Monday, March 08, 2004

Khassan Baiev is a man with all the bravery his Chechen ancestors could have wanted. Yet amazingly, growing up among the stories of Russian and later Soviet attempts to subjugate the Chechens, including his own parents' deportation to Kazakhstan after World War II, and encountering prejudice during sports competitions and medical training in different parts of the Soviet Union, did not seem to have left him bitter. He returned to Chechnya from a Moscow practice when the likelihood of a Chechen-Russian war became apparent, and rather than taking his own family and fleeing as so many did (and they can hardly be blamed for it!) he stayed in Chechnya, first in the capital city of Grozny and then in his hometown of Alkhan Kala, to provide medical care -- and not just for the Chechen wounded, either; he treated Russians, soldiers and civilians, despite risk to himself from Chechens who considered this traitorous. As he says at one point, "Speaking to the Russian doctor felt perfectly normal, yet there was something strange about it because we were supposed to be on opposing sides. However, we were really both on the side of the wounded." Though with years of fighting destroying his homeland, it is understandable that "there were times . . . when I was tempted to exchange my scalpel for a gun," Baiev stuck to his resolve to try and protect life, even though "sometimes I felt as though I was the little Dutch boy with his hand in the dyke, only I was holding back blood."

Even when peace had been declared, medical work did not stop -- disease was rampant, both from germs and from stress. Baiev speaks of his own depression amongst the ruins, and it is certainly an example of what many, many others are going through in Chechnya and other war-torn regions once there is time to think of more than daily survival. Baiev's Islamic faith, and the opportunity to visit Mecca as Muslims are supposed to do at least once in their lives, provided a lift to his mental state. (And his mentions of the differences between Chechen and Saudi Muslim practices may help Westerners remember that Islam is no more an undivided movement than Christianity.)

After fighting started again, Baiev had several narrow escapes from both Chechen and Russian fighters who felt he was serving the other side and deserved execution. Eventually he was forced to leave Chechnya and serve his country differently by telling the story of events there. (His nephew Adam had worked for some time videotaping events in Chechnya and getting the tapes out to the rest of the world, and was killed because of it.) Baiev says speaking out to foreigners allowed him to feel "I was doing something useful to Chechnya." Eventually his family was able to join him in the United States, and he chronicles the difficulty of starting over in a new place, going from being a skilled surgeon to someone who doesn't speak the language or have the certifications to be allowed to practice medicine, adapting to a new culture, and recovering from the trauma of war. His work with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff on this book, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, serves as an overview of Chechen culture and its survival despite Russian control, a window into a war many Americans couldn't find on a map, and what a single determined human can achieve in the midst of the worst carnage.