Remarkable account of medicine in a time of war – and of what it means to be a Chechen

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ayesha Ansari

Dhu al-Hijjah 01, 1426 2006-01-01

Book Review

by Ayesha Ansari (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1426)

‘THE OATH’: A SURGEON UNDER FIRE by Khassan Baiev with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff. Pub: Walker & Company, New York, USA, 2003. $26.00

"Two reasons motivated me to write The Oath. First, I wanted the world to know that war is a hellish thing that victimizes the innocent. In war there are no winners. Secondly, and equally important, I wanted to introduce my readers to the Chechen people." -- Dr Khassan Baiev, The Oath

In this remarkable book, Dr Khassan Baiev, quite simply, tells the reader what it means to be Chechen. Through the story of his life we learn the history of the Chechen people: of Sheikh Shamil Basayev, the famous 18th-century ‘rebel’, of the fight for freedom, of the Stalin-era deportations of the entire Chechen population in the 1940s and the subsequent genocide. We learn of Chechen society, culture and law as Dr Baiev experienced them in his youth. We hear of the first Chechen war (1994-6) through the eyes of a doctor, of the unquiet peace and the start of the second Chechen war, when it became impossible for Dr Baiev to survive in Chechnya, so he sought refuge in America.

Throughout the chapters there is a common theme of Chechens rebuilding their lives again and again. When the houses are destroyed, out of the rubble emerge new houses to replace the old ones. When a hospital is destroyed, a new hospital is built in its stead. It is when people are killed that there aren’t enough to replace them. The book certainly helps to put what we hear in the media into context. There are the Chechen civilians, the innocents; the Chechen fighters and the different personalities and where they are placed in the war; the Russian boy-soldiers, victims of the war just as the Chechen civilians are; the kontraktniki, brutal Russian soldiers, often recruited straight from the prisons of Russia; the mothers from the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, concerned for their boys; Chechen doctors and Russian doctors. We see how they interact with each other, with brutality, without mercy, with injustice, with compassion, with kindness, with understanding, with justice, with promises and with lies. The Oath shows us the reality of the Chechen-Russian conflict on the ground from the bombs to the bullets, from the shells to the scalpels, from the cowards to the heroes, from the humane to the inhuman, from the guilty to the innocent, from the children to the old men and from the soldiers to the doctors. And through it all, the one thing that is clear is the phenomenal courage of the Chechen people and their doctor.

Dr Khassan Baiev used his training in sombo, a self-defence art originating from Russia, to focus his mind in the most terrifying of situations in Chechnya. After his removal to the US in 2000, in November 2001, when he took first place in the World Cup Sombo Championship in Nice, France, he raised the Chechen flag. He still competes at world-championship level at the age of 42.

After I donned my scrubs and mask, I excused myself and withdrew to an empty office next to the operating room. There I turned to the wall, took a deep breath, closed my eyes as our judo and sombo coaches had taught us and let the tension drain from my body. In my head, I heard the words they would have us recite: ‘I am not afraid. I am strong. I must be an example to others.’

In recent years, when Chechnya has been reported in the media, it is most often associated with the Moscow-theatre siege in October 2002 and the events that took place in Beslan on September 1, 2004. Since then, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has jumped onto the bandwagon that is the US-led war on terrorism between ‘us’, the so-called free and democratic world, and ‘them’, the terrorists. Backed by the Allied forces he has been able to spout the words “Islamic fundamentalism” and “international terrorism” to mask Russia’s ill-treatment of the Chechen people throughout the Chechen-Russian conflict.

Unfortunately, because of Russia heavy censorship of the media, what many of us do not know is that the war on Chechnya has been raging for more than a decade and has cost almost a quarter of the Chechen population (approximately 250,000), most of them women and children. Yet the truth always manages to find a way, in this case by Dr Khassan Baiev’s book, The Oath.

In 1994, when war on Chechnya became inevitable, Khassan Baiev, a young doctor, left a promising career as a cosmetic, reconstructive surgeon in Moscow to return to his hometown, Alkhan Kala, and aid his countrymen. There he became one of the few field doctors left, treating patients in Grozny and in neighbouring towns that had been ravaged by the war. In one harrowing passage, Baiev describes how after a particularly violent Russian bombing-campaign, he performed sixty-seven amputations in forty-eight hours. Always, working in unbearable conditions with few facilities, Baiev held true to the Hippocratic Oath: a commitment he had made as a medical student in Russia to treat anyone in need, regardless of age, colour and religion.

‘They want to know about your insurance,’ Maret said.

‘Insurance?’

‘Health insurance,’ she repeated.

‘I don’t have any.’

I never asked my patients about insurance. In Chechnya, doctors and nurses at my hospital had worked without pay ever since the outbreak of war with Russia in 1994 when salaries had dried up. We all worked for nothing. That was our understanding of the Hippocratic Oath.

Never allowing politics to interfere in his treatment of the wounded, Baiev found himself treating Chechen fighters and Russian soldiers alike. His determination and commitment made him a marked man; in 2000 the Russian army finally ordered his arrest. Khassan Baiev admitted that he could no longer remain in Chechnya and was assisted by humanitarian organizations to flee Russia and seek political asylum in the US.

In this book, Khassan Baiev introduces us to Chechnya: to its people, to their culture, and to the vast lands of the Caucasus. Baiev writes at length about his Islamic values and his love for the Chechen folklore culture he grew up with. He also sheds light on the history of the Chechen-Russian conflict, showing how its roots go back to 400 years ago. However, his book is not only a personal memoir but is also a tribute to the resilience of the Chechen people. In particular he honours the legacy of his nephew, Adam Tepsurkaev, a journalist who was murdered in cold blood for documenting the atrocities of war in his video reports for Reuters, a British news agency. Throughout, Baiev’s vivid accounts of life in Chechnya and his treatment of the injured enable the reader to share in his emotions and terror, and for a little while imagine and experience the horrors of war.

The Oath is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary individual. It is an inspiring account, which I highly recommend to fellow readers and to anyone who is interested in finding out more about the Chechen-Russian conflict. Without wanting to take anything away from the quality of Baiev’s book, a small criticism I have is that of the sometimes apparent glossed-up journalistic style of his co-writers, Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff.

Unless more people read books like The Oath and enlighten themselves with the truth, the Russian government will be able to go on labeling Chechens as ‘rebels’ and ‘Islamic terrorists’, and will succeed in ostracizing and blackening the Chechen people in the world community. In The Oath, Dr Baiev has been able to humanise his people; he wants us to see what he has seen, so that Chechnya’s people and their plight are not forgotten. This is the kind of book that only comes along once in a while, so get a copy and read it for yourself. This is our need as well as the Chechens’: we must realize the hardships of Muslims everywhere, and do much more to support them, either directly or by means of charities and charitable organizations set up for that purpose. Not only is the Chechens’ situation already very bad, but also without such support and help from the world outside Chechnya it is bound to get much worse.

‘Nothing terrible.’ I took his hand. ‘Your lungs may be slightly affected.’

That was a lie: the volume of blood told me that the wound was massive, probably fatal. But I could not tell Khamzat he was dying. To tell a patient the truth often means he loses hope, and without hope there is nothing to fight for. I needed his hope. I refused to accept he was dying… I fought for Khamzat’s life as though he had every chance.’

Ayesha Ansari is a volunteer for the Save Chechnya Campaign, London (www.savechechnya.org).

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