A surgeon under fire

by

The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, by Khassan Baiev with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff, Pocket Books,

Jenny Haines

While we in the West have been campaigning and fighting against the war for oil in Iraq, another war for oil has been fought by the Russians against the Chechen people. The Russians portray the wars fought in the 1990s and into the 2000s in Chechnya as a part of the war on terrorism, and the West, particularly the Americans buy it, and keep silent, because they want the Russians support in their so called war on terrorism.

But there is another side to the story and Khassan Baiev in his book The Oath, A Surgeon Under Fire, tells of his and his family’s experiences as Chechens in Chechnya during the First and Second Wars in the 1990s. Khassan with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff assisting, does a great service to those of us in the West who don’t know much about the tortured history of Chechnya and their stormy relationship with Russia over several centuries. Particularly prevalent in the minds of the current citizens of Chechnya are the Repressions of 1937, the Deportations of 1944 and the events during and after the Second World War. At the end of the Second World War, Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis, and ordered the deportation of the Chechens to other parts of the USSR. The words of Stalin’s Order are printed in this book. Terrible things happened at the time of the deportations. Khassan’s father told Khassan as a young man, what happened in his own village. On the 23rd February 1944, Stalin’s secret police threw those who were unwilling and infirm over the cliffs near his village. Hundreds died or were left to die.  The rest were force marched on the “Road to Death” to be shipped by train to Kazakhstan. Half a million Chechens in total died in the Deportations.

Khassan, in his younger years became a judo and sombo champion and at one stage thought of making it his career. It was while travelling with a friend in Krasnoyarsk in the Soviet Union that he heard an inner voice suggesting that he be a doctor. He trained as a doctor in the Soviet Union specialising in facial surgery a skill which was to prove fateful for him in the coming years. He  describes so well how during his training he experienced discrimination against him, because he was a Chechen. Chechens could be treated as second class citizens in the old Soviet Union. He gave up judo and sombo after the Soviet Sports Committee pulled him out of the World Youth Championships because he was Chechen. After 9 years away from his family studying in Russia, he went back to Chechnya and set up practice in facial surgery. The world was changing around him. The Soviet Union was collapsing and the satellite states were now demanding independence. The Chechens saw their chance. Khassan heard General Dzhokhar Dudayev speak. He told the Chechens “Because of our oil, we can live like Kuwait. We will live in mansions with golden taps like they have in Kuwait.” The Chechens declared independence on 1 November 1991. The Russians were having none of that!! By August 1994, after a long build up using hysterical progaganda against the Chechens, the Russians started bombing Grozny. The wounded poured into the hospital where Khassan was working and he treated them all. The women of Chechnya marched in a peace march to stop the Russian tanks coming. A Russian General told one group of women he would not attack them. He was relieved of his command a few days later.

Throughout the first war Khassan treated the wounded that were brought to him, Chechen and Russian, in various locations. If one hospital was bombed out, he moved his equipment to another, setting up hospitals in the most unlikely of locations. He operated in villages, on kitchen tables, and in cellars. He had dedicated and loyal staff and friends who moved with him. For treating the Chechen fighters, he was wanted by the Russians. For treating Russian soldiers he was hated by some of the Chechen commanders. As a respected and educated person in his community he was involved in negotiations with Russian officers, at one stage, at the risk to himself of execution by the Russians, he helped save his village from attack by the Russians.

The first war ended with the Russians withdrawing from Chechnya in August 1996. Chechens struggled to get back on their feet. Khassan went back to his surgical practice but the war had taken its toll. He went close to a nervous breakdown, only relieved after he visited an old healing mullah. He recovered, but has carried psychological and emotional scars since. His practice flourished in both Chechnya, and Russia, where he went for futher training and experience. His name was put forward for the title Merited Doctor of Russia. That nomination nearly cost him his life as the Chechen Government thought it inappropriate that a Chechen should be so honoured by Russia and started a criminal prosecution against him. With considerable guts he stood up to a Chechen bureaucrat who at one stage waved a gun at him. The case was eventually dropped but he was never recognised as a Merited Doctor of Russia, because the Chechen President would not approve the proposal.

By mid-1999, the Second Chechen War was starting. The second war was worse than the first and he appropriately calls one of the chapter, describing his experiences as Descent into Hell. At the end of the second war, he treated a number of the retreating Chechen Commanders as well as treating any Russian soldiers who were brought to him. The FSB was looking for him. But it was a FSB Colonel, who was a Chechen, who helped him escape to Ingushetia.  There he met journalists and international human rights watch personnel who helped him, and later his family, to travel to the United States. He now lives in the US where he can’t work as he doesn’t have a surgeons licence. He hankers to return to help his people. His elderly parents are still alive and long to see their grandchildren. During the seige of the Moscow Theatre in October 2002 by Chechen fighters, he was asked by Russian journalists to speak with a couple of the fighters while they were still in the theatres. One of the fighters told him she had nothing to lose. She had already lost 7 members of her family in the wars. Khassan couldn’t talk them into surrender. The fighters told him they were prepared to release all the foreigners in the theatre but the Russians refused to have anyone come to pick them up. The Russians pumped sleeping gas into the theatre. All but 2 of the hostage takers were executed with a shot to the head.

This book is powerful and moving. Khassan’s understated way of writing about his activities belies his heroism in the face of enormous odds, and the more than occasional death threat. It is a personal journey straight through the heart of Chechen history over the last 15 years. It is an un-missable read.

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