Saturday, 18 December 2010

Under Oath: A Surgeon’s Testimony of Hope and Despair in Chechnya (Russian North Caucasian Federal District)

“The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire” tells the story of Khassan Baiev, a cosmetic surgeon working in Moscow but born in the Chechnyan town of Alkhan Kala whose life - along with that of the rest of the population of Chechnya – is turned upside down by several wars with Russia from the 1990s onwards, as a result of Chechnya’s declaration of independence.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chechen-Ingush Soviet Republic was split into two: the Republic of Ingushetia and Republic of Chechnya. The latter proclaimed the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which sought independence. Following the First Chechen War with Russia (1994-96), Chechnya gained de facto independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Russian federal control was restored during the Second Chechen War (1999 – 2007). Since then there has been a systematic reconstruction and rebuilding process, though sporadic fighting continues in the mountains and southern regions of the republic.

The above factual paragraph however, does not go any way towards giving the historical context of the conflict, nor the scarcely believable human tragedies that these conflicts inflicted on all involved – civilian and military. Baiev’s book, however, depicts these elements in graphic detail and to great effect.

Whilst this is very much the story of Baiev’s life it is also the story of the homeland that he loves so much. Indeed the fact that the horrific descriptions of war in this account are sandwiched between a prologue detailing Baiev’s idyllic rural childhood and his later life as a refugee in urban Boston (safe, but cut off from his nation and his extended family), only serves to highlight what has been lost to this nation – and the book’s author – through this conflict.

Even during Baiev’s childhood it is apparent that as a Chechnyan he is an outsider in his “Russian” motherland. His father’s accounts of being denounced as a Nazi collaborator in WW2 because he was a Chechnyan – despite having fought with the Soviet Army at Murmansk - is particularly telling.

Another example of disenfranchisement through his ethnic origin is seen in his being denied at the last minute of attending the World Sombo Martial Arts Championships at the last minute, despite his prowess in the sport as a youth, by the KGB so as not to have Russia represented by a Chechynan.

However, the above slight – though reprehensible – pales next to what Baiev and his countrymen endured after August 1994, when Russia massed thousands of troops along the border of Chechnya and Baiev, then 31, left his promising surgical career in Moscow to aid his Chechen countrymen.

What follows is a harrowing and relentless account of Baiev’s forced move from cosmetic surgeon to wartime field surgeon. Whilst trying to keep a semblance of normality with his family and his staff, Baiev is faced with treating an ever-growing conveyor belt of wounded – many from mine and shrapnel wounds – with ever-diminishing supplies (even resorting to using sewing thread in operations). Baiev’s matter-of-fact narrative jars heavily (to great effect) with descriptions of 48-hour surgical sessions where he could no longer move his arms through the amount of amputational sawing he had to do, through to descriptions of himself and his staff having to work whilst feeling faint due to the amount of blood they had to directly donate to treat the wounded.

His efforts to save lives in the midst of war are played out against a backdrop of constant shelling, threats to his life and – on several occasions (one resulting in him being in a coma for some time) the physical destruction of the hospital premises he is working in.

This brings to mind a phrase that Baiev quotes on several occasions in the book: “The Russians destroy, Chechnyans rebuild.”

And, in the context of this war, the Russian army does destroy: buildings (Baiev’s family home is targeted several times), cities (the capital of Grozny is literally razed to the ground), and indeed people. Time and again we hear of men, women and children – young and old – whose bodies are shattered by this conflict. And just as the populace rebuild the cities, it is surgeons who are left to rebuild the shattered bodies of the wounded.

Sadly, just as some buildings and cities were bombed beyond repair – so some causalities could not be saved. And it is here that the mental toll of war begins to be inflicted upon Baiev – he is haunted by the images of friends, family and strangers who were simply beyond salvation despite his expertise.

But this account is not just a litany of horror. What makes this book relevant and unique is the fact that Baiev – according to the Hippocratic Oath and his Muslim beliefs – treats each patient equally; be they civilian, Chechnyan fighter or Russian soldier.

For this, he becomes vilified as a traitor by both sides – although there are individual flashes of humanity which provide a certain counterpoint of hope in the overall despair of the conflict. Not least among these is a Russian FSB (the former KGB) colonel who risks his own life to help Baiev escape to America at the point where his assassination by one side or the other has become inevitable. The ultimate fate of this brave individual, which we learn later, only adds to the poignancy of this act.

If this account tells us one thing it is this – that war and interracial hatred is more about governments and regimes than individuals: who are capable of great heroism as well as hateful acts.

I should also make it clear here that Baiev – whilst a patriot and a proud Chechnyan – is no apologist for the atrocities that were also carried out by the Chechnyan separatists, such as the taking hostage of a Moscow theatre audience of 850 people in 2002. Most of the Chechnyans and around 130 hostages died as a result – mainly from a gas pumped into the theatre by Russian forces. Baiev is unequivocal in condemning this. The book was published before the further outrage in 2004 where separatist took an entire school hostage. Ultimately, at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children. Hundreds more were injured and many were reported missing. One can only imagine that Baiev would have condemned this act also, had it happened before publication.

In summary then, this book shows two things – the human capacity for evil and the human capacity for good. Reading this book, one can feel uplifted by the capacity for good in the worst of scenarios, but one does not hold out much hope of this struggle between good and evil ever resulting in more than a stalemate.

Still, to end on a positive note: a touching detail of Baiev’s later life (effectively in exile) in the US is that he was finally free to compete in the World Sombo Championships (in Paris) in 2001. These are the championships the KGB denied him way back in 1983. He won – and was able to raise the Chechnyan flag on the winner’s podium.

From Chechnya I make the rather unusual move to take a return flight back from Grozny to Moscow, my previous destination. The reason for retracing my steps is the fast moving changes of national / federal boundaries! Chechnya was chosen as my stopover in Russia’s 'Southern Federal District'. However, earlier this year (2010) the District was split into two: The 'Southern Federal District' and the 'North Caucasian Federal District'. Chechnya now falls into the latter so I needed to quickly find a stopover for the former!!

This I have done with a book by foreign correspondent Robert Haupt called “Last Boat to Astrakhan”. This is an account of his riverboat cruise down the Volga, starting at Moscow and travelling down into the Southern Federal area of Astrakhan, ending at the Caspian Sea.

Thus – rather than describing a book and then my onward journey as usual - this book IS my onward journey, as I will take a leisurely cruise from Moscow’s North River Terminal down the Volga – Russia’s primary river – to Astrakhan on the cruise ship Fyodor Shalyapin. I would love to give you the price of this trip but – as it was taken in 1995, I can only tell you it involved a shopping bag full of inflation-era roubles! This particular route has since been discontinued, but similar cruises are operating today (and they aren’t cheap!)

I shall let you know if it is worth the money in my next post.

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