Chechnya's Walking Wounded

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Tatyana, a young nurse in Nizhni Novgorod, a regional capital in Central Russia, had been married just 10 days last March when her husband Alexander, 21, knifed her to death for failing to find his misplaced cigarettes. Alexander then tried to kill himself with the same knife, but failed. In Saratov, some 750 km down the Volga River from Nizhni Novgorod, 20-year-old Alexei killed a drunken passerby with an ax because the man rudely turned down his offer to see him home. In Verkh-Isetsk, an industrial town in the Urals, Andrei — a former army sniper — landed his father in hospital with a fractured skull after a petty quarrel, and later tried and failed to take his own life. None of these young men (whose names have all been changed) can explain their sudden violent outbursts, but all three have a record of depression and explosive anger — and all three have fought in the war in Chechnya.

Since the Chechen conflict began nine years ago, similar cases have been reported all across Russia: depressed young vets return embittered and traumatized to their home towns and begin lashing out at those around them. Russian psychiatrists, law-enforcement officials and journalists have started calling the condition Chechen syndrome (CS), drawing a parallel with the post-traumatic stress disorders suffered by American soldiers who served in Vietnam and Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan.

The symptoms are identical — chronic fatigue, nightmares, attention problems, anxiety, aggression and denial — but some see Chechen syndrome as worse because Chechnya vets fought a war inside their own country. "At least 70% of [the estimated 1.5 million] Chechnya vets suffer CS," says Yuri Alexandrovsky, deputy director of the Serbsky National Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry in Moscow. "Some readjust. Many don't. All need help."

Most former soldiers are unlikely to get the help they need. Some Russian regions and military hospitals have set up special rehabilitation centers for Chechnya vets, but they exist solely on the goodwill of doctors and, in some cases, of local authorities. No federal program or funding exists.

The government refuses to recognize CS as a legitimate medical condition. "CS is a media-invented cliché," says Sergei Sukharev of the State Duma Commission on Normalization in Chechnya. "There is no evidence that the crime rate among Chechnya vets is higher than average." Alexandrovsky agrees about the lack of evidence, but says: "I don't know if anybody bothers to collect such data at all."

"In the case of CS, the standard postwar mental disorder is badly aggravated by deep remorse for what my patients did or witnessed in Chechnya," Alexandrovsky explains. Soldiers are psychologically scarred by the looting, rape and murder that routinely takes place, as well as the grim tableaux of corpses. "Everyone whose conscience is still alive feels the criminality of this," says retired Major General Alexander Lyakhovsky, a veteran of the Afghan and Chechen campaigns. CS stands out, he maintains, because the military in Chechnya are fighting on their own soil while the government denies that the war is going on. The fact that many vets feel abandoned by the state and ignored by society at large only aggravates the problem, Lyakhovsky adds. "The longer the slaughter goes on, the more CS victims it creates," says Alexandrovsky.