not know how we would survive and understood we had to get to the border," he said.


All the hostages, some of who wore bloodstained bandages over shrapnel wounds, said the Chechens treated them well and only had criticism for the Russian government.


"Do you know how a herd of sheep feels when the wolf is near. That is how we felt and the wolf [was] Russia," said another hostage, Magomed.


Arkady said, "They betrayed me, my own armed forces betrayed me."


Some did go willingly, and expressed sympathy for the Chechens. "I am not going home, I am going to stay with the fighters," one said.


"They are ordinary people and I have seen what they have been going through for the past year," he said.


The hostages said the break for the border, through three lines of Russian encirclement, was the most and terrifying moment of the whole week.


Under fire from three sides, with mortars, tank shells, machine-gun fire and rockets raining down on them, they ran across the snowy plain and waded through a freezing river.


"It was hell on three sides. We thought when morning came, the helicopters would come so we hurried, but we were not quick enough. At about 6 a.m. they came. Three of them constantly in the air and firing machine guns at us. We had our faces in the ground and we went two kilometers in three hours, "Arkady said.


The civilian hostages have been told they will be released Tuesday. Aslan Maskhadov, Chechen chief of staff, said in an interview Saturday in Novogrozny, that the "civilians are not considered hostages, they can go anytime. We have told the Dagestani authorities they can come and take the hostages when they want."


But Dagestan officials told Itar-Tass and Interfax on Monday that the Chechens would let the hostages go only on condition that the bodies of dead rebels be turned over. Dagestani officials, meeting with Chechen representatives at a village in Chechnya, agreed to the request, Interfax said. However, Russian officials said they had not yet finished the job of identifying the dead on both sides of the conflict.


The 16 Russian policemen who were captured in Pervomaiskoye were moved away to another secret location Sunday evening. The policemen are prisoners of war, Maskhadov said, adding that three of his men were being held prisoner by Russian forces.