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Khassan Baiev, 'The Oath: a surgeon under fire'

Walker & Company, 2003. ISBN 0 7434 3036 0; 347pp; see http://www.theoathbook.com/

For hundreds of years Chechnya has been an itch on the underbelly of Russia - awkward to reach and irritatingly persistent. The most recent episodes of a shadowy and confused conflict are related in this autobiography of a Chechen surgeon who worked through the wars of the 1990s, armed only with a scalpel.

Khassan Baiev treated the wounded tirelessly and indiscriminately, faithful to the Hippocratic Oath to which the title refers and under which he had pledged to help anyone in need, regardless of nationality.

The brutality of the wars described by Baiev makes one shudder. He avoids describing the violence relentlessly but one can sense his grief pacing restlessly through the irresistibly turning pages, hungry for justice, recognition and above all peace.

Now in his forties, Baiev lives as an exile in the US, a country where he does not speak the language and is unable to work. In 2000 he received the Human Rights Watch Monitor or the Year award, but he is haunted by nightmares and depression, which will probably never leave him.

Much of what is interesting and memorable about the book is Baiev's narration of his childhood in Chechnya and the Chechen customs and rules that he continues to live by. For example, his rather business-like search for a wife and the Muslim wedding that follows are fascinating, disclosing a network of traditions and embedded beliefs that knit the Chechen people into an armour capable of withstanding the horrifying events that have blighted their history.

Baiev's prose is not elaborate, but reveals a plain-talking, intelligent man in whom war has exposed the sparkle of steel. The description of him battling to save his wounded best friend's life by transfusing blood directly from his own veins into those of his friend makes one hold one's breath in sympathy with Baiev's hopeless desperation.

It is too easy to swallow the Russian line that Chechen terrorism must be stamped out. The Oath tells the tale from the opposite angle and is therefore essential reading for anyone interested in modern Chechen history and the ordinary people who tramp bravely through it.

Topics: War and peace