The Oath

When war broke out between Russia and Chechnya in 1994, Dr. Khassan Baiev reached the difficult moral decision to leave his medical position in Moscow and return to his Chechen homeland. Practicing medicine in wartime circumstances did not only entail working under the most primitive conditions, which Dr. Baiev describes in stark detail. (He performed so many operations that he was barely able to avoid fainting from exhaustion at the operating table.) Believing it his duty to treat all casualties without regard to politics, Dr. Baiev and his staff faced constant danger, not only from Russians opposed to his treating Chechen “rebels,” but also from his native Chechens, who resented his caring for their Russian enemies.

Despite threats, violence, and the lack of decent facilities and equipment, Dr. Baiev continued his work. After six years, he fled to the United States under threat of arrest by the Russian army, receiving political asylum in 2000. Anxiety, depression, nightmares, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome followed.

Dr. Baiev writes with gratifying humility for someone who has been honored by groups including Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, yet fiercely conveys his outrage at the abhorrent violations of human rights he has witnessed. His book is not for the squeamish, with graphic medical descriptions (“shredded intestines, livers, kidneys, and sexual organs reduced to ground meat”), as well as wartime atrocities including rape, infanticide, and torture described in horrific detail. However, it is an important work, conveying profound social, historical, and political messages amidst the drama of war and medicine.