Caught up in the mayhem of the Chechen war, Dr. Khassan Baiev treated the wounded on both sides - including the man behind the worst terror attacks of the war.
In the lush, spectacular gardens grew an impossible abundance of fruits and flowers. People of different races and nationalities strolled through them and conversed in friendship and trust. Lions and tigers padded alongside, but frightened no one; on the contrary, they were predators with good intentions. That was paradise.
Actually, it was a vision in the mind of Dr. Khassan Baiev, as he lay comatose in a hospital in Dagestan. Or perhaps it happened in hell - because Baiev went into a coma in which he saw paradise shortly after being wounded while performing surgery in a basement hospital in Chechnya in 1995. A long-range Russian missile slammed into the hospital, everything went black, and Baiev, as he had done since the war's onset, tried to repair wrecked human lives, human bodies, human wounds. Then he collapsed.
Makeshift hospitals, mortar shells, construction tools instead of surgical instruments, rivers of blood and tides of despair: this was Baiev's life during the years of the war in Chechnya - very remote from the stuff of which paradise is made. It is the basis of "The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire" (paperback edition: Walker Books, New York, 2004), now published in Hebrew as "The Weapon - Scalpel: Story of a Chechen Doctor Under Fire" (translated by Merav Miller; Carmel Books). In any language, the book has made Baiev a preeminent witness to the events in Chechnya.
Born in 1963, Baiev fled Chechnya at the beginning of 2000 following threats to his life from both Russians and Chechens, because he insisted on saving lives on both sides. He was granted political asylum in the United States and now lives in Boston with his wife, Zara, and their six children. Baiev is head of the International Committee for the Children of Chechnya (www.chechenchildren.org) and is on the staff of Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside Boston. He has been cited by Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International for his work in war-torn Chechnya.
Baiev knew almost everyone, treated almost everyone, and in his book tells almost all. About the young Russian soldiers who hid out with him until their mothers, who organized in the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, came secretly to Chechnya and took them home; about the militia leaders Arbi Barayev and Salman Raduyev, who almost murdered him on two separate occasions; and about shy little Shamil from elementary school, who became big and notorious, but also admired - Shamil Basayev, who planned the takeover of a theater in Moscow and a school in Beslan.
Before the war, the population of Chechnya was approximately one million. During the 10 years of fighting, according to various estimates, between 200,000 and 250,000 people have been killed, including 42,000 children. Baiev returned recently from a month-long visit to his homeland, which became possible only after he received a Green Card from the United States.
"Compared to the situation of Chechnya from 1999 to 2001, one can say that life has improved," he said in a telephone interview. "After our health and education systems were totally destroyed, after more than one hundred villages were wiped off the face of the earth and the capital, Grozny, almost reduced to rubble, hospitals and schools were rebuilt and Grozny has been partially reconstructed. But the situation remains terrible. There is not one family that did not suffer a loss or a serious trauma, and thousands of Chechens disappeared without a trace. Most of the people in Chechnya live in the basements of homes that were destroyed. They are trying to rebuild their homes - not for the first time but for the second or third time. Now we need time. Time for rehabilitation, time to build, time to heal."
All his friends and family members are suffering from one disease or another, he says. "And one can say the same about 90 percent of the Chechens. Every day people die of heart attacks and strokes as a result of the tremendous tension undergone by the body during the war, and there is also a very serious tuberculosis epidemic.
The physicians there are helpless in the face of some of the diseases, because they simply do not know how to diagnose them. Many infants, for example, are born with defects. Some are born without fingers, others with fingers but in other parts of the body." To this day, no one knows what causes these deformations. The Chechens and the Russians accuse each other of using chemical substances in the war.
Baiev's recent visit reinforced what he already knew: During the war, he says, a new generation was born in Chechnya. "The members of my generation were educated in Russia, had Russian friends and spoke Russian. But the new generation is one that saw its parents killed and its mothers raped. This is a lost generation, which does not speak Russian and hates the Russians."
Kuwait of the Caucasus
Dr. Baiev's career began on the right side of the tracks. At the age of 25, returning to a Grozny hospital after completing his medical studies in Siberia, he was Chechnya's only specialist in mouth and jaw rehabilitation. As it happened, his expertise made him a rising star in the arena of plastic surgery in Europe. He reconstructed the face of a young woman who was injured in a road accident, and in the wake of that success, a trickle of patients dissatisfied with their faces arrived at his clinic.
The trickle soon became a flood: Newly rich Russians treated themselves to nose jobs; actresses had facelifts; Western Europeans with protruding jaws preferred to rectify the problem in the small operating room in Grozny at about one-tenth the price they would pay in London or Stockholm. Dozens joined the line for plastic surgery by Baiev, even if it meant waiting for months.
That was at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. Through the windows of the hospital, Baiev could see the new Grozny, which declared itself an independent state in 1991 and elected as president General Johar Dudayev, who believed that the republic's oil reserves could soon make it the Kuwait of the Caucasus. Baiev was more realistic, but not even he imagined that within a short time he would have to stop straightening noses and start reassembling bombed-out faces.
Talks between Chechnya and Russia gradually deteriorated. Russian President Boris Yeltsin was willing to recognize an autonomous Chechnya that would be part of the Russian Federation, but Dudayev wanted complete independence. In December 1994, Yeltsin ordered the army to attack, launching the First Chechen War.
"The Russians were certain that they would be able to subdue the Chechens. But it turned out that the Russian army, which had barely undergone training since the fall of the Soviet Union, simply wasn't ready," says Yagil Henkin, a military historian, whose book "Either We Win or We Perish!, The history of the first Chechen war" has just been published by Maarachot, the Ministry of Defense publishing house.
Henkin says that, "The Russians prepared for a confrontation with residual, fleeing guerrilla forces, but found themselves facing an organized army. Within 60 hours of the invasion, the Chechens wiped out two Russian brigades and other Russian forces were thrown back or became confused on the way. It was a terrible humiliation for the Russian forces, and they decided to solve the Chechnya problem with a great deal of artillery."
Plenty of artillery. When the first massive shelling of Grozny began, Baiev abandoned the hospital together with the patients and the rest of the staff. He opened a makeshift hospital in his native village of Alkhan Kala and visited the wounded in their homes. After that hospital was bombed, too, Baiev built a hospital in the basement of his house. A few days later, the house was bombed.
Bombing and shelling continued relentlessly. In February 1995, reports stated that the Russians had fired 4,000 shells an hour at Grozny, the heaviest bombardment since the Second World War. The basement hospital in Alkhan Kala received people with no arms, no legs, people without food and water, without blood. On more than one occasion, Baiev and his staff donated blood themselves to compensate for the shortage. And there was also a shortage, to put it mildly, of medicines and medical equipment.
Baiev had to improvise. "I used a carpenter's saw to amputate limbs," he recalls. "For brain surgery I made use of carpenters' drills. I stitched wounds with domestic sewing thread. I told patients to disinfect their wounds with urine before dressing them again. Instead of gauze I used bed sheets. To light the room during operations I used candles, and in other cases we hooked up lamps to a car generator."
After treating hundreds of wounded people and seeing hundreds of others killed, wasn't there a moment when you said to yourself that it was impossible to go on fixing things? That everything will be wrecked again, no matter what?
"All the time. There were times when I worked very hard to save people's lives and they were killed a month later in a barrage. There were times when my hands shook so badly after I operated for a few days without sleep that I couldn't approach patients. I had to force myself to ignore people on the street, because they would stop me and tell me about their relatives who had become sick or been wounded. Patients on the operating table asked me to treat their relatives. Ignoring them was very difficult, but there was no end to the casualties, and I tried to preserve myself for genuinely humane cases only."
When you decided to return to Chechnya after your medical studies, did you imagine such a horrific future?
"Of course not. We, the Chechens and the Russians, spoke the same language, served in the same armies and were educated in the same universities. So many things connected us."
Nine days in a pit
The first peak in a series occurred when Baiev met the militia commander Salman Raduyev, the son-in-law of President Dudayev. In March 1996, Raduyev was shot in the head. If you ask Chechens and Russians, they will tell you that the bullet loosened a screw in his head. After a series of cosmetic operations and with titanium screws implanted in his face, Raduyev was known to Chechens as "Michael Jackson" and to Russians as "Titanic." He was the chief of an armed militia that was loyal to him alone. He claimed that President Dudayev, who was dead by then, was actually alive and sending him notes from a secret NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) base. Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president almost a year after the fateful bullet pierced Raduyev's head, confirmed that the militia leader was "mentally sick" and demoted him to the rank of private.
Baiev is familiar with the story, because it was Baiev who reconstructed Raduyev's skull after his troops forced him to go with them to Raduyev's mountain redoubt. Raduyev's head looked like mush with a beard, but the fighters found time to defend the beard ardently. When the beard was finally shaved off, Baiev embarked on a protracted operation. Fortunately for him, there was another physician there as well: a Russian prisoner named Sasha, whom Raduyev had planned to exchange for a Chechen being held by the Russians.
"Despite the reports about the appalling treatment of Russian captives, in most cases the Chechen militia commanders tried to maintain a reasonable code of behavior," Henkin says. "They distinguished between the young Russian conscripts and those they described, not always rightly, as Russian mercenaries, some of whom had a criminal past. No one can say what the proportion of hooligans was among the veteran Russian soldiers, but 5 percent is enough for every family in Chechnya to be acquainted with at least one case of abuse: rape, murder, amputation of limbs and torture."
Sasha, who was waiting to be exchanged for a Chechen captive, received reasonable treatment from Raduyev. After the operation, Baiev asked if Sasha could stay until the prisoner exchange took place. Raduyev agreed, and Sasha worked at the Grozny hospital for a month. However, the Chechen captive was murdered, and Raduyev decided to execute Sasha in revenge. Baiev smuggled Sasha out of Grozny and handed him over to Russian soldiers at the first checkpoint he came to. Raduyev, in reaction, decided to murder Baiev. He abducted him and incarcerated him in a pit.
Baiev spent nine days in the pit, doing exercises to stay in shape, praying, measuring the time by how much his beard grew, learning how to differentiate day from night by the voices of the children who were herding sheep nearby. On the ninth day he was told to state his last wish and replied that he wanted a proper burial. Then, at the last minute, like in a movie Hollywood might make about Chechnya, someone arrived in a military vehicle, shouted at his comrades that they had the wrong man, and took Baiev home. In the book, Baiev notes that he finds it difficult "to admit that after being confined in that dark pit, I couldn't sleep without a night light, just like a child."
How did you hold out in the pit?
"It is hard for me to translate into words what went through my head in the pit. I tried to rely on the fact that we Chechens have certain traditions and they would rescue me. And in a certain sense, I did not want to help [the militia] in any way, and I knew that if I died it would be a type of help. I think that one cannot undergo the kind of experience I went through in Chechnya without having faith."
Raduyev kept coming to you every time he was wounded. Did you never consider the possibility of medical malpractice when treating him?
"Raduyev put my obligation to medicine to a profound test. I tried to explain to him that he was hurting a great many people, that he was harming my image and endangering my life. One day, in 1999, someone slipped a note under the door of my office in the hospital. It said, 'If you save Raduyev again, we will kill you.' I showed the note to Raduyev, and as always he said there was no problem - he would not return. Of course, after a short time that promise was forgotten."
'Khassan, don't waste your time'
In the hierarchy of fighters Baiev treated during the war, Raduyev was only the aperitif. He told The New York Times that no one wanted to remember the fact that he saved thousands of people. The only thing they want to remember, he said, is that he was the physician who operated on Shamil Basayev. Basayev, who was killed in a bomb blast about a year ago, was the national hero Chechnya saw in its dreams and the arch- terrorist Russia encountered in its nightmares. In 1995, he took over a hospital in the city of Budyonnovsk, holding 1,600 hostages, of whom 129 were killed. By means of the terrorist attack, he brought about a halt to the Russians' advance and the renewal of negotiations with Moscow. After the war he became the prime minister of Chechnya.
What brought Basayev to the hospital in Grozny? In the summer of 1996, the Russians and the Chechens agreed on a cease-fire and a five-year delay in determining Chechnya's final status. But in 1999, Chechen militiamen blew up residential buildings in Russia and Dagestan, killing 293 people. Vladimir Putin, then prime minister of Russia, decided to mount an offensive. The Second Chechen War erupted.
At the end of January 2000, following a Russian bombardment of Grozny, about 2,000 militiamen under Basayev planned to escape to the mountains. Basayev lost his way in the snow, became trapped in a mine field, and his right leg was shattered. It was hours before his men could evacuate him to the hospital in Grozny.
"He was lying at the end of the corridor together with a great many wounded people," Baiev relates. "When I approached him, his guard blocked my way and told me that Basayev refused to undergo surgery. I went to Shamil, examined him and saw that he was about to die. He tried to speak to me and I had to bend over to hear him. I explained to him that he was in critical condition and that his leg had to be amputated, but he said, 'Khassan, don't waste your time, there are so many wounded people here.' He was simply ready to die. The only thing he asked for was to be moved to a warmer spot - his hands and feet had frozen after he was been trapped in the snow-covered mine field for five hours.
"When I started to operate on him, using only local anesthetic, he was completely quiet. I asked him, 'Why don't you scream? Aren't you in pain?' He said, 'Khassan, I just don't want to interfere.'"
At the start of the war, Basayev had declared, "We will not kill women and children - we are not barbarians." He was the man who once handed over a captive Russian soldier to his mother and ordered him to talk to her nicely. Yet he masterminded the attack on a school in Beslan - a town in the Caucasus republic of North Ossetia - on the first day of the school year in September 2004. More than 1,200 children and adults were taken hostage.
"In the second war he completely lost all inhibitions," Henkin says. "The escalation he fomented is attributed to the killing of families in barrages by the Russians, but I assume that the reason was his growing affinity for extreme Islamic organizations. That is also why he lost popularity in Chechnya. The Chechens are Sufis, and they viewed the extremist Muslims as a greater threat than the Russians."
Baiev: "I had known Basayev as a quiet, modest boy in school, and after that our ways parted. Even when the whole republic was talking about him, I did not yet make the connection between him and the shy boy I had been at school with, not until the first time I saw him on television. I was stunned. I could not understand how such a shy person had become one of the most famous and charismatic people in Chechnya."
What made him escalate his activity to hostage-taking at the theater in Moscow and the school in Beslan?
"When you encounter blood and violence day after day, when you see homes destroyed, your mentality changes. In the Chechnya war I saw a great many people whom I never believed were capable of killing, but who in the end did kill. Good people did dreadful things. Basayev's terrorist attacks were very far from the Chechen tradition. We had not been familiar with this violence in the past: it was the war that generated it.
"The Chechens themselves reacted harshly to the Beslan crisis. Thousands went into the streets to protest the attack. Some Chechens wanted to go to the school and offer themselves in return for the release of the children. They were able to identify with the children and the families. After all, more than 40,000 Chechen children were killed in the war."
Basayev's operation was documented on video by Baiev's nephew, who during the war decided to smuggle video films to the world media, following the absolute prohibition on journalists entering Chechnya. In the film, which was distributed by Reuters, Basayev is seen looking on almost indifferently as Baiev and his team amputate his leg.
The broadcast of the film brought trouble from the Russians, who viewed Baiev as responsible for saving the person who, after the events of 9/11, became known in Russia as "the Chechen bin Laden." That development, together with other dangers - like the improvised military trial of Baiev conducted by the militia leader and criminal Arbi Barayev in the corridor of the hospital - when he also opened fire over Baiev's head - prompted Baiev and his family to escape.
A few months after their arrival in the United States, Baiev's nephew was murdered. "When I left Chechnya, the war came with me," he says. "When I hear about a relative or a friend being killed, the earth trembles beneath me."
The war also followed you to America, when you were asked to mediate in 2002 between the Russians and the Chechens who barricaded themselves in a Moscow theater.
"I have to say that I did not want any part of that. I knew the assistance was liable to boomerang. The Russians tried to get me involved for two days, and in the end the chief of the Moscow police contacted me directly and promised that no harm would come to me.
"In the first telephone call I made, a young Chechen woman answered. You know, they were all very young, educated Chechens. I asked her why they had seized the theater and she said, 'My whole family was killed. This is the only way to stop the war in Chechnya.' In the second call I spoke to Movsar Barayev, who was the commander of the event. 'I do not want money or helicopters or ammunition,' he told me. 'The only thing that interests me is getting the Russian army out of Chechnya.'"
What do you do when you are not trying to save the world?
"It's funny, but I love danger. I train in judo and sambo - a Soviet martial art that I have engaged in since childhood and in which I won the world championship in 2003. I must need this situation of combat. Of struggle. But whenever I see a report about a terrorist attack in Chechnya, in Israel or in Iraq, I try to shut off the television. I know exactly what happens to the human body when a bomb goes off next to it or when it is shelled. For someone who lived that situation time and again, like me, it is too painful an experience. After the Beslan attack I was incapable of leaving the house for three days due to depression and despair."
Like an electric shock
Baiev's psyche exacted the full price of the years of war when he visited Moscow during the cease-fire in the autumn of 1998. Battle fatigue hit him in the middle of the night "as if an electric shock whipped through my head," he writes in "The Oath." He considered jumping, but decided to shut the window. The next day, he went to the hospital and was given sedatives. Recordings of flowing water and chirping birds helped him; drugs did not. He threw them into the toilet and decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
You are a great believer in spiritual experience, and your visions are an integral part of that. Other physicians would attribute them to chemical changes in the brain, but not you. How did the spiritual experience protect you?
"I would not be able to survive without it. I believe that the innocent dead are now in paradise. They encourage me and strengthen me. When I returned to Chechnya earlier this year, I visited cemeteries. I had the feeling that the dead were looking at me. That they were talking to me."
When you were in a coma you dreamed of paradise. Do you believe in its existence?
I am referring to paradise in this life, not in one that you have to commit suicide or die for.
"Yes. I saw this life. I believe it exists. It exists in this world." W
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