x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Chechens turn to Islamic healers for relief from their hurts

A long line of patients wait at Chechnya's state-run Islamic Medical Centre, hoping its staff can heal deep psychological wounds left by years of war in the volatile region in Russia's North Caucasus.

Islamic healer Timur Chamaev places his hands on a patient and recites from the Koran during treatment in the Islamic Medical Centre in the Chechen capital, Grozny REUTERS/Stringer
Islamic healer Timur Chamaev places his hands on a patient and recites from the Koran during treatment in the Islamic Medical Centre in the Chechen capital, Grozny REUTERS/Stringer

GROZNY // Lying on a couch with her eyes closed, Milena, 26, sips water blessed by an Islamic healer who sits nearby reciting verses from the Quran to try to cure her depression.

Outside, a long line of patients wait at Chechnya's state-run Islamic Medical Centre, hoping its staff can heal deep psychological wounds left by years of war in the volatile region in Russia's North Caucasus.

Nearly 15 years after her brother was killed in the first separatist war, and more than a decade after the second conflict drove her family from their home, Milena is one of thousands of Chechens who have turned to traditional "Islamic" medicine for relief.

The centre in the mountainous territory has flourished alongside a resurgence of Islam encouraged by its firebrand leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, after years of repression by secular Communist authorities.

In a three-storey building in the Chechen capital Grozny, 11 healers prescribe treatments for anyone knocking on the door. "We take in about 150 people a day, and we work around the clock," said Daud Selmurzayev, the head of the centre. He said about 150,000 people had passed through the centre's doors since its opened two years ago to receive the treatments, popular among some branches of Islam but frowned upon by others.

Healing recitations of the Quran typically take about 30 minutes, he said.

"People understand that the Quran represents the mercy of Allah and in it is the saviour from many illnesses," he said.

Most patients are treated for depression or demonic possession, a commonly accepted affliction in Chechnya. Demand is so high the centre is planning to open a new hospital in the region at the end of Ramadan.

The centre is the latest in a series of religious initiatives from Mr Kadyrov that have flown in the face of Russia's secular constitution, and outraged rights workers and many Chechens. Alcohol is all but banned, eateries were closed last year during the entire holy month and women must wear headscarves in state buildings - an edict that is in direct violation of the constitution.

The government runs an evening television programme promoting the Islamic Medical Centre and its healing powers.

Nearly everyone in the region of almost 1.3 million has suffered through the violence and after effects of two separatist wars since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Milena, whose family fled Grozny during Russian bombardment, moved back to the rubble of the home she was born in. She helped rebuild the house and moved in with her parents and sister.

Her brother went missing as the family escaped and is assumed dead. "The events of those years have left their mark. Depression was the reason I went to the Islamic Centre," said Milena, who declined to give her surname.

As wounds from the wars linger, fresh torments have arisen. The Kremlin relies on Mr Kadyrov to maintain a shaky peace in Chechnya and keep rebels in check. A growing insurgency across the North Caucasus wants to carve out a separate Islamic state. Rights workers say Moscow turns a blind eye to numerous human rights abuses carried out by Mr Kadyrov and his law enforcement officials as they fight the insurgency.

Mr Kadyrov has repeatedly denied the accusations of kidnapping, torture and other abuses.

Psychologists and medical doctors practise in Chechnya but say their patients are held back by a culture of pride.

Fear of punishment from authorities has also silenced complaints and prevented people from coming forward with their problems, say medical staff. Many of the patients at the Islamic Centre are young with few direct memories of the conflict.

Raisa Zhdamaldayeva, 34, says her 10-year-old son refused to pray until she took him to the centre, where he underwent treatment.

"I'm so glad Kadyrov built the centre," she said. "Now he doesn't miss a single prayer."