When a sinister illness hit schoolchildren and their teachers in war-torn Chechnya in December, doctors were convinced it was a case of poisoning. Then the government came up with its own diagnosis - mass hysteria. Is there an official cover-up going on? Anna Politkovskaya reports
Wednesday March 1, 2006
A war has been raging in the north Caucasian Republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation since November 1994. Over the years, officials in Moscow have given the war various names. Sometimes it is called "putting the region in order"; since the beginning of the international "anti-terrorist" era, it has become a "counter-terrorist operation". But it is never called a war, despite the fact that an estimated 70,000-200,000 Russian military personnel are conducting operations as if on enemy territory. The civilian population has taken the brunt of the military impact. For the past 12 years, those living and working in Chechnya have been aware that federal forces were testing new types of weapons. The story of what happened in the Shelkovsk district is simply the biggest such case.
In December last year, there were reports of mass poisonings at schools in the Shelkovsk region. Just before new year, a government commission published its official verdict: there was no need to worry - there were no poisonings, it was mass psychosis due to stress. But did anyone in Chechnya believe these explanations?
On a bed by a wall in room one of Shelkovsk regional hospital a young woman called Sina is having a seizure. Her face is white, then yellow, then bright red; her brother unclenches her teeth with a spoon in order to pull out her tongue while her mother lies on top of her to control the spasms. The girl is now bent in an impossible arch, her heels touching the back of her head.
It is January 6, a third week has gone by, and there is no improvement in her condition. Aset (Sina) Magamshapieva is not a pupil at the school where most of the victims came from. A 20-year-old student teacher, she had gone there for some teaching practice. An elderly nurse arrives with a syringe. The fit has lasted 15 minutes already. The nurse is alone, taking care of 40 patients, and has just been dealing with Marina Tereshchenko in a neighbouring room. Marina has been suffering from similar seizures.
What is in the syringe? "Analgin [an analgesic] and dimedrol [a sedative]," she sighs. But that can't really help, can it? "We don't have anything else," she says. "What can we treat them with? Analgin will at least take the pain away from the spasms, and dimedrol will quieten them down, let them sleep after the fits ..."
Rabadan Ahmethanovich Rabadanov, deputy chief of therapeutics, arrives. He looks at Aset sadly. A sedative is introduced into a vein, and soon tears start to flow down her cheeks. It is the 47th minute of the seizure. Though the girl sees and hears no one, she noticeably starts breathing again. "Tears mean that the seizure is passing," says her mother.
How often do such fits occur? "Three to four times a day. We almost broke her teeth to keep her from swallowing her tongue," her mother says. "I'm in such torment, and she's exhausted by all the fits ... If they could just find out what they were poisoned with, even if they don't tell anyone, just tell us how to treat it ... How long are they going to keep this up?"
Vaha Dardayevich Ehselayev, chief physician at the hospital, is sitting in his office. "We are the doctors who were with these victims from the start," he says, "and we will not change our diagnosis - an intoxication of unknown aetiology. How could it be hysterics or mass psychosis?" A tired Rabadanov enters. Together with Dr Jamilya Halilovna Aliyeva, he was the first to be called to the school in the village of Starogladovsk on December 16 after reports of children collapsing unconscious. "Every child had psycho-motor excitation, hallucinations and some kind of strange laughter," Rabadanov recalls. "Severe spasms. Nothing seemed to help. We gave sedatives and anti-convulsives. But the spasms just kept repeating. I am certain that such a number of children could never enter a state of psycho-motor excitation simply from hysterics. It was some kind of agent. If these were merely hysterical fits, as the commission says, then they would be easy to isolate."
Ehselayev interrupts: "I think that if this was a mass psychosis spread by rumours and the media, then the first to react would have been the 80-plus schizophrenics and as many epileptics we have in the region. But they had no such reaction. We checked. I believe that there is a poisonous agent in the victims' schools. But the political situation is such that it has to be denied. We don't know what the agent was. We don't have the resources to find out." At the hospital there is not a single computer and no internet access; none of the doctors who encountered this unprecedented phenomenon could put out an SOS on the web.
So what next? "We don't know. A dead end." What are they treating? "Only the symptoms. If there are spasms we give an anti-convulsive. If there is pain we give an analgesic. But the fits continue. We have requested, and continue to request, some kind of a treatment plan. But no one is rushing to bring us one. The commissions from Moscow and Grozny were here and told the patients, 'Don't fake.' But how could they? We were alone with them. The agent acting on them is some kind of toxic substance which makes the nervous system hypersensitive. The fits can be summoned by the creak of a door or the rustle of a packet. This doesn't fit any known disease picture."
The relatives of the victims, just like the majority of the local inhabitants, are sure that the source of the infection was the women's toilet in the Starogladovsk school. All the victims at one time or another were there. It was clear that whoever went to the toilet had the most serious symptoms, while those who were nearby had fewer. The doctors insist it is a toxic substance, most likely a solid, but capable of propagation in a gas wave, one that loses its potency in direct proportion to the distance from the source. The same picture is repeated in the Shelkovsk and Shelkozavodsk schools.
The strict localisation of the sick people by school, time and place is the determining detail in this picture of a massive disease outbreak. At Shelkozavodsk, for example, only those who were on the school building's first floor became ill. Those who did not come to school that day are still healthy.
It all began on December 7, when 13-year-old Taisa Minkailova, a pupil at the Starogladovsk school, started suffering attacks of asphyxia, spasms, a severe headache and numbness in her extremities. Her parents took her to the hospital in Kizlyar, in Dagestan, but the treatments there had no effect and her condition deteriorated. On December 9, two high-school seniors from the same school were taken to hospital in Grozny suffering from the same symptoms.
The peak of hospitalisations occurred on December 16, when 19 children and three adults from Starogladovsk were taken to the Shelkovsk hospital. The doctors observed multiple cases of unconsciousness, comatose states, seizures, weakness, amnesia and asphyxia of increasing severity, as well as numbness of the extremities and chills. The children complained of sharp pains in their eyes and dry mucous membranes. It was clear this was a poisoning, and the source was the school. On December 16, a government commission was set up, with V Boriskina, the Chechen president's deputy chief of staff, as its chairman. Military specialists and chemical defence officers were called in. Medicines were offered by the International Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.
And then came the turning point. A memorandum from a military specialist with the results from the trips to Starogladovsk and Shelkovsk landed on the commission chairman's table. Within two days investigators would remove it from circulation, although we obtained a copy. It reports, "The source of the poisoning was located in the main school building, presumably on the second floor [where the ill teachers were working]. The primary route of intoxication could be the respiratory tract, though direct contact is not ruled out. The aggregate state of the toxic substance was probably a liquid or solid, which, under the effects of the environment, could separate into poisonous vapours. It is not possible to determine accurately the form of the toxic substance from only one clinical picture [the victims' symptomology]. Recommended: in order to clarify what the toxic substance was, conduct toxicological testing of the victims and have this examined by toxicology specialists with the necessary equipment and reagents."
After December 17, the commission took an abrupt change of direction, to a psychological-psychiatric diagnosis, disregarding the fact that cases of poisoning continued to appear. On December 19, pupils were brought in from the middle schools of the villages of Kobi, Shelkozavodsk and Shelkovsk. Up to 17 cases of asphyxia were observed. Several were extreme, and comatose. On December 20, all the schools in the Shelkovsk region were closed and the republic's attorney general initiated a criminal investigation.
Then, on December 21, official reports suddenly appeared that "the mass media are totally to blame": the seizures had allegedly increased and new cases showed up in proportion to the number of subjects shown on television. On December 22, the chief narcologist of the Chechen Republic, psychiatrist Musa Dalsayev, gave his diagnosis: there was no poisoning, it was a "pseudo-asthmatic syndrome of a psychogenic nature". Or a "psychological self-infection". Dalsayev assembled the parents and accused the sick children of faking, and their mothers of indulging them. He claimed that the fits were just for show and that if there were no spectators, then the seizures ceased. He called the victims' mothers "renters" - mercenaries who try to prolong their children's diseases to get compensation. (There has been no request from the victims' families for any material assistance.)
On December 23, a further 81 cases were recorded, provoking panic in the Shelkovsk district. No one believed Dalsayev or the commission, which had delivered its conclusions: "i) No evidence of chemical poisoning; ii) No potentially dangerous objects were revealed on the school premises; iii) Final diagnosis: dissociative (conversional) disorders - dissociative disorders of movement and sensation, dissociative disorders of motor activity, dissociative spasms; iv) The commission has come to the conclusion that there was an outbreak of mass hysteria in the Shelkovsk region related to the prolonged emergency situation in the Chechen Republic."
On December 25, the hospitals started to discharge the first victims. On December 26, the country's chief public health officer, Gennady Onishchenko, visited Chechnya and declared that there were no alarming or health-threatening phenomena. Two days later, President Alu Alhanov confirmed this success by travelling to Moscow to report to President Putin that it was all a mass psychosis. He then handed him reports on how much money would be needed in the short term for a grandiose building to overcome any new mass psychoses. On December 31, a group of 17 children and three adults - the most seriously ill - were sent out of sight to the Salyut children's sanatorium in Zheleznovodsk.
Others have not been so lucky. There is not enough room for the rest. Those such as Aset Magamshapieva and Marina Tereshchenko are victims of official lies, sidelined, since they are unable to be discharged "correctly". They are ordered to be forgotten as malingerers.
This is not an isolated incident. At Shelkovsk district central hospital, Aliyeva recalls a similar, though less severe, outbreak in the autumn. "On September 23, 19 children and one teacher were brought from Staroshchedrinskaya village with similar symptoms. We saw the same strange laughter, hallucinations - it was a frightening sight."
Ehselayev says: "The results went for analysis at the legal medical expert's office. There, they acknowledged that the children were poisoned by carbon monoxide. How on earth did that happen during a heatwave, when the stoves had not been fired up? We raised a stink, but everything came to a halt."
Ehselayev thinks the results of analysis are "political", just like the conclusion by the commission on the December poisonings. So what happened in Staroshchedrinskaya? "The same as now: poisoning by an unknown chemical substance. It is being tested on our children."
Halid Dudayev, the head of Staroshchedrinskaya middle school, is also convinced of this: "Until September 23 I had been demanding that criminal proceedings and an investigation be undertaken. On October 23, I received a rejection for instituting proceedings, due to the 'absence of a crime being committed'. That day, there was a second mass poisoning. Eight of our children were affected. Since then they have not been seriously examined and they have difficulty studying."
Abzo Shamilov, the father of one of the victims, says, "My daughter, Seda, constantly has high blood pressure. She's always ill. We can't do anything. Before the autumn, she was never ill. She now has nosebleeds, constant headaches, her hands and feet are cold. What are we to do?"
Similar symptoms of poisoning occurred in 2000, when on July 26, in the outskirts of the Stariye Atagi settlement of the Grozny farming region, two faint explosions were heard and a silvery-violet, tulip-shaped column of smoke appeared, rising to 150m. The column formed a cloud which hung over the outskirts of the village.
An epidemiological report concluded: "A day after the explosions, the first cases occurred showing signs of poisoning: powerful tonic spasms, loss of consciousness, aggressive agitation, inhibited movement, uncontrollable vomiting, severe headaches, sensation of fear and, in some, haemoptysis [coughing up blood]."
There are differences, however. The tragedy in Stariye Atagi led to three deaths out of 23 cases, with death occurring within about two days. The investigation concluded that "the poisoning of inhabitants of Stariye Atagi was caused by a chemical compound of obscure aetiology, excluding any infectious cause for the outbreak".
It is now 2006. Behind us are 11 years of war with short breaks for clearing mines and unexploded shells. So many war crimes have been committed that the tribunals are scared of setting about analysing these atrocities. But the ideology remains: as before, people who have the misfortune to live in Chechnya are seen as biomaterial for experiments.
The authorities have tried to distance themselves by taking a group of the most seriously ill for a month to a medical academy clinic in Stavropol, the largest city in southern Russia. What happened there has been kept secret. During treatment, none of the patients was told which medicines were being injected into them or what the results of the analysis were. On discharge, the case notes contained not a single record of the nature of the treatments administered.
In the Shelkovsk district, the schools where people were poisoned are closed; the parents refuse to allow healthy children to go back there and insist that the premises are detoxified and that the victims' diagnoses be made public. The authorities maintain that nothing unusual has happening.
· This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper