MOSCOW - After being held hostage for 57 hours by Chechen guerrillas in a Moscow theater and gassed by Russian special forces, Yakhar Neserkoyeva faced one more crisis. She was arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist.
Investigators said the groggy 42-year-old economist gave "inadequate" answers during an interrogation in a Moscow hospital in the hours after the crisis, which began Oct. 23 and ended Oct. 26. But the basic reason for her detention may be simpler: Neserkoyeva is Chechen.
After two days in a hospital for prisoners, the Moscow woman spent eight more days locked up with thieves and drug addicts in a four-person cell in a district police headquarters. She was held even though she had been invited to the theater that night by Russian friends and despite the efforts of the Russian-backed government of Chechnya to win her release.
"I knew I was completely innocent, but I had doubts," she said in her first interview after her release from custody. "Maybe they would find some coincidences. Maybe they would not believe me."
Neserkoyeva - known as Yakhi to friends - was among thousands of Chechens living in Moscow and other Russian cities to run afoul of police, who have become deeply suspicious of all Chechens since the hostage-taking. It was more of the same for the Chechens, who had already been subject to frequent document checks and demands for bribes by police.
"Yakhi's case demonstrates that this event doesn't have some nationalistic flavor," said her lawyer, Stanislav Markelov. "All nationalities, including Chechens, suffered as much as the Russians."
Chechen guerrillas seized more than 700 hostages when they stormed the theater in the Palace of Culture, a community center in southeast Moscow's Dubrovka neighborhood.
At least 128 of the hostages - and 41 of the guerrillas - died early Oct. 26 after an elite counterterror squad pumped a narcotic gas through the theater's ventilation system and came in shooting.
Among the hostages killed were citizens of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Austria, the United States and the Netherlands - as well as scores of Russians. All but five of the hostages died from complications from exposure to the gas. The others died of gunshot wounds.
Galina Mozhegova, 46, said she invited Neserkoyeva and another friend, Zhenya Koshkina, to Nord-Ost, a patriotic musical based on a Soviet-era story of arctic exploration, that chilly autumn evening.
Mozhegova, an ethnic Russian who lives in the Russian republic of Komi, 800 miles northeast of Moscow, was in Moscow for a week's visit. She has known Neserkoyeva for 25 years.
"If it wasn't for me, she would never have come to the theater that night," said Mozhegova, sitting sadly on her bed in a hospital where she was recovering from medical problems related to her rescue. She apologized for inviting Neserkoyeva to the performance.
The three friends were seated together in the 13th row of the music hall when the heavily armed Chechen militants invaded the theater, shooting over the heads of spectators. "My heart was beating so rapidly, it was as though there was a hurricane in my body," Mozhegova recalled.
From the first night, the guerrillas said they planned to release all Muslims and foreigners. Neserkoyeva's two friends urged her to tell her captors that she is Muslim and show them her internal Russian passport, which lists her place of birth. They thought she would be set free.
But Neserkoyeva was nervous. She overheard a guerrilla speaking in Chechen on a mobile phone: "The Chechens who had betrayed their motherland by leaving it, they should be shot first," the guerrilla said.
By the second day, though, the guerrillas were negotiating with a Chechen member of the lower house of parliament, the Duma. There seemed to be little danger they would hurt Neserkoyeva. And there was an increasing fear that none of the hostages would get out of the theater alive.
Her friends once again urged her to step forward to try to save herself.
"I am not going to leave you here alone," she told them, starting to cry.
"What's the point of this heroism if we both die here?" Mozhegova told her.
But Neserkoyeva still refused to go, even hiding her face from the Chechen guerillas when they passed - fearing they would recognize her ethnic background and separate her from her friends.
She called a friend from the theater on a mobile phone Oct. 25 but instructed the friend not to tell her family in Grozny, the Chechen capital. "I didn't want to worry them," she said.
Her family didn't find out that she was at the theater until five days after the hostage crisis ended.
As the gas flooded the theater during the rescue, Neserkoyeva fell asleep with her head on Mozhegova's shoulder. When the Chechen woman was carried out of the theater, her passport and other identity papers were left behind.