Yesterday was Armed Services Day in Russia, so, of course, there were observances in Moscow. But yesterday also was the 60th anniversary of a Soviet crime perpetrated against the Chechen people -- and, of course, there was no official observance in Moscow. In fact, a proposed ceremony was banned, and the small number of people who nevertheless gathered to solemnize the event were dispersed by the police. But the past will not be so easily dispersed -- it must be dealt with if there is to be a political settlement of the cruel Chechen conflict.
The crime was Joseph Stalin's deportation of the Chechens on Feb. 23, 1944. This event is to Chechens what the Holocaust is to the Jews or the genocide is to the Armenians. That day, when Stalin packed the Chechen population of 1 million into cattle cars and shipped them to the wastes of Siberia and Central Asia, lies in our collective memory. One-third of the population died on the journey. Many others perished under the harsh conditions of exile.
During Soviet times, the deportation was a taboo subject, talked about behind closed doors. As a small boy, most of what I learned was from old women gathered in our kitchen. Once, when they thought I wasn't listening, I heard my mother tell my sisters how women were so ashamed to relieve themselves in the railroad cars in front of men that they held on until their bladders burst. Only when I was 14 years old did I understand the true horror of what had happened. That summer my father showed my twin brother and me the cliff near our ancestral village of Makazhoi, over which troops of the NKVD (the secret police of the time) pushed resisters, including some of our relatives.
Stalin claimed that the Chechens were Nazi sympathizers. This was an insult to most Chechens, including my father, who fought on the northeastern front and was wounded during World War II. In spite of his wounds, my father was ordered deported. He returned to Chechnya from Kazakhstan in 1959 after Nikita Khrushchev allowed the Chechens to go home. Only after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power were my father and other Chechens who fought in the war recognized as veterans and given pensions. He wore his medals with pride.
Chechnya has been struggling for independence for 400 years. The 1944 deportation is not the only one we have suffered. Chechens were pressured to leave for Turkey, Jordan and Syria in the 19th century. In view of our history and what is going on in Chechnya today, it is not surprising that we believe Russia wants to liquidate us.
About one-quarter of our population has been killed since 1994. Fifty percent of the Chechen nation now lives outside Chechnya. Ethnographers say that when this happens, a nation ceases to exist. Estimates claim that 75 percent of the Chechen environment is contaminated. I recall a physician from Doctors Without Borders telling me, "The Russians don't need to bomb you, the environment will kill you." I didn't believe it at the time. But now as a doctor I can testify that Chechnya is a medical disaster area. Pediatricians report that one-third of children are born with birth defects. Drug-resistant tuberculosis is rampant. The population is suffering from post-traumatic stress. Depression and insomnia are widespread. Young men are having heart attacks.
As in all modern wars, including Iraq, the main victims are civilians. In Chechnya, the human rights violations, documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights and Russia's Memorial, are horrendous. Chechnya has become a lucrative business operated by the Russian military and its Chechen criminal collaborators. Their trade is kidnapping young men, selling corpses back to relatives, looting property, stealing oil and selling guns.
In August 2000, Russian soldiers burst into my sister's house and removed my 20-year-old nephew Ali. He was tortured and held in a pit for 39 days until his release was negotiated. It cost our family $10,000 and eight rifles to get his freedom.
The Kremlin has done a brilliant job of convincing the world that Chechens are bandits and terrorists. Yes, horrible acts of violence are committed in Chechnya, not only by Russians but by some criminal Chechens. But Chechen killings, including the suicide bombings, are largely motivated by a desire to take revenge for a family member killed by the Russians. People who have lost everything think they have nothing more to live for. They are desperate. Blood revenge, rather than religious extremism imported from the Middle East, governs the violence. And I believe it will continue as long as 100,000 Russian troops remain in Chechnya.
Acts of terrorism are also being committed outside Chechnya, such as the recent subway bombing in Moscow. The Chechens are immediately blamed for these barbaric acts before any investigation takes place. Repression follows. Meanwhile, Russian newspaper articles and two recent books suggest that the Russian secret police played a role in earlier bombings.
Unlike my generation, which lived in comparative peace with Russia, today's young Chechens are growing up full of hatred for Russians. The younger generation is ignoring our traditions. They no longer obey their elders. If world nations do nothing to support a peace settlement in Chechnya, there is no guarantee that these young people won't be radicalized or forced into the arms of religious fanatics. Then Russia will have a far more serious problem with history and terrorism than it has today.
The writer, a Chechen physician, received political asylum in the United States in 2000. He is the author of "The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire."