Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 13

Leonid Roshal, the Moscow pediatrician sought out by the Beslan hostage-takers as a negotiator and who was awarded by the Russian government for his assistance during the October 2002 Dubrovka theater hostage crisis, said on March 27 that he disagrees with the official explanation for the mass illness of children in Chechnya during the last several months—a nervous disorder—and believes instead that it was caused by poisoning.

As Newsru.com reported on March 27, a mass outbreak of an unknown illness occurred in Chechnya’s Shelkovskoi district in the middle of last December. The first registered cases appeared between December 7 and 19 among the students and staff of a middle school in the village of Starogladkovskaya. In all, 19 schoolchildren and three adults fell ill. The website of the Gazeta newspaper, Gzt.ru, reported on March 27 that the school children were diagnosed with poisoning. According to the website, a total of 87 people from the villages of Shelkovskaya, Shelkozavodskaya and Starogladovskaya were registered with symptoms that included suffocation, convulsions and “hysterical reactions.” Shelkovskoi district head Khusein Nutaev claimed at the time that the cause of the illness was poisoning by a nerve or psychotropic gas. Sultan Alimkhadzhiev, chief of the Chechen Republican Children’s Hospital, told the Strana.ru website on December 20 that that all the victims “had the temporary diagnosis of poisoning by an unknown toxin.”

The December incidents were in fact not the first reported outbreaks of apparent mass poisoning in the Shelkovskoi district last year. As Prague Watchdog reported last December, on September 13, 2005, 18 schoolchildren from the village of Staroshchedrinskaya were hospitalized with signs of poisoning and another eight from the same school were hospitalized on October 24.

The separatist Kavkazcenter website ran a commentary last September 28 by Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Health Minister Umar Khanbiev that stated: “News that in Chechnya’s Shelkovskoi district a large number of schoolchildren were poisoned by unknown military poison substances (presumably nerve gas) is unlikely to horrify the world. I am sure that if they all suddenly die (Allah forbid), the world will be silent and act as if it understood and noticed nothing.” Khanbiev wrote that while it was difficult for him to judge exactly what had taken place at the school in the village of Staroshchedrinskaya, the symptoms described by doctors there were reminiscent of those caused by chemical attacks that, Khanbiev alleged, had taken place during July 27-August 1, 2000 in three Chechen villages. Khanbiev also charged that Russia forces had used biological weapons in Chechnya—specifically, bombs and shells containing botulinim toxin.

In an appeal published by the Kavkazcenter website last December 23, Khanbiev called on the World Health Organization, United Nations and other international organizations to “take the fate of the affected Chechen children under special control” and bring in an “independent medical commission” to examine the children, given that “the Russian Health Ministry and the Chechen puppet public health structures are direct participants in the genocide of the Chechen people and are interested in the covering up the crimes against humanity committed by the Kremlin regime on the Chechen soil.”

The perception in Chechnya that the schoolchildren had been poisoned reached the point last December that Ramzan Kadyrov, then acting prime minister, asked Gen. Aleksandr Baranov, commander of the North Caucasus Military District, to send a special team from the Russian Chemical Corporation to investigate. That team, headed by a senior specialist doctor at a mobile military laboratory, Captain S.N. Efimov, went to Shelkovskoi district on December 17. Novaya gazeta on January 12 of this year quoted from Efimov’s report on the trip, in which he said that the schoolchildren were apparently poisoned by a toxic substance that “was either liquid or solid, releasing toxic vapors” and that was apparently located on the second floor of the main building of their school. Efimov said, however, that it was impossible to determine the nature of the poisonous gas without special equipment and chemicals. Blood samples from Shelkovskoi district schoolgirls who fell ill were sent to the republican Forensic Investigation Bureau in Makhachkala and the Agenstvo natsionalnikh novostei on December 22 quoted Bureau experts as saying “radioactive elements were found in the blood of some children.”

On December 23, the Bureau declared that the children had been poisoned by ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in anti-freeze. That same day, however, the Forensic Investigation Bureau’s director, Elbrus Porsukov, retracted his colleagues’ statement that radioactive elements had been found in the children’s blood, while Musa Delsaev, head doctor of the Drug Control Service in Chechnya, said that there had been no poisoning and that the children were suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” As Kavkazky Uzel reported on December 23, Zurab Kikalidze, deputy director of the Serbsky Forensic Psychiatry Institute, said that the cause of the disease was “psycho-emotional tension” typical of residents of the Chechen Republic (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 2).

The Los Angeles Times reported on March 19 that the list of victims of the mystery illness had grown to 93, including several teachers and janitors, with a small number of cases reported as far away as the Chechen capital, Grozny, and Urus-Martan, 60 miles to the southwest of the Shelkovskoi district.

Leonid Roshal, for his part, said on March 27 that he disagreed with the official explanation that the Chechen children were suffering from a nervous disorder and that he believed they had been poisoned by an unknown substance. “I don’t think that it’s a nervous illness; it is necessary to continue the investigation,” Russian news agencies quoted him as saying. “The fact that no chemical agents were found in the organisms of the children is connected to the fact that we don’t know the methods for determining them.”

The fact that Roshal contradicted the official explanation for the mystery illness is particularly interesting in light of the fact that the Chechen separatists view him with suspicion. Indeed, some observers expressed surprise that the terrorists in the September 2004 Beslan hostage-taking incident asked for him as chief negotiator, given that during the October 2002 Dubrovka hostage crisis he had helped evacuate children from Dubrovka theater but had also given advice to the Russian security services as they prepared to storm the theater—for which he received a medal from the Russian government. In addition, Roshal later publicly backed the Kremlin’s line that the narcotic gas that the security services used during the storming of the Dubrovka Theater, which killed as many as 200 of the hostages, was harmless (see Chechnya Weekly, September 8, 2004). The separatists’ attitude toward Roshal was apparent in an item published by the separatist Kavkazcenter website on December 21, which was headlined, “Roshal is summoned to profane the poisoning of Chechen children.” It accused Roshal of “serving the official Moscow version in all emergency situations” and quoted him as saying it was necessary to avoid heating up the situation surrounding the mystery illness and to allow the specialists to investigate it calmly.

Following Roshal’s latest comments questioning the official diagnosis of the Chechen children’s illness, Sultan Alimkhadzhiev, Chechnya’s deputy health minister and chief pediatrician, said that numerous investigations of the illness found no evidence of poisoning. “We brought the children to the point of anemia taking from them blood samples that were analyzed in the first-rate clinics of the country—the Center for Disaster Medicine, the Serbsky Psychiatric Institute, the laboratories of the Defense Ministry and the FSB, the laboratories of the cities of Makhachkala and Stavropol, and that’s not a complete list. But not one of the results gave an affirmative answer to the question of the presence of poisonous substances in the blood,” RIA Novosti quoted Alimkhadzhiev as saying in March 28. Alimkhadzhiev claimed that two months ago he wrote Roshal asking him to bring a mobile laboratory to Chechnya to carry out toxilogical analysis. Roshal, he said, answered that he doesn’t have a mobile laboratory but offered to come to Grozny with his specialists and render “professional assistance.”

Alimkhadzhiev said that he continues to believe that the Chechen children’s illness is the result of “protracted nervous-psychological burden,” RIA Novosti reported. “That diagnosis was established by well-known Russian scientists and we thus far have no other [diagnosis],” he said. “Cases of similar children’s illnesses are known in the world in countries where various conflicts have occurred or the threat of terrorism has existed.” Alimkhadzhiev added that he thought the protracted nature of the illness of the Chechen children was connected to the living conditions of their families. “Our colleagues from other countries and various organizations which we appealed to via the internet warned that in socially adverse regions the process of convalescence can take a long time,” he said.

According to Alimkhadzhiev, 15 of the stricken children are currently being treated in a socio-psychological rehabilitation center in Argun, where they are seen regularly by physicians, psychologists and neuropathologists. The children continue to have “attacks,” he said, adding that while sometimes a week goes by without an attack, the slightest upset triggers a new bout.

Meanwhile, Kommersant reported on March 28 that the parents of the ailing Chechen children plan to refuse the help of Russian doctors. “They want an independent commission [composed] of foreign specialists to diagnose the children,” the newspaper wrote. “The Chechen Health Ministry privately supports the parents, as does the special commission of the Serbsky Institute, which earlier doubted the accuracy of the [official] diagnosis.” Kommersant wrote that the deputy director of the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry, Zurab Kekelidze, told the newspaper that toxicologists and psychiatrists from the Serbsky Institute and the Center for Disaster Medicine were supposed to go to Chechnya on March 24 to examine the children, but that the Chechen Health Ministry suddenly refused assistance from the Russian specialists. “They told us that they were not ready to receive us,” Keklidze said. According to Kommersant, the Serbsky Institute’s director, Tatyana Dmitrieva, confirmed this account. “The Chechen physicians and parents want to resort to independent expertise and bring in foreign specialists,” she said. “This is their right.”

Leonid Roshal also spoke in favor of foreign specialists diagnosing the Chechen children. “The Russian physicians did all the known tests, but they didn’t answer the question of what the children are ill with,” Kommersant quoted him as saying.