Stop heinous acts by Russians and Chechens
By Khassan Baiev
I am a Chechen doctor who treated many wounded and dying people - Russian soldiers, Chechen fighters, but mainly innocent civilians - during Russia’s two recent wars with Chechnya.
Like many others, I watched the recent hostage-taking horror in Moscow on television. I felt for the victims crammed into a theatre auditorium and terrorized by Movsar Barayev and his followers. Along with most Chechens, I condemn this barbarous act, which is the latest atrocity in the brutal conflict that has raged since December 1994 when 300,000 Russian troops invaded Chechnya.
In January 1999, I too was taken hostage by Movsar’s uncle, the late Arbi Barayev, who condemned me to death in a makeshift Islamic court for treating Russians. The reason Barayev spared me was because he needed me to treat his wounded men.
Arbi Barayev, like the hostage takers in Moscow, claimed to be a Muslim. In my eyes, and in the eyes of most Chechens, terrorism is an insult to our faith. Islam is a religion of peace, even if some fanatics have hijacked it to justify their evil deeds.
Tragically the hostage-taking in the theatre fuels President Putin’s effort to depict Chechens as Islamic extremists and will be another excuse to mount reprisals against us. If you believe the Russian media, Chechnya is a hotbed of terrorists funded by the terrorist organization Al Qaeda. This is a distortion of the facts. Moscow prevents both Russian and foreign journalists from going to Chechnya, so it is hard for the world to know the truth, which is that the vast majority of Chechens want nothing more than to be allowed to live their lives peacefully.
Chechens adopted the Sunni Muslim faith in the 18th century, but adjusted it to fit the Adat, a body of Chechen customary law that has regulated our lives for centuries. The Wahabbis, as we call Arabs from Middle Eastern countries, arrived in Chechnya after the first war ended in August 1996. During the second war, which began in August 1999, there were never more than 200 foreigners in Chechnya from Arab countries, some of whom have fought beside Chechens.
We are grateful for humanitarian aid from Middle Eastern countries, but most Chechens have rebuffed the efforts of the Wahabbi to introduce extremist ideology into Chechnya’s way of life. We are a very independent people.
For hundreds of years we have fought against the Russians telling us what to do. We don’t welcome other nations telling us how to behave, even if we share the same faith. The Wahabbis tried to seduce our young people with money, and it is true that some men joined them to support their families. But our elders constantly spoke out against the presence of these troublemakers and asked them to leave the villages.
While I condemn the tactics of the Moscow hostage takers, I support any call for Russia to withdraw the more than 100,000 of her troops still based in Chechnya. Their continued marauding under the guise of ‘‘mopping-up’’ operations terrorizes the population and hardens attitudes against Moscow. This brutal conflict, in which an estimated 200,000 Chechen civilians have died, not to mention Chechen fighters and Russian soldiers, must end. Each week dozens of Russian soldiers die in Chechen ambushes, and Chechen men routinely are abducted off the street to be ransomed off to their relatives or executed. This happens beyond the view of the rest of the world, but it is an international tragedy.
Hostage taking is no way to resolve this conflict. Violence breeds violence. We need the international community to help bring an end to the bloodshed.
As a surgeon during the two wars, I witnessed the mangled bodies, the shredded innards, the amputated limbs, and children burned beyond recognition. I recall the boy whose hair turned white overnight from fear and the girl who screamed whenever a bird flew overhead, thinking it was the Russian helicopter that had killed her mother. I will not forget the face of a man whose daughter was raped before his eyes, or the terror of a wounded young Russian soldier I treated who believed I was about to execute or castrate him, which is what his superiors said would happen if he fell into Chechen hands.
Unless steps are taken to end this barbarity through political negotiations, the killing of the innocent will continue. The reprisals by Russia have already started, and there may well be more desperate acts of terror, designed to draw international attention to this forgotten war. The circle of violence will continue unless a political resolution can be found.
Unfortunately, the United States appears to have reached an understanding with Russia whereby the United States will no longer criticize the human rights abuses in Chechnya in return for Russia’s support of the US battle against global terrorism and efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the innocent suffer. —The Boston Globe
Khassan Baiev grew up and lived in the town of Alkhan Kala, near Grozny, and won a Human Rights Watch Award for his heroism during the Chechen wars. With his life threatened by both sides in the conflict, he escaped to the United States in 2000 and is writing a memoir of his experiences