- By Thomas de Waal
- Jan. 30 2004 00:00
A lot of analysis continues to be written on Chechnya, and justly so. But I think it is also right to pause and feel some rage. Rage at the senseless destruction and brutality visited by a government on a province that it claims as its own. Rage at how the Russian leadership has murdered thousands of its own citizens and yet still takes no responsibility for it. There are many secondary complications in Chechnya that stall the way to a solution, but there are also dead-simple crimes that demand attention and justice.
Open Wound: Chechnya 1994 to 2003
"Open Wound" takes 10 minutes to leaf through, but leaves behind unforgettable images. Charred bodies alternate with empty apartments where people have died. A color photograph of a pile of rotting books is enough to tell us what happened to Grozny University. Above all, there are faces. War confers people a visual honesty, and Greene records that with unflinching concern. A bare-chested man, driven mad by the bombing that killed his family, clutches a chair over his head while the fires of Grozny burn behind him. A few days later, he is also dead. A woman stands weeping at her door, which is stamped with the traditional handprints of greeting. Looking at the picture, it is hard not to weep along with her.
Very often, debates on Chechnya turn into conflicting statements of belief about what the Chechen people actually want. Everyone, from Vladimir Putin to Shamil Basayev, maintains that he or she has the Chechens' best interest at heart. Long-distance pundits chime in with their own views. Reporting from ground-level, Greene's collection and three other books by reporters Thomas Goltz and Anna Politkovskaya and Chechen surgeon Khassan Baiev come as a welcome corrective to that.
Indeed, as the years go by, Chechens' belief in any politics at all seems to diminish. I have never met a single Chechen -- even at the senior levels of the so-called pro-Moscow leadership -- who has supported Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, and there are certainly none in these four books. But support for the pro-independence rebels has also dropped precipitately.
Or maybe it was never quite as high as was generally thought. My impression, even during the 1994-1996 war, was that support for armed resistance was fairly provisional. In January 1997, Chechens did vote en masse for their victorious battle commander Aslan Maskhadov, and I can vouch for the enthusiasm of the voters and the fairness of the elections. But even here, I believe, they were voting more for Maskhadov the peacemaker than Maskhadov the warrior.
In February 1995, I spent half a day in the western Chechen village of Achkhoi-Martan. I remember the head of the village saying that he was being squeezed by the Russians on one side and the Chechen fighters on the other, and had tried to persuade the latter to leave in order to spare Achkhoi-Martan from destruction. He failed.
Thomas Dunne Books
Chechnya Diary: A War Correspondent's Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya
Goltz, as anyone who has met him would testify, is a warm, impulsive and, occasionally, terrifying personality. This book is the successor to his "Azerbaijan Diary," a totally gripping and hair-raising account of the first two years of independence in that Caucasian republic. In the tumultuous years of 1991 to 1993, Goltz coined the term "contact journalism" and made it his credo. Basically, the idea is that "if you didn't see it, don't report on it." The result is Hunter S. Thompson-meets-the Caucasus -- a roller-coaster ride through war and revolution thankfully unmediated by any theoretical notions that this was actually "a transition to democracy and a market economy."
Goltz spent much less time in Chechnya, so "contact journalism" pays fewer dividends here. Some readers will get cross at the way in which Goltz's big personality crowds the pages of "Chechnya Diary." Russian names and words are routinely mangled and misspelled, as are those of a few Western journalists. Despite these caveats, however, the new book is a deeply compelling picture of ground-level Chechnya and the appalled, confusing feeling of living inside a war-zone.
In the notebooks he publishes alongside his pictures, photographer Stanley Greene records his anguished thoughts on being a war reporter. There are "70 or 80 corpses" lying in the streets of Grozny, and Greene knows that he should photograph them but cannot bear to do so when he sees the dogs eating their faces. Later, he will note his growing sense of detachment.
The problem of being a reporter-at-war is also one of Goltz's themes, and his reflections on the subject should make sober reading for journalism students. Goltz probes hard at the question of whether he is making a difference, or indeed only making things more dangerous for the people around him. His villains are the news editors who are not interested in his six weeks' worth of material shot inside a Chechen village because "the story has moved on," and who then, hilariously, become desperate for just the same footage when Samashki becomes "the story" again because of the massacre. Never have the rituals of foreign news -- as elaborate and arbitrary as Japanese theater -- been exposed so keenly.
In "Chechnya Diary," Goltz gives us a fascinating up-close portrait of Hussein, the local commander in Samashki. Hussein had come to Samashki from Kazakhstan, where he was born, a relict of the Stalinist deportations. Less religious and less observant of traditional Chechen practices than his fellow villagers, he was also more nationalistic.
Like many Chechens, Hussein formed his identity in ever-shifting response to the various persecutions and concessions that Russia meted out. This was also the lot of another quite extraordinary Chechen, the surgeon Khassan Baiev, who used his Russian medical education to deal with the effects of Russian military brutality. In his memoirs, titled "The Oath," Baiev describes how he frequently risked death simply in order to stick by the doctor's Hippocratic oath and treat both Chechen fighters and Russian soldiers.
Simon And Schuster
The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire
In 1994, Baiev returned to his native village of Alkhan-Kala, where he worked as a surgeon throughout the first Chechen conflict. Narrating the nightmarish kidnappings of 1997-1999, he introduces us to his psychopathic fellow villager, the master kidnapper Arbi Barayev, who, Baiev is convinced, worked in collaboration with the Russian security services.
Fascinating as it is, all this is more or less a prelude to Baiev's account of the first two years of the second Chechen conflict, which makes for some of the most extraordinary passages about war ever written. When the Russians began to bomb Grozny and outlying villages such as Alkhan-Kala, Baiev's house was partially destroyed and then comprehensively looted by soldiers. Still, the surgeon managed to set up a field hospital in the village, where he worked in almost unimaginable conditions -- using a car battery when the electricity failed, a hacksaw to do amputations and a carpenter's drill for brain surgery. Alkhan-Kala was caught right in the middle of the fighting. One day it would be bombed or visited by Russian General Vladimir Shamanov's hideous kontraktniki, who were rampaging and raping their way across western Chechnya, while the next day the terrifying kidnapper Barayev and his fighters would come charging through.
Loyal to his oath, Baiev operated on everyone, but the danger kept growing. In early January 2000, Baiev was almost executed by Barayev -- whom he had saved from death five years before -- for having treated the Russians. He was saved only by an influx of wounded Chechens needing his help. Then, two days later, the doctor was beaten up by a gang of Russian kontraktniki for having treated Barayev's men. They were dragging him off, probably to kill him, when he was saved by a crowd of angry women who berated the soldiers for taking away a doctor who had treated their own.
Then, at the end of January, the Chechen fighters retreated from Grozny across a minefield. Scores were killed and around 300 were wounded and ended up in Baiev's hospital. Baiev began a marathon session of operations. He saved the life of Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, who had stepped on a mine. In three days, without sleeping, he performed 67 amputations and seven brain surgeries.
Baiev tried to arrange for the fighters to be ferried out of the village, but was detained by Russian soldiers who fortunately did not realize who he was. When he eventually got back to Alkhan-Kala, the village had been "cleaned up" and the hospital mined. Seven of his patients had been shot at point-blank range, including an elderly Russian woman whom he had treated for weeks.
Baiev managed to escaped to Ingushetia, Moscow and eventually the United States. The last part of his moving book relates his strange arrival in a foreign land where he is not even qualified to practice medicine. After he left, one of his nephews was arrested and tortured in a filtration camp and another was murdered, probably by Arbi Barayev's gang.
University Of Chicago Press
A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya
Politkovskaya is unsurpassed in "contact journalism." She has made about 50 trips to Chechnya since the beginning of the second war in 1999. No doubt, this is why she attracts such hostility in Russia. Two years ago, while participating in a panel about Russia, I heard the novelist Tatyana Tolstaya angrily rail against Politkovskaya and attack "Chechen bandits." That extraordinary outburst said a lot more about Tolstaya than it did about Politkovskaya. I can only surmise that Politkovskaya's relentless accounts of the barbaric behavior of Russians in Chechnya prick uncomfortably at the consciences of those who want to say that all is well in Putin's Russia.
Politkovskaya has made it her mission to be the defender of Chechen civilians. Through the dozens of tiny vignettes and reports in "A Small Corner of Hell," she exposes in detail the humiliations inflicted by the Russian army on the weak and the defenseless, who can be more easily subjected to rape and violence and extorted of their money and possessions. But Politkovskaya gives no quarter to the rebels, either: The Chechens with whom she spends time curse rebel leaders Basayev and Ruslan Gelayev just as freely as they curse the Russian forces.
If anyone held out any hope for Moscow's latest policy of "Chechenization" and of sub-contracting the war effort to its chosen leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, they should read Politkovskaya and think again. "I've never met a Chechen who would say, 'I respect Kadyrov,'" Politkovskaya writes, arguing that he is equally hated in Chechnya by Moscow's supporters and opponents.
If a single word in these books sums up Chechnya's condition, it is "exhaustion." Chechens are worn out from a decade of violence. Their voices are dignified, aggrieved -- and, above all, very tired. They deserve something different. But who is listening?
Thomas de Waal is author, most recently, of "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War."