A SURGEON UNDER FIRE
by Khassan Baiev
with Ruth and Nicholas
Simon & Schuster
The war that Russia is
conducting against the people of Chechnya has already been in progress
for more than nine years (with a two-year break in the middle).
This unbelievably harsh, profoundly destructive and completely amoral
conflict has led to the virtual genocide of the Chechen nation,
the brutalisation of the Russian army and the extraordinary cynicism
and corruption of the Russian Establishment.
Very little is known in Britain
not only about this war but also about the small Islamic Republic
of Chechnya and the Chechens in general.
Chechnya is situated in the northern
foothills of the Great Caucasian Range, beyond which lie the former
Soviet Republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. It is approximately
the size of Wales.
In the early 19th century Russia
virtually annexed Georgia and Azerbaijan, but the peoples on the
northern side of the Caucasus stubbornly resisted Russian colonisation.
In 1816 Tsar Alexander I dispatched General Yermolov to subdue the
region. He built a series of fortresses in Chechnya and unleashed
a policy of annihilation. His actions were so ferocious that the
next Tsar, Nicholas I, recalled him for his excessive cruelty.
But the war against the courageous
Chechens - though in somewhat milder form - continued until 1859,
when their leader, the great fighter Imam Shamil, surrendered to
After the October Revolution the
Red Army imposed Soviet rule over the entire Caucasus, and Chechnya
later suffered greatly from the brutal collectivisation of agriculture.
All the mosques were destroyed. In 1944 Stalin accused the Chechens
of collaborating with the Nazis in the hope of gaining independence.
His secret police appeared without warning, executing the infirm,
and shipping off over half a million Chechens in cattle trucks to
Siberia and Kazakhstan. Apparently about a third of them died
during the transportation. The more liberal regime of Nikita Khrushchev
allowed those who had survived to return to their homeland in 1957.
The Soviet "Constitution"
had defined some national territories as "Union Republics"
and others as "Autonomous Republics". The former had the
right, on paper, to secede, whereas the latter category did not.
In 1991, after the USSR had begun to disintegrate, all the Union
Republics became independent states, although some of them - such
as Belorussia, Moldovia, Turkmenia and Kirgizia - had never really
striven for this.
Chechnya, which had the status of
an Autonomous Republic, none the less announced that year that it
was henceforth "sovereign". A former Soviet Air Force
General, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was elected President, and he proclaimed
the separation of Chechnya from Russia. Moscow, having just lost
huge and very valuable territories and populations in Ukraine and
Kazakhstan, decided for "constitutional" - as well as
for chauvinistic and strategic - reasons not to allow the Chechens,
who had been saying continuously for some 200 years that they did
not want to be ruled by Russia, to become an independent country.
In December 1994 Boris Yeltsin
initiated a war against Chechnya. The following year Russian
troops massacred the inhabitants of the towns of Samashki and Bamut.
In response, a Chechen military commander, Shamil Basayev, seized
hostages in a large hospital on the territory of Russia proper.
In April 1996 President Dudaev was killed by Russian military intelligence.
The well-known General Lebed persuaded
the Russian leadership to conclude a truce with Chechnya, duly signed
in August 1996. In August 1999 Basayev, a loose cannon, invaded
Daghestan with a group of fighters, supposedly to force Russia to
withdraw altogether from the North Caucasus. This provided the grounds
for the new Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to restart the
war against Chechnya just as President Yeltsin was prematurely resigning
at the end of that year.
Using its overwhelming power, levelling
the capital, Grozny, ransacking the country, carrying out "mopping-up
operations", killing fighters and civilians indiscriminately,
kidnapping men and youths, raping women, setting up concentration
camps in Chechnya and in nearby areas, Russia has been conducting
this war without a break ever since Putin came to power. And it
is still going on today.
Khassan Baiev, the author of The
Oath, is an outstanding doctor and surgeon. During both these
wars he worked continuously in a hospital in Chechnya, operating
on the wounded, whether Russian or Chechen. The human losses, especially
on the Chechen side, have been so monstrous that Baiev was sometimes
on duty in the operating room for 24 or even 36 hours at a stretch.
He performed amputations and extracted shell fragments from craniums
to the accompaniment of continuous artillery fire, with shells falling
on the hospital, power cuts and dwindling or no supplies of essential
medicines, appliances and instruments.
This is a doctor who knows what
war is like from the inside. His descriptions of the atrocities,
sufferings and humiliations inflicted on the Chechens make one shudder
and weep. There are cases of young men being gagged, trussed up
and then dragged along on chains behind armoured personnel carriers;
of Chechen prisoners, screaming, being flung out of helicopters
by Russians; of a young Chechen girl being raped in front of her
On January 31, 2000 Russian troops
began a total assault on Grozny (for the second time). The doctor
tells us how the city was reduced to a wasteland, with thousands
of its inhabitants trapped in cellars. Deep penetration missiles
and vacuum bombs killed thousands. At this point, the Chechen fighters
decided to leave Grozny. At night, in deep snow, 2,000 fighters,
several hundred non-combatants and 50 Russian prisoners of war set
off through the mine-fields, but because of a violent snowstorm
they wandered off the planned route.
Someone suggested sending the Russian
prisoners ahead, to try to find a safe way through the landmines.
Lecha Dudayev, the son of the late President of Chechnya, immediately
put a stop to such talk, saying that the death of unarmed Russian
soldiers would go against the spirit of Chechnya's struggle for
independence and the Muslim faith. The Chechens continued their
trek through the minefields, under fire from Russian snipers and
tanks, and 170 corpses remained on the snow.
It is striking that during all these
years Dr Baiev, who carried out hundreds of amputations and was
forced to perform brain surgery using a carpenter's hand drill,
has been subjected to the crudest insults and threats from both
sides in the conflict: from Chechens because he sometimes treated
Russian conscripts, and from Russians because he was "providing
aid and comfort to the bandits". On several occasions Baiev
was in very serious danger of being executed.
As a result Baiev was obliged to
leave Chechnya. Both in Europe and in America he has spoken publicly
about the appalling slaughter in his country. "At my meetings
on Capitol Hill,' he writes, "senators and representatives
listened politely behind their large mahogany desks, nodding their
heads in sympathy. I had the feeling they knew as well as anyone
what crimes were taking place in Chechnya, but chose to ignore them.
Diplomatic relations between Russia and the USA were improving and
no one wanted to jeopardize them". This was written 18
months ago. The slaughter in Chechnya is continuing, and both
Americans and Europeans are continuing to ignore it with ever greater
A SMALL CORNER OF HELL: DISPATCHES FROM CHECHNYA
Alexander Burry and
Chicago University Press
Anna Politkovskaya is a journalist
with Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining Russian
newspapers which are independent of the government. For the last
three years she has probably been the only reporter in the world
who has regularly shed light on what is really happening in Chechnya
(most of the other correspondents who file from there are either
intimidated by the Russian security services or have been bought
by the authorities). Her international stature, knowledge, experience,
beauty and her "presence" have enabled her to pass through
all the circles of the hell of the Chechen war and still come out
alive and unbowed. Her new book, A Small Corner of Hell,
is a brilliant collection of short accounts of what is going on
Politkovskaya is even more frank
and forceful in uncovering Russian bestialities in Chechnya than
Baiev; she doesn't mince her words. Writing about Russian "mopping
up" operations, she tells us about pogroms, arson attacks,
marauding, arrests, murders, insults to and humiliation of Chechen
women, and outrages against Chechen children. And all this is happening
in 2002 and 2003!
One chapter is devoted to a single
episode, the torture by the Russian military of a young teenager,
giving him electric shock treatment and making him stand for hours
on end against a wall in the bitter frost. What did these Russian
officers want the boy to tell them? Where his Wahhabi brother was.
The boy admitted that he wanted above all to be shot as soon as
possible, so as to put an end to his agony. Studying the matter
closely, the author came to the conclusion that in reality there
were hardly any Wahhabis in Chechnya and that the few who lived
there were extremely unpopular. Neither was there (or is there)
any Islamic fundamentalism, let alone emissaries from al-Qaeda.
Many pages of this book are devoted
to Akhmed Zakaev, the special representative in Europe of the legitimate
government of Chechnya. He is a man with a radiant personality,
currently living in London and requesting political asylum in Britain.
Moscow pulled out all the stops to have him extradited, slanderously
and libellously accusing him of terrorism. In actual fact Zakaev
was Chechnya's leading actor, the artistic director of its national
theatre, and the Minister of Culture in the Chechen government.
As a result of its policy of
grovelling and cringing before the Kremlin, the British government
kept one of the most outstanding political refugees of the last
200 years waiting for over a year before a magistrate decided last
Thursday to grant Zakaev permission to stay here.
What is taking place, in Politkovskaya's
opinion, is the "unbelievable worldwide betrayal of humanitarian
values". Travelling around the world and speaking about
Chechnya, most of the time she hears phrases like "the coalition
against terror" and "fraternization", but "barely
a word about Chechnya". She believes that the USA, the European
Union and the European Parliament are doing their best to conceal
the truth about Russia's war against Chechnya.
The only organisation fighting really
hard against Russian brutality in Chechnya is [the American] Human
Rights Watch. In Politkovskaya's view, the one person in the
world apart from Bush who could help the Chechens is Kofi Annan.
But Annan, she says, is "turning a deaf ear to the situation
in Chechnya". In this book she repeats what she has said in
Boston, Paris, Hamburg and many other places: "Remember,
people are continuing to die in Chechnya every day. Including today."
So far, she hasn't been heard. Perhaps at last, with this book,
we'll hear her now?