Comprehensive news of the catastrophe in Chechnya has been slow to filter into the mainstream press. That the Chechens have endured a horrific onslaught at the hands of the Russians is clear. But the extent of the crisis can only truly be understood by hearing the stories of those who have witnessed the events in the region firsthand. Dr. Shahid K. Siddiqui, a cardiologist from Napa, CA, is one such individual.
Having recently returned from a humanitarian mission to the border of Georgia and Chechnya, Dr. Siddiqui spoke with iviews.com about the difficulties he faced in traveling there, his travails in dealing with officials on the ground, the humanitarian needs of the Chechens and his general impression of the situation.
- BACKGROUND & TRAVEL TO THE REGION
- BUREAUCRACTIC ROADBLOCKS IN GEORGIA
- TRAVEL TO DUESI AND THE BORDER CAMP AT SHATILI
- ENCOUNTER WITH THE GEORGIAN KGB
- HOSPITAL VISITS IN TBILISI
- WHAT THE CHECHENS HAD TO SAY
Siddiqui:Basically, for the last five years I have been a member of an organization called the Islamic Medical Association of North America. Based in Chicago, it is a 26-year old organization of Muslim physicians from the United States. The organization has many committees and one of them is the Red Crescent Committee (IMA).
Two years ago they delivered the responsibility of the chairmanship of the Red Crescent Committee to me. Soon after I took on the responsibility the first thing that happened was ... an earthquake in Afghanistan. It was pretty bad and in the mountainous region of Afghanistan. And so I got a call from the [IMA's] executive director, Dr. Kurshid Malik, [informing me] that there was an earthquake [and that we should] do something about it.
I said, "What do you usually do?" He said, "Well we fund raise and give the funds to an organization that is working in the area and basically deliver them as a gift from IMA." So I sent out an appeal, got some money and sent it to them. Then, several months later there was an earthquake in Iran. So we ... sent out an appeal to all our members -- our membership is over 1000 physicians; we got some money in our fund and gave it again.
In 1998 there was a delegation with the International Action Center out of San Francisco ... that went to Iraq with 100 members. In that delegation, IMA, under the Red Crescent Committee sponsored a substantial amount of medications.
Thereafter the Kosova crisis occurred. The knee-jerk response was to collect funds and send them. So we did collect funds and gave them to ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) Relief to basically distribute the funds locally. But then we took a step back and said, "Wait a minute, this is not good enough." It seemed we were doing the same thing other organizations were doing, which was basically collecting funds. So why go through IMA, and not just do ICNA fundraising. It didn't make sense. We realized that there was some medical humanitarian need that we could fulfill and create a niche and use our expertise and professionalism and apply that in addition to raising funds.
And alhamdulillah (praise the lord), with that we embarked on a general appeal on our IMA-Net to look for volunteers to go to Albania at that time. And we made a very nice bond with ICNA Relief [whereas] they would provide us the platform on which we would act and we would provide them with [fulfillment of] medical need ... so that we do not have to deal with the nitty gritty details of working in the field. That was the best bonding we had ever had. All we basically had to do was show up.
And of course finally the Chechnya [crisis] occurred ... and we are now beginning to realize that this is not a one time thing, we are committed now to a permanent stature and insha allah (God-willing) we look forward to working within these crises and these catastrophes in the future because that's where it's going.
Iviews: Could you give us a summary of your itinerary?
Siddiqui: This kind of work takes a lot of research. I must have spent endless hours for about two weeks on the phones with multiple organizations trying to find a way to get into the [Caucasus] region.
At that point, because of the significant difficulty and practical limitations of what you could do for the Chechens, I was willing to go on under the banner of the Red Cross. I was willing to go on under any banner because I wanted to get there. That was the bottom line. I wanted to pitch in and I didn't care if it was a non-Muslim or non-Christian organization. [I said] "Whatever it takes, we'll do it to get us to that spot."
One of the first [groups] we called was the International Red Cross. They informed me that they had recently been bombed -- their ambulance was bombed with victims in it; and everybody died, including the driver and the operating doctor in Chechnya. This was about two months ago. In addition, their camp in Ingushetia -- there, eight members, two or three of them foreigners, somebody came in and shot them all dead.
I got to talk with the person who was actually leading the [effort in Chechnya] and he said, "We are retracting our foreign staff from the area. There's no way we'll take on anybody else." They were working exclusively [with] the Russian Red Cross staff. So basically the Red Cross said that there was no hope [for me to go].
Then I talked to the U.N. and the UNHCR representative in the area and they basically told me similar things, that their operations are extremely limited due to safety and security issues.
Third, I called the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations and the Russian Ambassador in Washington, DC. Both of them asked me to submit to them all the information about our organization and did not promise me anything substantial so that I could pursue that avenue at all. So I gave up on that as well very quickly.
About a month ago, ICNA Relief broke the news to us that there were nearly 5000-7000 Chechen refugees in Georgia; and they thought this would be one of the easiest targets for us to work on as it is [more easily accessible] and it's not in Russia and we would not have to deal with Russian authorities.
So Tariq ur-Rahman of ICNA Relief went there and spent a week in Georgia and Azerbaijan looking for all avenues of relief work. He called me from there [to inform me] that there was an avenue for us to work in a primary care clinic. In addition he realized the necessity of setting up a medical care unit to stabilize acute injuries as they were being brought in from Chechnya to Georgia for surgical operations. So he asked me to look into those two aspects: one was to lead the primary care clinic, second was to look at the feasibility of the medical care unit. And that was when we embarked on our first delegation to Georgia.
We did not go into Chechnya because we could not.
Siddiqui: As soon as I had talked with Tariq ur-Rahman, I once again appealed to our IMA-Net community to see if there was anybody interested. Two brothers [-- Waseem Fathallah, a pediatrician from Baylor University, and Nadeem Islam, a student at Baylor --] immediately got on it. The three of us met in C,hicago's [O'Ha,re international] airport and we had IMA's own dedicated physician who had worked on the Albania project, he brought in 12 boxes of medication. Each box [weighed] 70 pounds, half of them were surgical accessories. We embarked with those 12 boxes on to Tbilisi.
We left on Dec 3 and we arrived Dec 5, early in the morning Tbilisi time. We were told that we would get our visas at the airport. That was told to us here by the Georgian authorities. So when we arrived we got our visas -- two-week long visas -- without any questions. But when we went to the [immigration] authorities, they immediately stopped us. And the first word he (the immigration official) said to us in English was "deportation." And he walked away with our three passports.
After that they got us an English translator; here name was Laila. And through that lady we pleaded and requested and explained our situation, showed our documents, showed out humanitarian non-biased, help type of set-up. And after negotiating with them for almost an hour they let us in.
Once we got through immigration ... we had to deal with customs. By then, 11 of our twelve boxes had arrived and the customs authority blatantly refused to release those boxes despite documentation, explanation of need and urgency of those supplies, where we were taking it, who it was for. They just refused to give it to us.
Believe it or not, we had to put those boxes in a van and transfer it to a warehouse for the customs. They took us from the airport to the warehouse and used our own vehicle to transport those 12 boxes and put them in their warehouse. So we spent several hours in this process, but alhamdulillah we made it.
Our host was Marat Avlarigov -- he is an official assistant to the Chechen representative in Tbilisi, Hizir Aldamoz. He also tried to help to get those boxes but they did not listen to him. Nevertheless, after all that we went to the town.
The next day, Monday Dec 6, we went to the local office of the Chechen representative. From there the plan was to move on to the Chechen village in Georgia which was occupied by 5000-7000 refugees. This village is named Duesi. It's about a three and a half hour drive in the northwest direction from Tbilisi.
Tariq ur-Rahman [of ICNA Relief] had already employed a Chechen doctor for us in that clinic, a lady Chechen doctor who was also our host. So they took us straight to her house. They were incredible hosts. The husband's name was Omar and the [doctor's] name was Maryam.
The next morning they took us to the clinic. Tariq had already arranged for a box of medication that was already there, and this was a blessing for us, because at that point we had nothing in our hands. Our boxes were already in customs.
The first day alone we saw 60-70 patients, most of them women and children. [There were] mostly family practice types of illnesses.
I left Waseem and Nadeem there because I had to go back to Tbilisi with two objectives in mind: one, to try to get those boxes of medication and second, to look at the feasibility of the border region hospital. So the second day, the staff of Chechen representatives came and I left with them.
When I came back to Tbilisi the following day, they had arranged for a helicopter ride to the border with the health minister of Tbilisi ... Hizir Aldamoz and three leading journalists with TV cameras and everything else -- representatives of local CNN and probably Reuters. In addition there were three individuals in that helicopter with Medicins San Frontiers identification on. The journalists told me they were doctors but when I talked to them, none of them were doctors. They had brought two boxes of supplies and were just coming along to drop them. And I asked them, "Well Doctors Without Borders are supposed to be without borders; how come they're not working here?" The only answer I got out of th,em was: "That's, a very good question."
Finally we made it to the village. The border village is named Shatili. There are about 17 huts there and each one of them was filled with civilian refugees. This is at the elevation of 8000 feet [where it is] unbelievably cold and miserable without any electricity or modes of communication.
Shatili has been a main spot where they would bring in all refugees. Whoever wants to go into Georgia has to go through Shatili. This distance from Shatili to Grozny, as I was told, is in the range of 200 km. The main highway has been occupied by Russian authorities but there have been some back ways, some back roads to get into Grozny; and that's how the Chechens would bring [out] victims. That journey would take anywhere from one to three weeks depending on the weather and military conditions.
In Shatili we spent a few hours, although not enough. Due to the heavy duty media [presence], most of the injured people remained out of sight and we could not visit them. We could only visit civilians who were not injured.
Iviews: Describe you thoughts and feelings when you actually did reach people who need of medical assistance.
Siddiqui: These people were actually not in need of medical assistance but these people were in need of food and supplies. There's nothing there. It's basically rocks and extremely bitter cold. It's just amazing. I don't know how a people would ever live there, even in non-military conditions. Most of the Georgians who live there vacate the region during wintertime. It just struck me how people could even survive there at that elevation and in that bitter cold without any natural resources. They are truly dependent on supplies coming in from Tbilisi. It was to my disappointment that I could not visit the injured victims there at that point. Nevertheless, due to diplomacy, I had to be quiet and come back on the helicopter to Tbilisi.
That very same night, at about 8:30 p.m., as I was leaving the Chechen office with the Georgian driver and a Chechen, we were pulled over by secret police, taken to a police station and interrogated for two and a half hours. Thereafter they released the Chechens and I was under the impression that I would also be released. At that point two agents came in and took me away from that spot. When the Chechens tried to come with me they barred them.
They took me in a car and drove me to another location. After a half hour drive they took me to another building which was heavily secured. In that building they took me inside, took me to another room and started interrogating me again, asking a lot of questions. But they could not speak good English and I could not understand local Georgian.
Then they called a translator and the translator told me on the phone that they were asking me to stay there overnight. I basically refused. And throughout this time I had been asking them to call the U.S. Embassy to let them know that I had been detained. They were refusing to do so.
After much negotiation and much resistance and another two and a half hours in that location, they finally got a translator to that location. So at that point they said, "We'll let you go but we'll keep your passport."
Iviews: Were these Georgian security officials?
Siddiqui: They called themselves the Georgian KGB.
The reason for keeping my passport was for passport control. They said they were going to check if my passport was authentic and if I was truly an American. So I said, "Fine, you keep my passport, I'll go home and come back tomorrow to get my passport." They said, "Fine." At that point the called the Chechen representative's office and someone came to pick me up.
The next morning I called up the U.S. Embassy and explained what had h,appe,ned. The U.S. Consular I was dealing with was Steven Fagin and he started calling around the town to find out what happened. An hour later he called me back and said there was no record of me ever being picked up. And he said he called pretty high officials in the area.
Finally at about 11 a.m. somebody came from the Chechen representative's office and said, "Let's go back to the same location" because they knew where it was. So they took me back and when I got there, this very same man who detained me the night before, came running out of the office and handed me the passport without any questions.
I explained the situation to Steven Fagin and he said, disappointingly so, that the only reason they had picked me up and harassed me was because I was with Chechens.
Iviews: What sort of things had they been trying to find out about you?
Siddiqui: What was I doing there? When I told them that I was a doctor, they thought I was bluffing. When I showed them my medical license they thought it was fake.
Iviews: Did you actually at any point in time fear for your life?
Siddiqui: I did. When they separated me from the Chechens and were driving me to an undisclosed location, at that point I was truly afraid, because I could not tell whether these were agents or kidnappers or God-knows what.
Siddiqui: During the few days that I was in Tbilisi I spent most of the time with these injured civilians and injured victims. There were three government hospitals in Tbilisi that we visited.
In every hospital that we went to ... almost all the injured victims that I encountered and interacted with were younger than the age of 25. The average age was 18-19 years. And the youngest one I think I saw was about 15 years old. They were a mix of both civilians and fighters -- more civilians than fighters. And most victims' [injuries were the result of] Russian bombs and snipers, fewer [as a result of bullets].
Most of the injuries were quite disfiguring -- dislocated limbs and dislocated bellies -- pretty gothic. In my 14 years of medical training in the United States I had not seen so much as what I had seen in those two days.
Most of these victims were brought in from central Chechnya and each one of them reported a travel journey anywhere from four days to three weeks. They were trapped, they were stopped in many spots due to security reasons and they were basically transported in secret. And mind you, this whole time [they had] sustained injuries: bullets in place, broken limbs and unhealed wounds. Bleeding continued and almost all of them appeared extremely anemic.
One thing I must say, regardless of the injury, the depth of the injury, the complexity of the injury, each one of them gave me a smile when I arrived in their rooms. And every time I asked them, "How are you," the unanimous response was "Alhamdulillah" (Praise the Lord). It was just outstanding. I could not begin to tell you. They were in true pain because most of them had not even had any opportunity to see the doctor. There's no concept of anesthesia. And any twist or turn in the bed, they would moan. But when asked [how they were doing] they would say "Alhamdulillah."
Iviews: Are the hospitals overwhelmed?
Siddiqui: They didn't seem to be overwhelmed because the reported number of injured victims in Tbilisi hospitals was in the range of 70 to 100 total. And in every ward we would be met with other refugees who had already healed their wounds.
Siddiqui: That is a very sad story because each of them had a horror story to tell. Basically, most of them who were victims of bombs and snipers and mines, they were all civilians, they were all walking around doing their own thing when they suddenly were met with their destiny.
When they were brought to the local [Chechen] hospitals -- this is a war in the happening, a war in transition -- the hospitals themselves were unsafe. They had transferred most of their patients to the basement of the hospital and some hospitals were so overcrowded that the patients had to stay on the first floor knowing that they were at higher risk. And they continued to hear the bombing throughout day and night.
They were at the mercy of someone who could come and pick them up. And when finally someone would come and pick them up, they had the [journey] way ahead of them to Tbilisi. One victim I vividly remember who had a significant, large inter-abdominal injury due to a bomb -- when he was being transported from the border into Tbilisi the vehicle tipped over four times and landed on the lower road. And the victim sustained more injuries to his upper and lower limbs.
Iviews: What about the actual fighters themselves? What was their state of mind and their feelings about how things were moving forward and their outlook?
Siddiqui: The fighters, for unbelievable reasons, were extremely optimistic. In their minds it was a win/win situation no matter how you look at it. Because they were fighting for a cause. They were not just fighting for a piece of land or a piece of ego. They were fighting for a cause, which is the establishment of the existence of Islam. For these fighters it was not only themselves fighting as a nation, but also the existence of Islam in their nation. And the combination of both of [these factors] gave them incredible strength to sustain these Russian assaults.
Iviews: Were they able to tell you of any successes that they had had?
Siddiqui: The major success they said, was that they were never defeated by the Russians. They only retreated from villages when they ran out of ammunition. And to them, that was a great dignity because they basically fought until their guns were empty. None of these villages were defeated. The best example of this was Urus Martan.
They also told me very explicitly that there is no help of any kind from anywhere.
Iviews: What about other Muslim countries? We've heard that before, like in Bosnia, certain Muslim countries would be able to funnel aid and assistance through various channels.
Siddiqui: They themselves didn't know of any.
Iviews: If there is any aid, the fighter on the ground is not seeing any of that?
Siddiqui: No, not any of that. They haven't even heard of it. Forget seeing it. And they didn't complain about it. The only thing complained about was that they did not have enough ammunition to fight.
Iviews: What is your assessment of the humanitarian needs of the Chechens?
Siddiqui: Medicine and food are the two main things of humanitarian aid they would benefit from. And our project is exclusively humanitarian. We focus on providing the injured civilians and victims a means of [satisfying] medical need. At the border if possible, if feasible, [there should be] a transient medical care unit operated by Chechen doctors to temporarily stabilize victims before they can be transported farther down to Tbilisi. This medical care unit would have to be fully equipped with trauma and surgical care accessories and obviously with antibiotics and local anesthetics.
Iviews: Do you see any mobilization from any other Muslim or non-Muslim organizations?
Siddiqui: There are virtually no no,n-Muslim organizations that I know of working in the fie,ld. ICNA Relief, Benevolence Foundation of Chicago and Muslim Hands of United Kingdom all were funneling in the humanitarian need with medication and food to the injured and to the refugees in Georgia through the official Chechen representative's office.
Iviews: Is there anything else that stands out in your mind about your experience?
Siddiqui: The most astonishing thing to me in this whole situation is the insensitivity of the international community, especially the so-called United Nations. I'm totally appalled with the impotency of the United Nations in the Chechen crisis. Just not long ago in the East Timor crisis they appeared to play a role in favor of independence of East Timor and yet they show an absolute hypocrisy and impotency in the setting of Chechnya which had already been liberated from the Russians not three years ago, when the Russians themselves have signed a treaty on this issue. And if the United Nations is going to behave like this, it is about time we all asked why the United Nations should even exist and if so, what for.