The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire

Buy this book from Amazon.comKhassan Baiev (with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff)
Walker & Co. ($26)

by Scott Esposito

Recently, much has been made of the Pentagon's choice to prevent the distribution of images of American soldiers killed during the Iraq war. This gesture speaks volumes to the effect the brutality of war can have on people when that brutality is exhibited in their living rooms. If the effect is truly as large as the Pentagon seems to fear, then Khassan Baiev's new book, The Oath, should drum up among its readers massive opposition to the on-again off-again war between the Russians and the Chechens.

Baiev spent several years during the first and second Russo-Chechen wars of the '90s administering to the wounded in the areas in and around his hometown, Alkhan Kala, and the nearby Chechen capital Grozny. For his lifesaving efforts Baiev was branded a traitor by both sides, and became the target of vendettas, assassinations, and repeated threats and intimidations. All this because of Baiev's stubborn desire to follow the Hippocratic Oath, to treat those shattered by war regardless of who they were or why they were in Chechnya.

Although much of The Oath details Baiev's experiences during wartime, the book is really a study of the man himself: his upbringing in Soviet Russia, his entrapment in a war that repeatedly held him within an inch of his life, and his eventual escape. The portrait of Baiev's early years reveals a Chechnya immersed in community and tradition. There are many pearls offered, as when Baeiv explains the tradition of bride stealing, and a certain understanding of Chechen life is conveyed by the author.

Also revealed is a Chechnya deeply scarred by the effects of imperial rule. When Baiev is an adolescent, his father, Dada, shows him and his twin brother the ravine in which the weak and elderly of his village were thrown during the Deportation of 1944. A decorated veteran of the Great Patriotic War, Dada recalls with intense anger the disgrace of being evicted by the Soviets under the pretense that Chechens were Nazi collaborators.

Small for his age, Baiev takes up judo in his boyhood as a way to build muscle and self-esteem. He excels at it and becomes a skilled athlete, winning tournament after tournament and making a name for himself throughout Russia. Eventually judo takes Baiev outside Chechnya for training in Krasnoyarsk, a city in Siberia. It is in Krasnoyarsk that Baiev becomes interested in the study of medicine. Using his status as an athlete he is able to overcome the cultural discrimination against Chechens and talks his way into higher education in the Krasnoyarsk Medical Institute.

After college, Baiev becomes a successful plastic surgeon, well enough known to draw patients from among Moscow's elite, and to purchase expensive Italian suits and American cars. Despite his material wealth and the likelihood that he could have fled the country (or at least rode out the war in Moscow), Baiev chooses solidarity over safety when the Russians attack Chechnya in 1995 and returns home to care for his family and treat the wounded. Baiev's experiences during wartime are nothing short of extraordinary:

On January 30 my house was struck by a missile at about 3 pm....The Russians had apparently found out that I was treating Chechen fighters at home....The missile hitting the house was like an enormous thunderclap overhead. The blast threw everyone against the walls...For several minutes I lay unconscious. The reinforced concrete ceiling above us cracked as the house collapsed upon it...we were entombed in a giant coffin.

Horrible as they are, Russian missile attacks on the wounded, (attacks that are outlawed by the Geneva Convention) only scratch the surface of Baiev's war experience. At one point Baiev reports that he was detained in a twenty foot hole for several days while his captors tried to coerce out of him an admission that he spared the life of a Russian doctor targeted for a revenge killing. More than once Baiev was pulled out of his car at roadblocks, and only avoided execution through a combination of luck and quick talking. Baiev was even made the subject of an impromptu trial by the notorious war criminal Arbi Barayev, and the chaos caused by a Russian mortar attack was the only thing that got Baiev out of the "trial" alive.

Despite his tremendous moral fortitude and determination, war eventually has a destructive impact on Baiev's mental well-being. In desperate need of help he turns to a Muslim cleric and psychologists for treatment of post traumatic stress disorder. On one horrific night Baiev contemplates leaping from the window of his hotel room three separate times. Even when describing himself on the brink of mental breakdown Baiev is a frank narrator, as willing to report on the most embarrassing and disgraceful moments in his life as he is the pinnacles.

By 2000 Baiev was a wanted man by the FSB (heirs to the KGB's loathsome duties), and was only able to escape Chechnya largely because of the international attention created by his incredible story. The Oath provides witness to that story; it is both a deep look into the brutality and destruction of the Russo-Chechen wars and the gripping tale of one remarkable doctor.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004