Reporter’s Notebook: Living in the Airport, Looking for Edward Snowden

Jun 30, 2013 1:51pm
AP novotel hotel sheremetyevo airport moscow jt 130630 33x16 608 Reporters Notebook: Living in the Airport, Looking for Edward Snowden

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

MOSCOW — After a week searching for Edward Snowden inside Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, I can tell you where to find a decent bagel. I can tell you the wifi password at Burger King. I can even tell you where they sell snorkeling equipment.

What I can’t tell you is where Snowden is hiding.

He’s holed up somewhere on the airport grounds, yet nobody has seen him since he arrived. Trying to find him has been a maddening, quixotic search.

A typical day consists of patrolling the terminals, camping in front of the most likely hiding spots, evading airport security (who chase me away when I start filming), and then searching for places to charge my phone and laptop.

I’ve spent up to 18 hours a day beyond passport control and security looking for Snowden. There is an irrational fear, even late at night, that the moment I call it quits he’ll come strolling down the hall, take the escalator down to Terminal D, and sit by his gate, waiting patiently for Zone 2 to be called before boarding a flight.

It’s the kind of mirage-inducing paranoia that makes the sight of any young white man with glasses the cause of a high-speed pursuit down the halls, camera in hand.

At this point it appears that Snowden is not in any public part of the airport. It seems unlikely he is browsing the duty-free for bargains on booze and perfume. There’s no sign of him in the VIP lounges and he’s not at the bars.

In short, I’m running out of places to look for him.

He also does not appear to be staying at the small hotel inside Terminal E. A small army of other reporters has camped outside that hotel and paced its only hallway around the clock. He hasn’t been seen coming or going and nobody has been bringing food inside.

Even if Snowden were hiding in a public part of the airport, the chances of running into him are slim. Sheremetyevo has three interconnected international terminals, each with dozens of gates, shops, cafes, and lounges. Parking myself at one of the gates yields a less than 1 percent chance of running into him.

More likely is the possibility that Snowden is staying somewhere in a restricted area. He could be in Terminal A, which is for official use only. Or perhaps Ecuadorean diplomats, who will reportedly escort him whenever he does travel, can afford him access to a diplomatic lounge.

Or maybe he’s staying at what’s been dubbed the Sheremetyevo Novotel “Prison” Hotel, where passengers with long layovers and no visa — like Snowden — can book rooms. They’re confined to a blocked off wing of the hotel and can only order room service, but at least it’s more comfortable than the airport floor and far away from pesky reporters.

Still, that haunting fear of missing Snowden means I have turned up day after day in hopes of finding one of the world’s most wanted men. It has also led to some desperate, if ultimately embarrassing, measures.

Snowden has already thrown reporters for a loop once. He was checked in for a flight to Havana on Monday and a couple dozen Russian and foreign journalists booked tickets, hoping to have him cornered on the long flight. But as the plane pulled away from the gate there was no sign of Snowden on board.

The reporters were subjected to an 11-hour flight to Cuba without the benefit of alcohol to drown their frustration. (Aeroflot stopped selling alcoholic drinks on that route in 2010.)

In order to get to the part of the airport where Snowden is hiding, the area by the gates beyond passport control, journalists have been purchasing the least expensive ticket available and then missing the flight. (It was a cruel joke when I was once booked on a flight to Paris.) That, however, has led to some trouble with Russian immigration.

After an American colleague was held for nearly two hours and warned she could lose her visa, I decided it was better to take my overnight round-trip flight to Armenia. After 14 hours of fruitless search at the airport, I flew to Yerevan at 10 p.m., landing in the middle of the night, and returning just a couple hours later, ready for another day of searching.

At the moment, it appears Snowden will be stuck in the airport for a while longer. The United States canceled his passport and he has few, if any, safe routes to Ecuador, which has said it would consider his request for asylum if he can make it to the country or one of its embassies.

For his sake, I hope he is somewhere more comfortable than the transit area. Those of us who are looking for him there must survive off of a steady diet of greasy TGI Friday’s (there are two, in front of gates 28 and 32) and $11 coffees.

Snowden’s dilemma has drawn comparison to the Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal,” in which Hanks’ character remains stuck in the airport for years after his country ceases to exist while he is en route. The longer I wait for Snowden to emerge, however, the more I’m starting to think I’m the one who is stuck at the airport.

If it goes any longer I fear it may start feeling like “Waiting for Godot.”

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