Suffering beyond imagining


Chechnya, it seems, has become a place where monsters grow. The Chechen people have been bombed, starved and displaced through almost a decade of conflict that has murdered their sense of communal identity; the only activities that now appear to thrive in that blasted landscape are abduction and banditry.

The Russian occupiers are depraved, made brutal by their unrestrained exercise of repression. The rest of the world, including the European Union, the United Nations and the United States, is morally compromised by accepting Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's mendacious justification of the conflict in the breakaway Russian republic as a "war on terror."

On an individual level, those who witness the suffering in Chechnya have been forced to face their worst nightmares: Journalists have reached the limits of their ability to bear witness; doctors have had to face the inadequacy of their skills when everyone they encounter is a casualty and some of their patients want to kill them. Chechnya is a mire of human suffering that remains largely unreported -- to the quiet satisfaction of those complicit in its perpetuation.

Three books have emerged to break that silence. The content of any one of them would, I suspect, stagger the most hardened of us; reading three at once creates an odd, visceral resonance as three sets of recollections of the same events are recounted, each with its own perspective -- that of an American TV and print journalist, a Russian newspaper reporter and a Chechen surgeon -- and each shaded by the narrator's guilt and anger at his or her helplessness.

The first, Thomas Goltz's Chechnya Diary: A War Correspondent's Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya (Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's. 286 pages, $27.95), is perhaps the most accessible. Packaged as a piece of "bang-bang" journalism -- Goltz was described by the former Brill's Content media magazine as "one of the founders of the exclusive journalistic cadre of compulsive, danger-addicted voyeurs who courts death to get the story" -- the book is, in fact, rather better and more sensitive than its marketing would suggest.

Goltz is self-deprecating and funny (as much as the tragic circumstances allow) and well aware of the implications of striving for distinction in an industry that sends its star workers to risk their lives for entertainment, for "great TV." Goltz, who has written for numerous publications, hopes that his reporting will change the world but worries that having an effect depends on showing the deaths of people whom he has come to love and trust.

This is the central question that should be asked of those who write personal accounts of being in wars: To what extent are we promoting ourselves on the suffering of others? Acknowledging culpability, Goltz concludes with the stark statement that he never wants to see war again.

An antidote to cynicism about the media is to be found in Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya's excoriating book, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches From Chechnya (translated from the Russian by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky, University of Chicago Press, 208 pages, $25), a personal, unblinking stare at the casualties of this war. It depicts people mashed by shells, children deranged with fear, victims brought alive by her pen as they die before her eyes. She carries the burden of those who were killed because they gave her information or tried to help her.

Her measured accounts of grotesque and intolerable horror compare with the best factual writings of the World War II Italian correspondent Curzio Malaparte. Politkovskaya's editors at the liberal Moscow newspaper Novoya Gazeta oppose the Putin government line on the war, but they cut the worst parts of her reports, fearing they wouldn't be believed.

Politkovskaya describes how the Chechen identity, with its traditional mentality of fortitude, self-help and community cohesion, has vanished in the mud of obliterated villages, in prison pits, refugee camps and mass graves. "How could this have happened in front of the whole world?" she asks. "Under the supervision of international observers, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Doctors of the World, The Salvation Army, human rights advocates -- our own and foreign?"

The consequence, she says, is a society plunged into a cycle of degradation, revenge and reprisal that will breed blood feud and psychosis for the next century.

The difficulty of illumination is at the core of the third book, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire (Walker & Co., 376 pages, $26). Khassan Baiev, its Chechen-born author, left a promising career as a cosmetic surgeon in Moscow to return to his homeland just before the war of 1995. Through that conflict and a second Russian invasion in 2000, he worked to defend his people and help the wounded, treating friend and foe, combatant and civilian. The foes were Russian soldiers and some Chechen fighters who threatened to execute him even as he operated on them. The friends were his neighbors and childhood classmates who would come to him smashed and bleeding.

Exhausted and traumatized, a death sentence on his head, Baiev eventually escaped to the United States, where he and his family now live. Not certified to practice medicine, he began writing.

It is the sheer horror of Baiev's experiences in Chechnya that makes the book burst from these restraints and come alive. The narrative loses its formulaic structure to become impressionistic; we hear the drum-fire of Russian artillery, the screams of the dying and feel Baiev's exhaustion as he plies his blunt bone-saw through another amputation. We understand his agony as friends die under his hands, and the absurdity -- and essential humanity -- of operating on a wounded cow in the middle of a shelled town. Finally, the account of Baiev's breakdown and painful rehabilitation is powerful enough to overcome melodrama, offering the prospect for redemption and healing that is richly deserved.

Even those of us who would claim some acquaintance with the experience of war can hardly comprehend the intensity of suffering seen and endured by those who have been through the conflicts in Chechnya. No one survives such encounters intact. The accounts of these veterans deserve to be read.

Jonathan Kaplan, the author of The Dressing Station: A Surgeon's Chronicle of War and Medicine, works as a field surgeon with international emergency medical intervention organizations and as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. This review, in longer form, originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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