Holding up the corpse of a man just shot dead in front of hundreds of hostages (search) 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."
When children fainted from lack of sleep, food and water, their masked and camouflaged captors simply sneered. In the intolerable heat of the gym, adults implored children to drink their own urine.
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 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 Friday as she lay collapsed in exhaustion on 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 Russian commandos stormed School No. 1 in this southern town, bringing the nation's worst hostage crisis to a shattering end of gunfire and explosions.
Alla and her mother, Irina, were in the school courtyard Wednesday seeing off her son, Zaur, on his first day of school when they heard sounds like "balloons popping."
She thought the noise was part of school festivities. But then five masked gunmen burst into the courtyard, shooting in the air and ordering people to get inside the building. Children, parents and teachers — Alla estimated there were about 1,000 in all — were corralled into a corner on the ground floor and then herded 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, then delivered a warning: "If we find any mobile phones, we will shoot 20 people all around you."
On the first day, people got a tiny bit of water to drink, but no food. After that, 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 touched him, or even brushed by him, she said. As with most of the 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?"
As Alla spoke under a grove of spruce trees, she had not yet been reunited with her mother or son, although authorities confirmed to her that they were alive.
She recounted how the hostage-takers eventually took off their masks. They had beards, long hair, and spoke with Chechen (search) 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 Friday, early in the afternoon, explosions erupted without warning, both inside and outside the gym, she said. In the chaos, she couldn't figure out how they were set off. Gunfire followed.
As the battle 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."
The hostage-takers began pushing people out of the gym and into the basement. That created an opening for the hostages: They began breaking windows and fleeing. Some pushed children outside.
Alla said she helped her son and mother through a window. She didn't manage to get out.
For some reason, a 6-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, finally made a rush for a set of doors in the gymnasium. As they fled, she saw bodies of captives strewn on the floor as rebels fought with Russian security troops swarming around school compound.
Some Russian soldiers appeared as they reached the doors. "At first I didn't believe it," Alla 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, 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.