February 23, 2003
For Chechens, a fighting chance

By Caleb Daniloff
The sweat-glazed athlete held out his left hand, the dislocated bone in his finger pushing at a crooked angle under his skin. Tournament paramedics were not qualified to help.

‘‘Tell him to relax and it will be over quickly,’’ Dr. Khassan Baiev said in Russian, holding the young man by the wrist and gently feeling around the finger.

In the background, barefoot judo athletes grappled with one another, as grunts and shrieks echoed around the high school gymnasium. The athlete bit down on his collar and turned into his coach’s shoulder. With a quick jerk, Baiev popped the bone back in place.

‘‘There, is done,’’ Baiev said in halting English, peeling off a strip of medical tape. ‘‘Not bend it.’’

Baiev, 39, straightened his white judo uniform and for a moment his face relaxed, glowed almost. Gone briefiy from his brown eyes were the persistent worries that come with being an exile in a strange land, a Chechen surgeon persecuted by both sides in a bitter military confiict.

For the moment, though, Baiev had again been able to heal. Nearby, several of his five children waited silently. Like their father, all practice judo. The family had come to compete at the Massachusetts State Judo Championships held early this month in Lawrence.

For the Baievs, who now live in Needham, the martial art of judo is more than physical recreation; in many ways, it represents the preservation of Chechen identity.

‘‘For Khassan, he had no idea of America, not even a shadow of an idea,’’ said French writer Anne Nivat, a frequent traveler to Chechnya and author of a behind-the-lines account of the war. ‘‘He’s still in a state of shock regarding adapting to this new world.’’

Nivat, one of the few Western journalists reporting from Chechnya, first met Baiev in 1995 at his besieged hospital in Alkhan Kala, a suburb of the Chechen capital, Grozny. Trained as a plastic surgeon, Baiev performed thousands of war-related
operations, treating Chechens and Russians alike. After one bloody retreat of fighters from Grozny, Baiev performed 67 amputations in 48 hours, including one on notorious Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, a move that infuriated the Russians.

Chechen extremists harassed Baiev, considering his treatment of wounded Russian soldiers sacrilege. Always putting his medical oath first, Baiev was periodically threatened, detained and beaten, even thrown into a pit. He was eventually forced to flee to the neighboring province of Ingushetiya.

Physicians for Human Rights and other human-rights outfits learned of his situation and helped him get to the United States in 2000. For the past two years, Baiev has lived in public housing on Captain Robert Cooke Drive in north Needham. Although cramped for his large family, the premises are immaculate. On one wall hangs a small patchwork quilt in the design of the Chechen and American fiags, a gift from a Vermont friend. A fish tank bubbles in another corner. Baiev’s martial arts trophies crowd a cabinet top. A judo champion back home, Baiev has since won or placed in a handful of top American tournaments. His children — students in Needham’s public school system — have captured judo medals as well. Out back, Baiev’s wife, Zara Tokaeva, 33, has planted a small garden.

‘‘It’s a nice, peaceful area,’’ she said. ‘‘The kids can walk around. Cars aren’t fiying by. We really like  where we live.’’

Preserving Chechen culture, though, remains paramount.

‘‘At first, [the children] talked in English among themselves,’’ Tokaeva said. ‘‘I’d have to stand outside their bedroom door, listening, making sure they were speaking Chechen.’’

For now, the family gets by on public assistance. Tokaeva teaches Chechen through Harvard University, and Baiev volunteers in the radiology department at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Susan Morgan, coordinator of volunteer services, said at first it felt strange placing Baiev in such a limited medical role, but noted he does not bring any frustrations to work.

‘‘He comes in with the best attitude, always puts his best foot forward,’’ she said.

At the Baiev home, visitors are treated to elaborate and delicious meals, even if they are just stopping by. Chechen culture—largely Muslim and clan-based — demands it.

‘‘The guest is higher than the father,’’ Baiev said.

Soon, the photo albums come out, the stories begin, and home doesn’t seem quite so far away. Judo, too, offers Baiev a portal to his old way of life. The doctor often thinks of the martial arts clubs back home, still operating, he said, despite the shattered conditions. His eight nephews, too, are martial artists, several of them former national champions.

‘‘In Chechen culture, it’s important for children to grow up strong and healthy,’’ he said. ‘‘Fighting sports are good for discipline. They force you to respect people, and to protect the weak.’’

Meanwhile, in the high school gym, the crowd roared as another body was slammed to the mat. Baiev settled onto the bleacher bench. Two of his children, Markha, 4, and Islam, 8, sat on the floor below. They were not competing that day, Markha still too young, and Islam feeling under the weather.

‘‘Judo helps me leave the war,’’ Baiev said.

For most of the past 10 years, Chechen guerrillas have been waging a debilitating battle for independence against Russian military forces. Much of the rebellious province in southern Russia — about the size of Rhode Island, with a prewar population of 1 million — is in rubble. Some 100,000 Chechens have been killed, according to the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. Around 400,000 have fied. Human Rights Watch last month condemned tactics on both sides of the conflict.

‘‘From generation to generation, we are prepared not for the best, but for the worst,’’ Baiev said. ‘‘We know that within 50 years, there will be war. We must always be ready. We don’t look for the easy life.’’

The attitude is not surprising. For much of the past 400 years, Chechens have been defending themselves against aggressors or fighting one another. The culture ‘‘is very important,’’ Baiev said. ‘‘Every day, I explain to my children who they are,
where they come from, what clan they’re from, who their ancestors were.’’

Baiev scanned the action. His oldest daughter, 16-year-old Khava, wearing an NBA T-shirt, held a video camera to her face. On one of the three sparring mats, Baiev’s 9-year-old son, Adam, bowed to his opponent and quickly locked arms, gripping and swaying. Baiev crouched on his heels, shouting in Chechen, coaching his boy on. Adam won his first match but lost the rest.

‘‘There’s honor in just participating,’’ Baiev said.

Baiev’s second-oldest daughter, Maryam, 9, had disappointing results as well. Only Baiev would go on to place — taking third in the master’s division.

When schedules and transportation permit, the Baievs train at the Tohoku Judo Club in Somerville, run by Dale Swett and other volunteer instructors.

‘‘Khassan’s judo is amazing,’’ Swett said. ‘‘All of our members have benefited from his presence.’’

Swett said judo is a family-friendly sport, quite popular outside the United States. Derived from the ancient Japanese fighting
art of jujitsu, it has been an Olympic event since 1964.

Several families work out at Tohoku, including a Russian one. By coincidence, Baiev and Dmitri Zaitsev, who also trains with his children at the Somerville dojo, realized they had met before. Zaitsev, originally from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), competed with Baiev in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, when they were students. The two families have become close.

‘‘I respect Muslim people, Chechen people, I don’t care,’’ said Zaitsev, 39, an engineer who has been in the United States for 10 years. ‘‘On a personal level, there is no religion. We have judo, our kids, in common.’’

The men share their athletic passion with another Russian: President Vladimir Putin. A black belt, Putin is known to show off his judo skills for the cameras. Baiev bristles, though, at Putin’s portrait of Chechens as terrorists. The displaced surgeon has been frequently honored by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and is a sought-after speaker. He hopes to publish his wartime memoirs soon.

Of course, since arriving in America, Baiev has had to make cultural adjustments. He has allowed Khava to wear pants, for example. In Chechnya, women customarily wear only long skirts. Even training at judo is unusual for Chechen females.

‘‘Keeping house has always been our sport,’’ Khava joked.

‘‘I see the influence,’’ Baiev said. ‘‘I see it when the children come home from school and throw their bags about, how they lie on the floor. I do not tolerate this. To lounge in front of your elders is considered very disrespectful.’’

Tokaeva said the lack of a Chechen diaspora makes being a parent more difficult. In the Boston area, she knows of only three other Chechen families, and they have been Americanized, she said. Baiev estimates no more than 110 in the entire country.

A few weeks ago, a sixth Baiev child entered the world. (‘‘Another judo-ist probably,’’ Tokaeva said.) Friends tease Baiev that he is personally trying to repopulate Chechnya. The new Chechen-American baby girl has been named Satsita.

‘‘In Chechen, means ‘Enough,’ ’’ Baiev said and broke into a hearty laugh.

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