But this was not washing day in Budennovsk, it was war. The white sheets were a last impotent and desparate plea from hundred of hostages trapped inside the Budennovsk District Hospital in this sleepy southern Russian town - the latest and possibly most ghoulish front line in Russia's six- months long conflict.
Their hope of getting out alive seemed as bleak as the plumes of black smoke rising from the wreckage of what, last Wednesday afternoon when Chechen gunmen took them captive, became their prison, and yesterday morning shortly before five o'clock, threatened to become their grave.
"God knows how many people have died in there," screamed Antonina Ashikmina, as she searched a list of survivors and wounded for the name of her husband. He had checked into the hospital a week ago with a broken leg.
A few blocks away Russian troops pounded away at the hospital in a second and apparently failed attempt to dislodge the Chechen hostage takers. What the defence minister Pavel Grachev said would be a quick strike had degenerated into a fiasco.
Around the city wandered freelance soldiers, often drunk and waving pistols. They were on the lookout for Chechens who they said were wandering the streets. The roads were studded with checkpoints, manned by ragtag bands of armed traffic police, Interior Ministry soldiers and Cossacks with hunting rifles.
It is a measure of how badly the operation seems to have gone that some officials in Moscow denied that the government in Moscow had ordered the attack.
The deputy government spokesman, Valery Grishin said that Russian special forces had "acted emotionally" after hearing the screams of hostages. Utter confusion surrounded the whole mission. The first and the second rounds of fierce gun battles were separated by hours of near silence and statements that negotiations had resumed. Helicopter gunships circled over the smouldering hospital.
Having cursed the brutality of the Chechen gunmen for four days, many residents turned their anger yesterday on the Russian government. The head of the local administration had pleaded for a peaceful settlement, and scores of citizens shouted angrily outside the polyclinic.
"It is our own people who are doing this. For them it is nothing to shoot. Where is Yeltsin? He is hiding. He knows his own family is safe," said a weeping Paisa Foralova, the 55-year-old mother of one of the captives.
Among the 300 who did manage to flee during the assault was Dr Nikolai Karmazov, the hospital's chief surgeon. When the Russian assault on the hospital began he was in the emergency ward, a separate building not guarded by the Chechens. He fled across the field along with a hundred other hostages. It was his surgical skills, he said, which saved him. During four days in captivity, he performed 30 operations, some of the Chechens among his patients. "There were some you could talk to but others who just wanted to shoot us."
Six people in his ward had tried to escape before the Russian attack. "Everyone was terrified. At least I could think about my work. I tried to cling to the normal schedule but didn't have enough nurses."
Women and children trickled from the hospital throughout much of the day. Rosanna Annitova staggered from the building during a lull in the fighting clutching her three-month-old baby boy. Five members of her family remained inside.
She said that women and children had been fed by the Chechens. "If the army keeps shooting, they won't get anyone out."
As daylight faded it was impossible to guess what the next step would be. "Talks" were said to be in progress between both sides. But the fear and anxiety of this dangerous stalemate spread much further than the streets of Budennovsk.
The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, said that angry Chechen separatists might launch acts of terror in the Russian capital.
Whatever happens next, the sight of the green flag of Islam fluttering above the rooftops of Budennovsk, and the sound of gunfire and grief vindicate the worst fears of those against Mr Yeltsin's repression of the Chechen revolt: a bitter and unending conflict between Russia and the Muslim nations still held unwillingly within its borders.Reuse content