Canadian Nurse Slain in Chechnya | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadian Nurse Slain in Chechnya

As the medical administrator of a RED CROSS field hospital in war-wracked Chechnya, Canadian nurse Nancy Malloy did a little bit of everything. One of her jobs was to ensure that the hospital did not run short of drugs or other medical supplies.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 30, 1996

Canadian Nurse Slain in Chechnya

As the medical administrator of a RED CROSS field hospital in war-wracked Chechnya, Canadian nurse Nancy Malloy did a little bit of everything. One of her jobs was to ensure that the hospital did not run short of drugs or other medical supplies. But she was also responsible for a host of other services. If a visitor needed a room for the night or clean, mended sheets, Malloy was the person to see. A tall 51-year-old with a toothy, engaging grin, a deep voice and a crown of steel-gray hair, she would stroll the compound in her blue jeans, handing out assignments to local tailors, handymen and cleaners. Her rounds were punctuated by Chechens calling her name, trying to get her attention. "I don't speak Russian, or Chechen for that matter, and they don't speak English," she said. "But usually we manage to understand each other."

And when she sat down with a Maclean's correspondent in Chechnya in late October, she was typically upbeat about her six years of tending to the world's trouble spots with the International Committee of the Red Cross - including Zaïre, Ethiopia, Kuwait and Bosnia, before the breakaway Russian republic. "I've had a good life," said Malloy. "I like to help people and I've been able to see many parts of the world with someone else paying the travel bills." Even the job's dangers sat lightly. "Here, as well as those places, you quickly get used to seeing people with guns all the time," she said.

But last week, the guns came for her. In the worst single attack on Red Cross workers in the organization's 133-year history, Malloy and five others at the hospital were murdered in their beds by masked gunmen. The killings were cold-blooded, professional and clearly designed to have a disruptive political effect. At 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 17, at least five intruders, their faces hidden by balaclavas and their automatic weapons equipped with silencers, broke into the lightly guarded hospital compound in Novye Atagi, a village 25 km south of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Ignoring the main building housing 35 patients, they moved directly to the two-storey brick sleeping quarters for 20 expatriate workers. There, they tested the doors and entered rooms that were unlocked. They managed to shoot five women and a man at point-blank range before a compound guard discovered their presence and fired shots into the air. At that, the killers broke off the attack and fled. They had aimed their shots at the heads of their victims; they did not bother stealing money, personal property or drugs from the hospital. "It was an assassination," said ICRC official Thierry Meyrat in Moscow.

In Canada and around the world, officials and ordinary people expressed grief and outrage at the deaths. "Nancy Malloy died a heroine," said Prime Minister Jean CHRÉTIEN. Malloy's close friend and colleague, B.C. Red Cross official Jane Fairbanks, called the attack a blow to the entire Red Cross movement. "It is just a horrible disregard for our role in the world and the work that our delegates do," she said. "It has had a tremendous impact on everyone. It is just beyond belief."

Reflecting the international scope of the organization, the victims had come from a variety of countries to work in the new hospital. The head nurse from Spain, two nurses from Norway, another nurse from New Zealand and a construction technician from the Netherlands died along with Malloy. The hospital's Swiss administrator escaped with a bullet wound to the shoulder by feigning death. Malloy, a Brockville, Ont., native who moved to Vancouver in 1979, was the first Canadian Red Cross worker to be murdered abroad. Chris Giannou, a Canadian doctor who helped set up the hospital three months ago, left Novye Atagi shortly before the shooting occurred. But he had the grim task of putting the bodies of his colleagues on a flight to ICRC headquarters in Geneva last week. "This was one of the worst experiences of my life," said Giannou, 47, a war surgeon dedicated to helping the injured and wounded of the Third World.

In the wake of the murders, the Red Cross began evacuating 70 employees from Chechnya, including four Canadians. Other international aid agencies followed suit, pulling out of an area devastated by a 20-month war between Chechen separatists and Russian forces that killed more than 40,000 people. A fragile calm had endured since August, when a peace pact left rebel forces controlling most of the oil-rich region. But with Moscow's control diminishing as it withdraws the last of its defeated soldiers, the killings cast a pall over crucial and controversial elections to choose Chechnya's leadership in January.

Both sides traded accusations about the killers' identities and motives. Russians speculated that Chechen fighters who were unsuccessful in receiving posts in the region's new political elite might have committed the murders out of rage and frustration. "This is a very hard and serious blow to the prestige of the Chechen leadership," said Pyotr Lashishev, the Russian interior ministry's deputy director. "It shows that terrorism in Chechnya is a widespread means of dealing with conflict." Chechens, meanwhile, pointed the finger at the Russian secret services, alleging that the killings were intended to frighten foreign observers into staying away from the January elections. By week's end, no one had claimed responsibility for the attack, but Chechen authorities said they had detained suspects.

Whoever was behind it, the sad fact was that the attack accomplished something the war never did: forcing out relief organizations that provided aid ranging from medicine to food to sewer repairs. They leave behind a shattered republic that is unprepared for winter and critically short of such basic requirements as clean water, heat, electricity and medicine. The withdrawal is keenly felt in Novye Atagi, a town whose population has been doubled to 18,000 by an influx of refugees from Grozny and the surrounding area. It was there on Sept. 2 that the Red Cross opened a hospital dedicated to treating the war wounded - soldiers from both sides as well as injured civilians. Now, with local staff caring for the patients in the wake of the Red Cross withdrawal, the future of the best-equipped hospital in Chechnya is in doubt.

Malloy arrived in Novye Atagi only two weeks after the hospital first began treating patients. B.C. colleague Fairbanks, who helped arrange the posting, remembers that Malloy was a bit fearful before leaving. "As she said herself, she would be stupid not to be afraid," said Fairbanks. "Knowing how to take care of yourself is knowing when you are in danger." Shortly after she arrived, Malloy was startled to encounter a group of armed Chechen fighters in the courtyard of the former girls' school, despite a wall of Red Cross posters barring weapons in the name of medical neutrality. Giannou intervened, and the fighters quietly deposited their Kalashnikov assault rifles outside the gates.

Malloy managed to joke about the incident. But the tensions of living and working in a land where law grew out of the barrel of a gun was never far away. "I don't smoke at home in Canada," Malloy said in October. "I'm like many people serving with the ICRC - I smoke on missions to soothe my nerves." There were plenty of sources of stress, including the occasional sound of gunfire in the night and some Muslim fundamentalist threats over Christian symbols (resolved by removing some of the red crosses).

But instead of grumbling about the cramped living quarters, cold rooms and badly cooked food that were characteristic of a hospital expanding to care for 200 patients, Malloy concentrated on things that were going right. "We now have hot showers and indoor toilets," she said. "And we just had a great birthday party with caviar, champagne and candles on the table for one of our staff members. One thing about the ICRC - it gives good party."

Malloy's friends remember her for her cheeky sense of humor, her flamboyant, chunky-jewelry style of dress, her attention to detail on the job - and her abiding love of animals. Her two cats back in Vancouver, says Fairbanks, "were like her children." One disappeared last year and the second, a frail longhair named O'Reilly, took a turn for the worse shortly after her murder and had to be put down. "Somehow I thought that was OK," said Fairbanks, her eyes welling with tears, "because Nancy's first concern would be for O'Reilly - that he'd be too old and too sick for anyone else to take care of. As it turned out, he survived her by only a few hours."

Katie Coles, another close colleague in the B.C. Red Cross, remembers her friend as an "up" person. "A lot of people go through life not knowing what they want to do and not enjoying what they are doing," she said. "Nancy enjoyed what she was doing. She was dedicated to it. And when she was there, she did an excellent job." But in the end, none of those qualities could save her. A woman who had gone to Chechnya to make life better for others died at the hands of someone intent on making life worse.

Maclean's December 30, 1996