Born in another country, Khassan Baiev, author of The Oath. A surgeon under fire, may well have ended up being a professional athlete or super rich surgeon. Being born in Chechnya has meant that for six years of his life he worked in atrocious conditions, trying to save lives, being constantly harrassed by both Russian troops and Chechen rebels. His story is complex, tragic, and informative, shining a little light on the incomprehensible mess that Chechnya has become.
Had he been born a generation before, Baiev’s fate would have been different again. In 1944, after serving the Red Army valiantly throughout the war, Baiev’s father and family were deported to Khazakstan as part of Stalin’s massive deportation of the entire Chechen nation. Something that is rarely mentioned in necessarily short news bulletins on the bloody conflict in the Caucases. The reality though is that conflict between Russia and Chechnya has been ongoing for centuries, ever since Ivan the Terrible’s attempts to conquer the territory in the sixteenth century. Baiev’s accounts of his childhood are full of tales of heroic Chechen resistance.
And yet, his childhood was also one spent growing up in the Soviet Union. He was proud to qualify for the Soviet Judo team. He studied to become a doctor in Siberia, and set up a successful practice in Moscow. A generation after Stalin’s deportations, Baiev could have been the new face of Chechnya. Sadly, he instead has become one of countless refugees, driven from his beloved homeland by both warring factions.
The Oath is an autobiography, that seeks to shed light on Chechnya, its people, its history, and the tragedy of the current conflict. As such, it’s vast in scope, and strange, unfamiliar territory, one imagines, for most western readers (certainly this one) . The picture painted by Baiev is of a tribal people very different to Western society. Honour and tradition are prized virtually above all, and one’s duty to family and tribe are very real. He doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of his culture, for example he informs us, matter of factly, about both bridal kidnappings and blood feuds. He is, it seems, constantly aware of his Western audience, and his explanations smack of justification at times:
Some Westerners may assume that all Muslim countries are the same, and that women in Chechnya are oppressed, as they were by the Taliban in Afghanistan. That is not true. Chechen women are educated and have professions. Education was a positive legacy from the Soviet times. Often women stay at home because we have large families without such modern conveniences as washing machines and dishwashers. Women usually cover their heads with scarves outside on the street – such traditions help preserve our culture. Without them , we will disappear as a nation; our traditions are the glue that hold us together, especially in chaotic times when everything is falling apart. [Pg85]
Hardly convincing from a feminist perspective, but like many of Baiev’s depictions of life in Chechnya, it is illuminating (whether wittingly or not). There are aspects of Chechen life that have not changed in centuries, and that, from the perspective of universal human rights must change, but in a situation of almost continuous warfare it’s hard to advocate a reformation.
There’s a grimness to the book, not surprisingly, which makes it heart rendering reading. There are cycles in Baiev’s life of hard work, achievement, momentary prosperity, followed inevitably by the outbreak of war (in 1994, and then again in 1999) and the destruction of all he and his family had built.
His story amply illustrates Loretta Napoleoni’s thesis that failed States devour their citizens, squeezing out the moderates. Both the Russians and the Chechen rebels ( as well as the civilians caught between the two), use Baiev’s extraordinary skills as a surgeon, though neither side trust him. For example, there’s a scene (much of the book reads like a screenplay, filled with drama, though the bloodshed would earn it an x-certificate immediately) where, some weeks after encountering a devastated family whose daughter had been raped by four drunken Russians, in front of their own eyes, Baiev is faced with a wounded Russian Kontraktnik[Editor’s note:Russian Special Forces troops, many of whom are released convicts]:
Thinking about this incident [the rape] made my blood boil, and for weeks I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Residual rage burned in me when a Russian Kontraktnik was brought to the hospital. He had been extracting bribes and terrorizing civilians at a checkpoint. In retaliation, Chechen fighters had shot up the post. A bullet had passed under this Kontraktnik’s armpit, avoiding his flak jacket, and piercing his lung.
“I don’t want to be treated by bandits” he screamed as Rumani gave him a shot to relieve his pain. “Son of a bitch! Bastard!” he shouted at me.
A Chechen fighter standing in the corridor shouted out to me, “Let him die!” For a moment, I was tempted. The world would be a better place without this monster. He wouldn’t rape any more women or childern. But then I remembered Krasnoyarks and the words of the Hippocratic Oath engraved on the wall at the medical school. If I started deciding who would live and who would die, where would it end?
“I am a doctor,” I replied. “It is my job to treat whoever needs help. Allah will punish him”.[Pg263]
The Hippocratic oath, though, is a dangerous ideal to pledge allegiance to, and Bhaeiv’s actions drew the unwanted attention of Arbi Barayev, one of Chechnya’s most dangerous “warlords”. Baiev was taken by Barayev at one point, to be tried in front of a shariat court, for the crime of treating the enemy. His account of Barayev is scathing:
Barayev placed his six senior lieutentants on either side of the table, rifles propped against the charis. He had selected these bearded men in black woolen ski caps from his private army to make up a shariat court. He called his men emirs. Emir is not a Chechen word; in Arabic it means “commander”. Barayev refered to himself as chief emir. Frankly, I doubted that Barayev would recognize a shariat court if he saw one. The judges of a shariat court must know Arabic and be able to read the Koran in the original. There was no Koran in evidence, and the proceedings were a charade meant to appease the people of Alkhan Kala, who would protest Barayev having executed their only doctor. [pg281]
Ironic then that Bhaeiv had previously saved the life of his would be executioner, when he operated on Barayev in 1995 for a rifle wound to the neck. Barayev was claimed by many to have links to Al Qaeda and was suspected of having beheaded four Western kidnap hostages in 1998. He was killed by Russian forces in 2001. His threat to execute Baiev was one of the author’s prime reasons for eventually leaving Chechnya, coupled with threats from the Russian military equally incensed by his treatment of the other side.
Baiev treated many of the leaders of Chechnya’s independence movement, and admired many of the fighters. To say he’s impartial would be wrong. He is a Chechen, who believes in the right of the Chechen people to fight for their republic. This will cause discomfort in some, and outrage in others (particularly when coupled with the fact that he is a proud Muslim, who devotes much time in his book to Islamic culture and his rejuvenating trip to Mecca). Let the outraged armchair generals of a simplistic “war on terror” hold their tongues. Baiev has earned the right, and duty, to tell his story. There is terror a plenty in The Oath, but it comes from many directions, not just an Islamic stereotype.
They say that there are two sides to any story. Baiev ably demonstrates that stories are in fact three dimensional, consisting of the two opposing sides, and those who, like himself, struggle with human dignity while being caught between the two.
The Oath. A Surgeon Under Fire is published in the US by Walker & Company