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SHEREMETYEVO – A burlesque of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal is being staged in Terminal E of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Hordes of journalists flocked to the airport in the last several days hoping to find Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who emerged into the global spotlight after revealing information on the US surveillance program, and then disappeared.
WHEN REALITY IS FUNNIER THAN FICTION
In Steven Spielberg’s famous 2004 film The Terminal, an unfortunate traveler from a fictitious Balkan state seeks to enter U.S. territory only to find upon arrival in New York that his homeland has ceased to exist due to a civil war, and his visa is no longer valid. Tom Hanks’ character becomes an eyesore for JFK officials, who can’t solve his problem, and as a result he gets stuck in the airport for nine months.
In the real world, similar stories tend to play out in a different, often even more incredible manner. Unlike the movie, the main character, former CIA employee Edward Snowden, has no intention whatsoever to reach the US, where he has been labeled a traitor. Just like in the movie, American authorities annulled his passport. So while powerful men sort out his fate, Snowden is stuck in Terminal E of Sheremetyevo Airport. So far, despite the frenzy, no one has been able to spot the fugitive.
For the last several days, Terminal E has been witnessing the unfolding of an international political thriller. It all started on June 23, when Snowden flew into Moscow from Hong Kong, where he was hiding from US authorities after revealing secret information, which defied the boldest fantasies of conspiracy theorists on the government’s ability to control minds. According to Snowden’s leaks, US and British intelligence services have access to almost all mobile phone calls and email on the planet. In order to shed some light on these bloodcurdling secret practices, Snowden even gave up his annual salary of $200,000 and a home in Hawaii.
Having been branded as traitor in the US, Snowden said he would seek political asylum in Latin America or Iceland, which of course has a long track record of supporting freedom of speech. It is for that reason that he boarded in Honk Kong a Moscow-bound flight from Hong Kong, initially planning to transit to a third destination.
LOOKING FOR SNOWDEN
However, no one actually saw Snowden in Moscow. It was unclear whether he had actually arrived, although unnamed sources confirmed that he did. The fugitive agent is said to have checked into the V-Express capsule hotel in Terminal E, instantly making it the place to be for any journalist worth his salt. Reporters immediately booked all available rooms in hopes of a glimpse of the celebrity.
Hotel staff appeared to have been under strict orders not to discuss Snowden’s whereabouts. Nevertheless, when a RIA Novosti reporter checked into the hotel under the guise of an ordinary traveler, a female hotel employee confirmed that the US fugitive had indeed appeared at the hotel on June 23, the day he flew into Moscow. Since the reception desk doesn’t have the means to verify whether his American passport is valid, he could have even used it for registration. But after a few hours at the hotel, he was reportedly gone.
This reporter even took a walk through the dark corridors of the V-Express hotel calling Snowden’s name, only to see the bewildered faces of fellow journalists. It was a shady facility, where half of the 66 rooms had no windows, although every single one is equipped with a shower and a TV set. Apart from the exit door, hotel corridors end with several locked doors which could have been used for undetected escape.
ANOTHER MOVIE ANALOGY
Snowden’s travels were complicated by the fact that by the time he reached Sheremetyevo’s transit zone, his documents were no longer valid. The US authorities decided to cancel his passport when he was just about to fly into Moscow. In order to continue his journey, he needs to receive transit documents from any state that is willing to do, taking into account that any such move will be perceived by the U.S. as an act of political defiance. A refugee document of passage could have been a solution, with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claiming that Ecuador issued them to Snowden. But the country’s Foreign Ministry did not confirm this.
Under Russian laws, a passenger connecting from one international flight to another can stay in the transit zone for up to 24 hours. After that, he or she has to apply for a transit visa. RIA Novosti’s sources claim that Snowden could have applied for it, since Russia’s Foreign Ministry has a consular desk in the airport. But it was unclear what document Snowden could have used for this purpose, since his US passport has been canceled.
This catch-22 takes us back to The Terminal once again. Documents carried by the film’s main character show an incomprehensible Cyrillic inscription, “ЕЩЬ РФТЛЫ,” but when he approaches a border officer making another attempt to enter the U.S., he holds a Belarus-style driver’s license issued to a certain Gulina Gulnar Nazirovna.
SO WHERE IS MR SNOWDEN?
Sheremetyevo’s transit zone covers a huge area with 24-hour cafes and duty free outlets overcrowded with vacationers. Finding Snowden is also complicated by the fact that terminals E, F, and D have a single transit zone. It takes thirty minutes to walk the whole area from one end to another, while inspecting every single corner would take hours.
But journalists are anything but time-strapped. They spend their time wandering in the secret passages of the transit zone, peering futilely into the faces of other passengers.
“Never saw such a frenzy. Don’t you have anything better to do besides hanging out here day and night?” a well-dressed passenger on his way to Amsterdam said.
The search for Snowden is also complicated by the fact that apart from the capsule hotel and numerous chairs, the transit zone has a number of restricted premises, where Snowden could be awaiting his fate in reasonable comfort. These include several business lounges and, more importantly, a vast territory controlled by Russia’s Federal Security Service (the FSB). Each door leading to the territory has a sign saying “Area of additional security restrictions of Russia’s Federal Security Service. Access on case-by-case basis only.” Violators are subject to a fine of 1,000 rubles.
After ringing the doorbell of one such door, this RIA Novosti reporter saw a young border control officer emerge from the inside. He refused to engage in conversation, and even suggested that journalists would be better off writing about something else.
A local Burger King serves as a headquarters for the journalists, as if it was tacitly assumed that if an American were to emerge for lunch he would opt for a familiar fast food chain. In addition, restaurant customers can see the entire terminal and its gates. Another scene from The Terminal comes to mind at this point, since it was in Burger King that the Tom Hanks character buys his first hamburger in his first truly American experience.
Journalists occupied several tables in the café, covering them with camcorders, cameras, and laptops with their permanently depleted batteries. But Snowden never showed up. “I can’t say whether he came here or not. We are serving hundreds of customers every day, including foreigners,” a girl behind the cash register said.
And yet, well-built young men would occasionally emerge from nearby FSB premises to order suspiciously large quantities of hamburgers and fries to go. A mysterious smile is all that reporters get when they ask whether these meals are intended for the fugitive American.
By the evening of June 25 enthusiasm among reporters somewhat faded, but was revived by President Vladimir Putin, who confirmed that Snowden is still in the transit zone. Putin said that Snowden’s arrival was “completely unexpected.”
ON THE ROAD TO HAVANA
So why Havana? Neither Venezuela nor Ecuador – the two countries willing to consider Snowden’s asylum request – have direct flights from Moscow. Possible transit routes lie through Europe, where Snowden is likely to be detained, or through Havana, which is not particularly friendly towards the US.
Snowden registered on Cuba-bound flights twice on June 24 and 25. About three dozen Russian and foreign journalists registered for the first flight as well, and had to leave for the island of freedom without Snowden, passing the lengthy hours onboard a transatlantic flight filming video reports of an empty seat 17A, where Snowden was registered. Someone started a Twitter account of the empty seat, with tweets mostly complaining of excessive intrusiveness by journalists. “I feel empty,” the seat’s account said, adding that “The Man Who Wasn't There” was being shown during the flight.
After this, media companies became reluctant to spend on expensive tickets and limited their efforts to a 24-hour vigil in the transit zone. Access there is available to those who have a ticket and a boarding pass for an international flight, which prompted journalists to come up with a clever way of getting there without actually taking a flight. The solution is to buy a ticket for a cheap international flight, such as to Kiev or Minsk, which costs 4,000 rubles. That’s what this RIA Novosti reporter did. He registered for the 17A seat, went through all border control procedures and is now in the transit zone. All he has left to do is find Snowden.
To be continued….
This text originally appeared in Russian on www.ria.ru
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