Five days after Chechen guerrillas brought the war in Chechnya into Russia proper, they left their hospital stronghold, escorted towards the Caucasus mountains by three police cars and accompanied by a refrigerated van stuffed with their dead.
Minutes after they had gone, taking with them more than 100 "volunteers" drawn from their captives, a dozen Russian journalists and four parliamentary deputies to guarantee their safety, ambulances and more buses arrived to ferry out the 1,000 hostages left behind.
"It's over. It's over," shouted an elderly woman weeping as she caught sight of her husband. For those travelling with some 74 Chechen fighters, however, another ordeal had just begun.
Russian officials said "volunteers" with the Chechen commander, Shamil Basayev, are supposed to be released once the gunmen are safely inside rebel-held territory in southern Chechnya. Last night, Russian news agencies reported the convoy had crossed into Chechnya.
Alexander Vishnyakov's wife was waiting in the burning sun when he heaved his body, bloated by illness, into Lenin Square from a bus carrying hostages from the hospital. They hugged. He wept and she wiped the tears trickling down his pale face.
But when they started talking he discovered she had not come to meet him from home. Before Mr Vishnyakov staggered from the third bus in a convoy from the hospital, his wife, Lydia, had stepped from the second. He did not know until yesterday that she too had been a hostage, he confined to bed on the third floor, she cowering on the floor one storey below. "I thought she was at home the whole time worrying," said the 58-year- old former tractor-driver, belly bulging through his shirt, a symptom of the stomach illness that had made him first a patient then a captive at the Budennovsk central district hospital.
Their shared trauma may be a blessing. The joy of hundreds of reunited families yesterday was mixed with angry scenes as arguments erupted between those who had been inside the hospital and those who had not. While many of the captives expressed sympathy, even support for their Chechen captors, others cursed them as barbaric murderers.
Mr Vishnyakov had gone in for an operation only a week before Chechen guerrillas stormed this southern Russian town last Wednesday. On the day of the attack, his wife was on her way to visit him. She stopped on the way to buy food at the market.
"I went to buy potatoes and found myself in the middle of a war," she said, recalling how Chechen gunmen had shot their way into the market and herded together everyone they could find for a forced march to the hospital. By the time they got there they had seized upwards of 1,000 captives.
Almost every family in Budennovsk has been touched by the violence. But the town seems divided rather than united by the ordeal. The Vishnyakovs and most other freed hostages said they had been well treated by the Chechens. "Give me a gun and I'll go and shoot that crazy Yeltsin," said Mr Vishnyakov, furious at the decision to send in Russian troops to try and free them by force. A nurse, who had said she had seen bodies fall around her as Russian gunfire raked the building, stood in Lenin Square and held up a shell casing: "This is a souvenir of the Russian army." But residents who had seen friends or relatives shot dead when the Chechen guerrillas rampaged through town, cursed the freed captives. "You sound like a Chechen," shouted one man at an old woman just released from hospital who blamed her plight on Moscow's decision to wage war in Chechnya.
Alexander Fadayev said the Chechens had shown their true face when they shot his friend as he came out of a cinema on the main square.
Angriest of all are relatives of the 150 or so captives who have yet to be freed - the so-called volunteers who, enlisted as human shields to protect the rebels, boarded buses yesterday to rebel-held areas of Chechnya.
"Papa, Papa," shrieked a young woman hysterically outside the hospital. She had come to watch her father's release but instead saw him through the window of a bus heading for Chechnya. "Don't go. Why are they taking you?"Reuse content