Friday, August 5, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Grief of my Heart

First of all, stop the bleeding.
--perhaps the most often repeated line in Khassan Baiev's memoirs, Grief of my Heart

Grief of my Heart is the memoir of Khassan Baiev, a Chechen surgeon who was a witness to both Russo-Chechen wars since the fall of the Soviet Union. Baiev stayed in Chechnya through most of these two wars treating the wounded on all sides: wounded Chechen civilians, wounded Russian civilians who lived in Chechnya, wounded Chechen fighters, wounded Russian soldiers. He helped Chechens escape the Russians and Russians escape the Chechens. And through it all he helped keep his family alive and together.

A remarkable man with a remarkable story, but not a story for the faint of heart or for those who want simple good-vs.-evil. It is a story of how personal lives and entire cultures get subsumed in the supposedly cerebral chess game of international politics...and how the consequences are very bloody, very tragic, and full of immoral and criminal acts. It is also about how personal lives and entire cultures survive the bloody, tragic, immoral consequences and rise to heroism and kindness.

Dagestan...Chechnya...Ingushetia...North Ossetia...Georgia...Armenia...Azerbaijan

The Caucasus Mountains dominate these nations, would-be nations, and territories. This has been a crossroads for millennia, the meeting point of large ethnic groups, religions and civilizations from the earliest moments of history.

The nations, would-be nations and territories I list above barely register in the minds of Americans. Few in America had heard of them, except maybe Armenia, until the fall of the Soviet Union. After that, these names, if they registered at all in our minds, became symbolic of Balkanization on a scale that would make the Balkans blush, with split off movements from split off movements. After 9/11, Chechnya and Dagestan became places where we thought al-Qaeda operated, a battleground, training ground and testing ground for international terrorism.

And that is probably all you know about this region.

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in many ways have histories that go back before recorded history. These were a part of the rise of civilization, sometimes centrally, more often peripherally.

Armenia has been proposed as the original location of the Garden of Eden...or, more properly, the place that inspired the myth of the Garden of Eden. This was a place battled over by some of the earliest empires known: the Hittites, the Mitanni, Urartu. It was fought over by the Romans and Parthians...then the Romans and Persians. Armenia was the first nation on earth to establish Christianity as its official religion.

It was once believed that the natives of the Caucasus nation of Georgia were descended from the ancient Cimmerians (a people immortalized and fictionalized in the Conan the Barbarian books). When Jason and the Argonauts landed at Colchis looking for the Golden Fleece, they had arrived in Georgia.

Azerbaijanis may also be descended from ancient Cimmerians and their distant relatives the Scythians, forming a people called Albanians (not related to the Balkan Albanians!).

The South Caucasus were the Northernmost limits of the earliest civilizations and were the place where the nomadic cultures of the Steppes—Cimmerians, Scythians, Saramatians, Huns, Turks, Mongols, etc—met the great empires of Mesopotamia...Assyria, Babylon, Hatti, Parthia, Persia, etc. The North Caucasus, including Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia, were the southernmost edge of the steppe, where steppe nomads met the mountain tribes of the Caucasus before invading the empires to the South.

What fascinates me most about these North Caucasus people is that they would include the descendants of the core region of a medieval empire of Khazaria...the Jewish Empire. It is quite possible that Ashkenazi Jews share some ancestors with modern Chechens, since Chechnya was on the Southern edge of Khazaria, the largest Jewish state ever to have existed. Interestingly, I noticed that some Chechen names struck me as characteristically Jewish. The Chechen name Khava, for example seems much the same as Chava, a common Jewish name. That could be either coincidental or due to similarities in Muslim and Jewish names. But I don't know of any Muslims named Chava!

When I worked at the NYU medical center, I hung out and drank with many Russian friends. They were from all over Russia: Moscow, Petersburg, Siberia...even from Russia via emigration to Israel. They were mostly liberals, hating Bush unlike the older generation of Russians who moved to America who idolize Reagan and the Republican Party. Many had opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya that were the Vietnam wars of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, respectively. And yet, they had absorbed some of the semi-propaganda that the Chechens were all bandits, criminals and fighters. There is a grain of truth in this, as there is in all stereotypes, but only a grain. Of course most Chechens are much like anyone else, though they do come from a long warrior tradition, much like the Apache, the Japanese, the Zulu, the Mongols, the Germans.

The book Grief of my Heart tells the story of Chechens caught in the way of a Russia that needed to exert its strength in the ruins of the Soviet Empire. It tells the story from the point of view of the Chechens and the Russian friends and acquaintances they had. At times I felt some of the rougher spots of the Chechens were smoothed over a bit much—al-Qaeda involvement in the conflict, the tradition of kidnapping brides, the bloodier actions of some Chechen fighters, but overall it is a balanced and amazing story from the point of view of the real people behind the "bandit" stereotype that the Soviet, and then Russian, governments slapped on the Chechens.

If Khassan Baiev's adult life exemplifies the experience of late-Soviet and post-Soviet Chechens, his father's life exemplified the experience of the previous generation. A decorated veteran in the Soviet Army who fought bravely against the invading Germans in some of the hardest spots in WW II (the icy Russian Northern Front), he returned from the war to be accused, along with all other Chechens, of collaborating with the Nazis. He was spat upon, denied veteran status for many years, and was deported with the bulk of the Chechens to Kazakhstan as traitors. Years later they were allowed to return to their homeland to find much of it occupied by Russians, Ukrainians, and Armenians. This was the way Chechens and Russians interacted over centuries of history: Chechens, no matter how bravely they fought beside Russians or how loyal, were always suspected of treachery, and sometimes did rebel in bids for independence.

Baiev does an excellent job of putting the reader in the middle of the war. So often war is portrayed to us either abstractly, as cool-looking explosions or lines on a map moving from side to side, or as something involving mostly soldiers, as in All Quiet on the Western Front. Rarely is war seen from the day-to-day viewpoint of the unarmed civilians who have to survive and raise children in the midst of those explosions that only look cool when they aren't close to you. Baiev tells us precisely what it is like trying to live your life surrounded by a war and how helpless the average citizen is in preventing or ending a war. War happens to Baiev and the people he knows the same way an earthquake or a hurricane happens, only it lasts much longer. The book's descriptions of his personal experience trying to be a moral doctor during a war are compelling and disturbing. He seems to be scrupulously accurate and fair, though there were times where I suspected a pro-Chechen/anti-Russian bias affected his view. However, my wife's observation of Baiev's writing style is quite telling in this regard: she commented (and not meaning it negatively) that he seemed to be the kind of person who has practically no imagination whatsoever. She felt everything he said was either strictly true or at least strictly true as far as Baiev could tell. Neither of us felt that this was a propaganda piece.

Seeing war through the eyes of civilians powerless to have any influence over the war reminded me of watching the Anthony Bourdain episode filmed during the Israeli war with Lebanon. His guide saw Hezbollah celebrating the capture of Israeli soldiers and looked grim, saying, "We will all pay for this." Soon he was proven right as Lebanese civilians, as well as Anthony Bourdain and his crew, are caught in a war they were powerless to prevent and which they could do nothing about. Helicopters and explosions fill the city, but for civilians all you can do is to live and odd mixture of terrified hiding and a surreal normality. The footage of Bourdain at a hotel poolside with explosions throughout the city below was among the most surreal things I had ever seen…and there are scenes in Grief of my Heart that recalled that surreal mix of terror and normality that is war for powerless civilians. And, like the Lebanon/Israel war, the Chechen/Russia war had right and wrong on both sides, but in the end right and wrong didn’t matter to those caught in the middle of it.

Perhaps most disturbing is the effect the war has on civilians both physically (there are some accusations that Russians dumped radioactive waste and/or used chemical weapons in Chechnya, though I do not know the veracity of those claims) and psychologically. Baiev himself suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, as did just about everyone in Chechnya. The scene that struck Baiev the most, happening during some of the worst fighting of the first war, also struck me:

"You're dead!" shouted a small his friend who crouched behind a burned-out car on the street.

"No! I killed you first. Fall down!"

I stopped in my tracks. I counted fifteen kids of all ages, including girls, playing "war," oblivious to the danger all around them...

In the background you could hear the firing of real guns. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. They had lived with war so long, that was all they knew...

I couldn't get those kids out of my mind. If someone didn't get them off the streets, they could grow into little animals with no knowledge of right or wrong; no traditions to guide them. Bang! Bang! You're dead! That is all they would know.

Interestingly, Baiev was predicting that the war the Russians waged on Chechnya could reduce the next generation of Chechens into precisely the stereotype Russians had of Chechens: "little animals with no knowledge of right or wrong; no traditions to guide them." Russia was creating what it claimed to be fighting.

This little scene of pretend war in the midst of real combat played out in the middle of what was called "Operation Jihad" where a few thousand Chechen fighters drove the Russians out of Grozney and effectively ended the first war. This was hard fought and very, very bloody. Historically it was interesting because, as my brother and I remember noting at the time, the Russian tanks in Grozney made the exact same mistake the Nazis made in Stalingrad: try to hold a city with tanks inadequately supported by infantry. The Chechens did to the Russians precisely what the Russians did to the Nazis: knock out the tanks with small-scale urban warfare, something tanks are not meant to be a part of. This mistake by the Russians cost them the first Chechen war, which ended in a negotiated ceasefire soon after the Chechens drove them out of Grozney. The Chechens won the first Chechen war. But they did not fare well in the peace afterwards. Infighting, infiltration by fundamentalist Muslim groups like al-Qaeda, and organized crime reduced victorious but bombed out Chechnya to an even worse state.

Many Americans have heard little about the Chechen wars except for the al-Qaeda involvement that crept in after the first war. And that involvement became very important after 9/11. But Baiev makes clear that such involvement by al-Qaeda was not central to the fight nor was really appreciated by the Chechens themselves. Here is what Baiev has to say just prior to his Hajj:

There are Saudis that don't regard Chechens as true Muslims. Both Chechens and Saudis are Sunni Muslims, but the Saudi interpretation of Islam is fundamentalist and strict. Some of them say that people who don't practice their form of Islam are not real Muslims...

I recalled an unpleasant encounter I had with two Wahabis...that is what we called the Muslims from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries who arrived in Chechnya to promote Islam after [the first Chechen war] in 1996. One of them limped into my office at the hospital in Grozney with a festering leg wound. He was accompanied by a friend...After I had dressed the wound, one of them handed me several sheets of paper, printed in Russian, describing the requirement for women to be fully covered.

"We have different points of views," I said after reading the information. Their attitude irritated me. Each nation has its own customs and traditions. Our women like bright colors, and if you told them to wear veils and be covered from head to toe in black, they would revolt...

These so-called Wahabis were beginning to cause problems in Chechnya. They claimed our Chechen traditions contradicted the Koran...We welcomed the humanitarian aid we received from Middle Eastern countries, but we did not like it when they told us our Islam was not the true Islam...

Here we see the typical way that al-Qaeda linked groups infiltrate local Muslim communities, using money and humanitarian aid as bait, helping Muslims fight oppressive forces (in this case, as originally in Afghanistan, the Russians), and demanding that the locals adopt fundamentalist views in return. Russia played up the al-Qaeda presence, but what is clear in Baiev's book is that the Chechens did not agree with the fundamentalist views of the Saudis and al-Qaeda. America should note this because it is how al-Qaeda is winning the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world while we alienate them with our bullying and our wars based on lies.

Ultimately the second war broke out, worse than the first. It was inevitable because the Russians felt the matter unresolved and too many extremists wanted to prove their faith--their faith in Chechnya, their faith in Allah, or their faith in people's willingness to pay bribes. But two things were the sparks that set alight this inevitable fire. First there was a failed and stupid intervention in neighboring Dagestan by one of the main Chechen commanders, and the terrorist bombing of an apartment block in Moscow, killing 300 people. This bombing is highly controversial. A couple of years ago, while staying home with my relatively newborn son, I saw a movie on IFC that strongly suggested Russian security forces staged the bombings and framed the Chechens as a way of getting the Russian public behind another Russo-Chechen war. This is the opinion Baiev presents as well. I am unconvinced. I consider it equally likely, not more or less, that either extremists for Chechen nationalism or Islamic extremists believing in jihad committed the act to spark another war. We may never know what kind of extremist committed this act if terrorism: extremists in the Russian government, Chechen extremists, or al-Qaeda extremists. But this terrorist act, blamed on the Chechens, made a second war impossible to avoid. When I was in Moscow in 2003, a bombing had just occurred the week before we arrived that made security tight and made it impossible for us to enter the Kremlin without paying some huge amount of money. That bombing was blamed on Chechens...extremists of whatever stripe are still willing to commit such acts, and innocent Russians and Chechens die because of it.

Baiev knew the second war would be worse. Again, he suggests the Russians used chemical weapons. He got his family out, but he remained behind. In one sense this is the oddest part of both wars. When Chechens flee Chechnya to avoid the war, they go to neighboring areas of Russia, driving home the fact that this conflict was a civil war within Russia and both sides were Russian citizens, whatever they called each other.

The opening days of the second war were dramatic, with Grozny leveled almost immediately and most doctors and nurses fleeing. The first attack on Baiev's town was typical of the nature of this war:

Several streets away...people gathered following the funeral of a young boy who had stepped on a mine while collecting wood. A crowd of people on the streets was always an invitation for Russian fire. The mourners should have known better, but the exchange of condolences after a death is one of our important traditions.

Suddenly there was an enormous explosion...Within five minutes the wounded began arriving, some in the arms of relatives, others in carts or on stretchers. There had been no warning—a mortar is silent until it explodes close to the ground, spraying shards everywhere, shredding human flesh. There were at least seventy casualties; some killed and some with limbs hanging off...

"Stop the bleeding," [I shouted]. "First of all, stop the bleeding!"

Ultimately, threatened by extremists on both sides, even Baiev fled Chechnya. He had insisted on staying on as long as he could, but in the end even he left. He was able to take his wife and children, but left behind his parents and other relatives. He now lives in Boston.

I will end by quoting Baievâ's favorite statement of what being a doctor means, taken from the writings of a tenth century Muslim physician named al-Tabari:

[The physician] should avoid predicting whether a patient will live or die...He ought not to lose his temper when the patient keeps asking questions, but should answer gently and compassionately. He should treat alike the rich and poor...the powerful and the powerless, the elite and the illiterate...The physician should not be late for his rounds and his house calls. He should be punctual and reliable. He should not wrangle about his fees...If the physician prescribes a drug orally, he should make sure that the patient understands the name correctly, in case he would ask for the wrong drug and get worse instead of better. He should be decent towards women and should not divulge the secrets of his patients.

I left out one statement that says a physician should not perform abortions except when necessary for the mother's health, but that aside, I would like to see all of this taught in American medical schools. And it is from a 10th century Arabic book from a time when Western medicine was barbaric. Khassan Baiev lives up to this ideal of what a doctor should be and I am glad he chose to write his memoirs because there is much I would not know of his homeland had he not done so.

Currently, Khassan Baiev, is chairman of the International Committee for the Children of Chechnya. Photos used in this diary were found here.

Buy Grief of My Heart and learn about the Chechnya wars.

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