Russia's Public Health Catastrophe in Chechnya
At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Khassan Baiev, author, Grief of my Heart: Memoirs of a Chechen Surgeon; and Nicholas Daniloff, Professor, School of Journalism, Northeastern University, discussed the serious health and social problems that exist in Chechnya. Baiev is a Chechen surgeon who continued to perform operations on Chechen fighters, Russian soldiers, and civilians in his homeland during two devastating wars. He was granted political asylum in the United States in 2000 and has since run the International Committee for the Children of Chechnya, which provides material support to hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Daniloff and his wife, Ruth, have assisted Baiev in writing his memoirs.
According to Baiev, Chechnya is no longer facing outright warfare outside of a few remote, mountainous areas, but there is still no security in the country. There is no one in Chechnya who has not been physically or psychologically damaged by the war, he said. Chechnya's pressing problems include high unemployment, an almost total lack of infrastructure, unstable government, and high levels of disability and illness among the population. Political Islam continues to spread in these chaotic conditions, and Baiev expressed concern that this could lead to a renewal of violence in the future.
The real victims of the wars in Chechnya have been children. According to Baiev, 40,000 children have been killed, 26,000 orphaned, and thousands more injured. He noted that many children have been injured when they pick up mines that are designed to look like toys. Children born in Chechnya since the war have a high risk of birth defects, and rates of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis are very high. The health system cannot adequately address these serious problems, according to Baiev. Hospitals lack resources ranging from the technical equipment needed to diagnose and treat serious diseases, to basic necessities like electricity and clean water. Baiev performed all of his surgeries during the war using local anesthetics and ordinary carpenter's saws and drills.
In addition to its public health catastrophe, Baiev contended, Chechnya is facing a social crisis. An entire generation of children is growing up knowing nothing but war, he said. The education system has been destroyed. Many children do not attend school, and those who do attend do not have textbooks or other educational materials. Educational opportunities for children with special needs are especially poor. Baiev noted that many children are not learning Russian or any foreign language, and therefore have very little access to information from the outside world. Those who grow up in these dire conditions, he warned, tend to exhibit aggressive personalities and are easy targets for recruitment into extremist groups.
Improving the situation in Chechnya will be a very difficult task. According to Daniloff, the Russian government blocks most international assistance from entering Chechnya in order to keep the real conditions in the republic out of the public eye. Baiev noted that corruption and instability in Chechnya limit the effectiveness of any reconstruction or assistance project. His foundation is able to provide important assistance, but only on a small scale.