Operating on the enemy in the two Chechen wars
- 8 October 2012
- From the section Magazine
During the two Chechen wars, surgeon Khassan Baiev operated on casualties from both sides. He didn't see this as treating the enemy - he was upholding the Hippocratic oath - but was eventually forced to flee his homeland.
Russia fought two devastating wars in Chechnya. To those who witnessed them, this place was hell on earth. But in this hell, there were heroes.
In the town of Alkhan-Kala, near Grozny, Khassan Baiev takes me down into his cellar.
Baiev is a surgeon. When war broke out in 1994, his local hospital was shelled. So Baiev turned his cellar at home into an operating theatre. He spent the next two years saving lives.
The basement is tiny, just 3m by 4m. But Baiev had up to 30 patients packed in at a time.
"I had a very small operating table in the middle," he says. "I worked without electricity, without heat and water. Every day my mother assisted me. Over two years, I performed 4,600 surgeries.
"Most of my patients were civilians. Children, women, old people, young people. Chechen fighters were also brought to my hospital. Also, Russian soldiers."
In a corner of the cellar, he empties a plastic bag containing shrapnel he collected and saved. During the fighting, his house was hit twice by rockets. But he refused to leave.
"I stayed in Chechnya because I am a Chechen. Also my father always told me: 'You are a Muslim, you are a doctor. You need to stay here, you need to help people.' This was a terrible tragedy for the Chechen people and my country. This is why I stayed."
By the time the second war broke out in 1999, the clinic had been patched up. Baiev was able to move out of the cellar and operate at the hospital. Renewed fighting meant he was busier than ever. His nephew videoed all of the operations on a small camera.
"Conditions were very difficult," Baiev recalls.
"I operated during bombing and shelling. I worked without supplies, without general anaesthesia for brain surgery, abdomen wounds and amputations. I worked without doors or windows. It was very cold. Outside it was so noisy during the bombing, tank attacks, helicopter attacks. My hospital was always shaking."
The surgeon treated patients from both sides of the conflict. That brought him problems.
"One day Chechen fighters and Russian soldiers were brought into my hospital. Of course the situation was very difficult. I always told the fighters: 'This place is a peace place. This hospital is open for everybody who needs help, not just for Chechens.' Some said, 'Why are you treating Russians soldiers? It's the enemy!'
"I said that for me, it doesn't matter, Chechen or Russian. I take to my operation room first who is seriously wounded. I am a doctor, I take Hippocratic oath. That's why I treat everybody."
Baiev remembers his worst day in February 2000 - 300 wounded Chechen fighters were brought into the hospital. "They had walked into a minefield. In 48 hours I performed 76 amputations and seven brain surgeries."
Among the injured on his operating table that day was the most wanted man in Russia - Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev. Baiev amputated part of his right leg. By saving Basayev's life, he was risking his own.
"During the amputation of his leg, I was thinking that after I help him I have a big problem. I know he is for Russia like Bin Laden was for America. After, I escape Chechnya, because the Russian secret police were looking for me. Also some Chechen extremists were looking for me. I had no choice. That's why I escaped Chechnya."
Two months after operating on Basayev, Baiev fled Chechnya. Human rights groups helped him leave the country and move to the United States, where he was granted political asylum. His family began a new life in Massachusetts. That autumn in Alkhan-Kala, Baiev's nephew Adam who had filmed the operations was shot dead.
Today, Baiev is back in Chechnya. He is a US citizen now, but he spends half the year operating at a children's clinic in Grozny.
"Many things have changed," says Baiev. "The political situation has changed. In the North Caucasus, this is a very quiet place today. The biggest problem is that we need good doctors here. Many doctors escaped Chechnya to go and live in Europe. That's why we need help. We need good specialists."
Although his priority is children, Baiev has also made a name for himself as the plastic surgeon of choice for the rich and famous, turning Grozny into an unlikely centre for cosmetic surgery.
"Russian famous people visit Chechnya because I have good experience. My first patient who visited Chechnya three years ago, she is a famous actress in Russia. A TV star."
Chechnya may be more peaceful today. But Baiev is still haunted by his memories of war.
"If I see some bad news on TV, I can't watch this. For example, about the situation in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. I feel this so painfully. Always I remember my situation, because I saw thousands of wounded, dead bodies, children who lost arms, legs. Before the war I was a completely different person. Now I know I've changed completely."