When Edward Snowden finally leaves the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, it will lose its biggest attraction.
The former U.S. spy agency contractor has managed to stay out of sight for two weeks since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23, hoping to fly on to a country that would not send him back to the United States to face espionage charges.
The hordes of reporters who for days camped out in the hope of finding him have long since packed up and left. These days Snowden just provides sport for bored passengers trying to spot him as they while away the hours waiting for connecting flights.
“I offered my kids $200 to get a picture of him,” Simon Parry, a Briton, said as he waited in the interconnected transit area between terminals D, E and F, a maze of corridors, lounges, fast food restaurants and duty free shops.
Parry said he had sympathy with the former National Security Agency contractor, who divulged details of U.S. intelligence programmes – but not for political reasons.
After spending two hours at Sheremetyevo on his way from Hong Kong to Milan, he was already fed up.
“The wireless Internet is appalling, the prices are awful, and people never smile. So I commend him for making it 24 hours, let alone two weeks. I might rather face trial,” Parry said, sitting with his family at a Burger King outlet in Terminal E.
Snowden, 30, may have been kept in a secret area, perhaps underground, or moved around from day to day to avoid detection.
He will surely be relieved that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has now offered him asylum after more than a dozen states refused him entry or deferred a decision on his asylum request.
“Being trapped in this airport, you might as well be in jail – no air – finding a place to sleep. They must have put him in a secure location, but then you’re at the mercy of the Russians,” said Armin Hies, travelling for the hotel chain where he works.
Another game for bored passengers has been to guess what Snowden has been doing all this time.
Could he have been tempted to emerge from hiding to grab a burger, to buy some of the tacky Soviet memorabilia in the duty-free stores, or the diamond-encrusted handbags on sale nearby?
Has he ventured out to admire the displays of red, green and blue Faberge eggs selling for 1,000 euros each, or browsed the 200 euro sunglasses, perhaps to improve his disguise?
Where he has been washing is also not clear, although some toilets and showers dot the transit area. Sleeping cannot have been easy – the hum of vacuum cleaners punctuates the night.
Food in transit area restaurants could be brought to Snowden, even if he dare not venture out himself. He could by now have exhausted the menu at Russian diners like Mama Russia, which offers blinis, red caviar and cabbage soup, or at the two T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants offering more international fare.
Olga Samsonova, who has worked as a waitress for 18 years at Sheremetyevo, says the airport food is costly and that Snowden may have turned to handouts from Russian airline Aeroflot.
“That’s where he’s got his food from. I can’t say much about what it tastes like but it’s nutritional, more or less. And they give you yogurt for breakfast,” she said.
She had seen dozens of people – mostly asylum seekers – take up temporary residence at the airport in the time she has worked there, including an Iranian woman who spent nearly a year in the airport with her children before receiving asylum in Canada.
“At least there are lots of places to sit down,” she said, standing over stewed vegetables for sale under the fluorescent lights of Terminal F, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Despite renovations to accommodate glitzy duty-free shops, the terminal with its grey walls and dark floors retains much of its Soviet flavour, though terminals D and E are much brighter.
For Yegor Alexandrovich, 60, who declined to give his full name, the airport has everything one could want.
“I stayed overnight here once and I felt like a king. You doze off, you wake up and the world is at your fingertips. Some of the restaurants even have buffets where you can go a second time,” he said, smiling.