In 1994 Boris Yeltsin ordered Russian troops into Chechnya and the rebellious Caucasian republic’s 400-year struggle for independence erupted into bloody, outright war. Appalled by the situation, the Chechen surgeon Khassan Baiev, who had been practising lucrative cosmetic surgery in Moscow, returned to his beloved homeland. He set up a makeshift hospital just outside Grozny and began treating all who needed his care, on both sides of the conflict.
Baiev found that his dedication to the Hippocratic Oath meant he was denounced by his compatriots for treating wounded Russian soldiers and branded a terrorist sympathizer by the authorities for treating ‘bandits’. Nevertheless, despite imprisonment, torture and the bombing of his house and surgery, he continued to operate under impossible conditions. Eventually, in 2000, exhaustion and breakdown caused him to seek asylum in the United States, where he still lives, unable to practise medicine.
The savagery of the Chechen conflict can hardly be overstated; a population slaughtered and scattered, the death and brutalization of untold numbers of young Russian conscripts, and insanely desperate Chechen fighters resorting to appalling atrocities such as the Moscow Theatre siege and the massacre at Beslan primary school.
Baiev has said that in The Oath he wanted to do two things: to convey the hellishness of war and to give the world an impression of the Chechen people that stretched beyond the stereotypical notions of ‘terrorist’. He has succeeded in both objectives in this honest and heartrending account of a man and a society taken to breaking point and beyond by the heartless exigencies of modern warfare.