POLITICS THE OATH: A SURGEON UNDER FIRE BY KHASSAN BAIEV [Walker & Co., 320 pp, 2004]
Two reasons motivated me to write The Oath. First, I wanted the world to know that war is a hellish thing that victimizes the innocent. In war there are no winners. Secondly, and equally important, I wanted to introduce my readers to the Chechen people.
So Dr. Khassan Baiev opens his monumental work, The Oath. It’s a memoir of a Chechen surgeon who served those in need during the recent war. By the end of the book, through joy and despair and heartbreak and many bittersweet prayers and memories, we begin to see who the Chechens are and what horrors war has forced them to endure.
At its most poetic, the book is an ode to the Chechen nation, so sure and grounded in its centuries-old culture, unique to the people of the Caucasus Mountains. A vivid depiction of the strength and warmth of the Chechens leads us through Baiev’s childhood and introduces us his family, full of the wisdom only found among people of spirit and tradition. “I want you boys to understand the soil is your friend.” Thus Baiev’s father, referred to as “Dada,” guides his sons and us down the paths his ancestors walked for generations. We are introduced to the forests, rivers, the ancestral home in Makazhoi and traditions of the Chechens: fiercely brave and proud after centuries of Russian oppression. Baiev relates wonderful stories of marriage, farming the land and the Lesghinka (the national dance). What emerges is the tale of a people as firm as the mountains in their culture and religion, which compliment one another in harmonious felicity.
Into this way of life the Russians have dragged the hounds of war. The past saw deportations in 1944, when at least 600,000 Chechens were forcibly moved from their land, half of them dying en route. The latest violence is no less savage, ploughing into the Chechens and their way of life with bitter abandon. In this inverse horror-existence ignored by the world, anything can happen: rape, pillage and murder are common.
The Geneva Conventions and human rights are forgotten phrases to the Kremlin’s forces in Chechnya, a fact noted by journalist Anna Politkovskaya and ex-KGB spy and deathbed Muslim convert Alexander Litvinenko, both recently killed under suspicious circumstances. Sadder perhaps is the tale of the Chechen criminals who prey on their own in the disorder. With law and order gone, Chechen thugs often kidnap civilians, kill them if relatives can’t pay the ransom, and then sell the dead bodies to the grieving families. Such are the brutal effects of war: they claim not only the souls of individuals but the spirit and way of life of an entire people.
Unflinchingly honest, Baiev stands up as a hero in the keenest sense of the word, symbolizing the Chechen people who still stand strong against the debilitating effects of conflict. Though he was beaten, shot, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and suffered bouts of clinical depression, his book details how he kept struggling for the war’s victims. Baiev often attributes his frequent narrow escapes to God’s blessings, a feeling heightened when he relates his journey to Mecca for Hajj. Moments such as these inspire him to work in the most extreme conditions with no expectation of reward, often losing those he loves yet still remaining true to the values and principles he holds dear.
Baiev writes in a simple and flowing manner, somehow heightening the heartbreaking poignancy of the plight of his people. His book is never a mere catalogue of horror stories; we are left with an attachment to the Chechen people that is stronger than just words. Baiev looks beyond the tragedy and destruction and prays to God, as he does before every operation, for a brighter future for his nation. What lingers are the hauntingly beautiful echoes of love and loss.
Little did I realise during those summers in Makazhoi with Dada how the memories would sustain me during the most difficult period of my life. I remember the beauty of the mountains, but I also remember the day when Hussein and I looked down into the ravine. I still see those two black eagles soaring in the sky and a shiver runs down my spine.