Authors: Svetlana Alexievich
I gave my mother an ultimatum: âDon't come if you're going to cry.' That was what I was most afraid of over there â that I'd be killed, brought home in a coffin, and my mother would cry. After a battle we'd be sorry for the wounded â but not for the dead, only for their mothers.
When I left hospital I wanted to say thank you to the nurse, but I couldn't, I'd actually forgotten the word.
Would I go back to Afghanistan? Yes. Because there you know who are your friends and who are your enemies. Here I'm tortured by one question which won't go away: âWhat did my best mate die
?' For these fat speculators and black marketeers you see everywhere? It's all wrong here, and I feel like a stranger in my own country.
I started learning to walk, with various people hovering behind me. I fell over. âTake it easy!' I said to myself. Step number one: turn over and lift yourself up by your arms. Step number two: stand up and walk. For the first few months I could only crawl â so I crawled.
My most vivid memory of Afghanistan now is a black boy with a round Russian face. There are plenty of them out there.
Yes, I'd go again, definitely! If I hadn't had both legs amputated above the knee, if only they'd been below the knee â¦
I used to wonder why I'd volunteered. There were a hundred different reasons but the main one was this bit of verse. I can't remember who it's by:
âWomen and wine
Are all very fine
But a real man needs more:
The sweet taste of war!'
I envied my colleagues who'd been to Afghanistan for their tremendous professional experience, which couldn't really be got in peacetime conditions. I had ten years' experience as a surgeon in a big city hospital, but the first time a transport vehicle arrived with wounded men I almost went crazy. Arms and legs missing, just breathing torsos. It was far worse than anything you could see in the most brutal film. We did operations you could only dream about back home. The young nurses couldn't take it. Some of them just laughed or else cried hysterically. One simply stood there and did nothing except smile. They often had to be sent home.
A man doesn't die the way it happens in the cinema, where you get shot in the head, throw up your hands and fall down dead. What actually happens if you get shot in the head is that your brains fly out and you run after them, up to half a kilometre, trying to catch them. You go to the very limit, until physiological death overtakes you.
It would be easier to shoot men than watch and hear them sobbing, begging for death and release â the ones who've got enough strength to do it. Others lie there with fear creeping over them, their hearts faltering, shouting, calling. You take their pulse â it's normal so you aren't too worried. But the brain is waiting for that moment when a person is most relaxed: you've hardly left the boy's bedside and he's dead.
You don't forget things like that so soon. And as these boy-soldiers who survive get older they'll relive it over and over again. They'll see things very differently. My father was a World War II pilot but he never talked about it. He didn't think it was anything very special; that was something I could never understand. Now just one word, just the slightest reference, brings it all back to me.
Yesterday I read in the paper about some soldier who'd fought until his last bullet and then shot himself. What does that really mean â to shoot oneself? In battle it comes down to a simple question of survival: you or him? Obviously â you. But you're alone, covering your comrades' retreat, either because you were ordered to or else because you volunteered (knowing it meant your almost certain death). In that moment, I'm sure, it's psycho
logically not difficult to shoot yourself. In such a situation suicide can be seen as the normal reaction of many men. Afterwards they are called heroes. In everyday life suicides are considered abnormal, in the old days they weren't even allowed to be buried in the cemetery â¦ Two lines in the newspaper and I can't sleep all night, the whole thing comes up and swamps me all over again.
No one who was over there wants to fight another war. We won't be fooled again. All of us, whether we were naÃ¯ve or cruel, good or rotten, fathers, husbands and sons, we were all killers. I understood what I was really doing â I was part of an invading army, let's face it â but I don't regret a thing. Nowadays there's a lot of talk about guilt-feelings, but I personally don't feel guilty. Those who sent us there are the guilty ones. I enjoy wearing my army uniform, I feel a real man, and women go crazy over it. But once I went to a restaurant in my field-uniform, and the manageress stared at me in a very hostile way, and I just longed for her to make trouble. I would have told her: âYou don't like the way I'm dressed? Too bad! Make way for a hero!'
Just let someone even hint they don't like my field-uniform! For some reason I'm looking for that someone â I'm spoiling for a fight.
My first was a girl. Before she was born my husband used to say, girl or boy, he didn't mind, but a girl would be better because she'd be able to do up her little brother's shoelaces! And that's the way it turned out.
Second time round, my husband rang the hospital.
âIt's a girl.'
âGood. That's two we've got.'
Then they told him the truth: âYou have a son, a little boy!'
Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!' That showed his true feelings.
The first two days the nurses brought the babies to their
mothers, all except mine. No one said a thing. I started crying and ran a temperature. The doctor came. âNow, Mum,' she comforted me. âNothing to worry about. You've got a little giant there. He's still asleep and he won't wake up till he's hungry.' But I didn't calm down until they brought him to me, unwrapped him and let me see him asleep.
What name to choose, that was the next thing. Our three favourites were Sasha, Alyosha and Misha. So my husband and daughter came to the hospital and Tanechka decided to draw âlotths' â she couldn't say âlots'. The bit of paper with âSasha' written on it came out of the hat twice, so that was that. He was bom big, four and a half kilos and sixty centimetres long. I remember he could walk at ten months and speak at a year and a half, but until he was three he couldn't say his âr's and âs's. âI'll do it myself' he used to say, and he called his friend Sergei âTiglei'. His nursery-school teacher, Kira Nikolayevna, was âKila Kalavna'. The first time he saw the sea he shouted: âI wasn't bom, a wave threw me up on to the shore!'
I gave him his first photo-album when he was five. He had four altogether, one from his nursery-school days, one from his big school, one for his military academy days and the last for the photos he sent us from Afghanistan. I gave my daughter her own albums too. I loved my home and my children. I wrote them poems:
âThrough the frosty springtime snows
A little snowdrop poked his nose
When the sun shone bright each morn
My little baby boy was born â¦ '
At the school where I taught my pupils loved me, I was always cheerful and happy â¦
Sasha loved playing cops-and-robbers and always wanted to be the goodie. When he was five and Tanechka nine we went on holiday to the Volga. We got off the boat to walk the half-kilometre to their grandma's house. Sasha refused to budge. âI'm not walking. Carry me!'
âCarry a big boy like you?'
âI'm not walking and that's that!' And he didn't. We used to tease him about that.
At nursery school he loved dancing. He had lovely red trousers â we've got a photo of him in them. He collected stamps until he was fourteen, we've still got his album; then it was badges, there's a big basket full of them somewhere. He liked music, we've kept his cassettes with all his favourite songs â¦
When he was a child he wanted to be a musician, but as he grew up he was surrounded by army life. His father was a soldier and we'd lived in army compounds all our lives. He ate with soldiers, cleaned cars with them, so there was no one to say âno' when he applied for the military academy. On the contrary, all he heard was: âYou will be a true defender of the Motherland, my son'. He was a good student and joined in everything. He passed out well and the Commandant wrote us a personal letter about him.
1985. Sasha was in Afghanistan. We were proud of him, of the fact that he was at the front. I'd tell my pupils and his friends about him, and longed for him to come home on leave.
Living in garrison towns we never locked our front door. So one fine day he came in without ringing the bell, shouting, âWas it you that wanted the television repairman?' From Kabul he and his friends had flown to Tashkent and then as far as Donetsk. Then on to Vilnius, where he had to wait three hours for his train, which was frustrating because home was only a couple of hundred kilometres away. In the end they took a taxi.
He was tanned and thin, but his teeth were lovely and white.
âYou're skin and bones, my love!' I cried.
âI'm alive, Mama, I'm alive!' He swung me round the room. âDo you realise, I'm alive, alive, alive!'
Two days later it was New Year's Eve. He'd hidden presents under the Christmas Tree. Mine was a big scarf. A big black scarf.
âWhy did you choose black, my love?' I asked.
âThere were various colours there, Mama, but by the time I got to the front of the queue there was only black left. Anyhow, it suits you.'
I buried him in that scarf, and wore it for two years afterwards.
He always loved giving presents. âMy little surprises,' he used to call them. Once, when the children were still small, I came home with their father and we couldn't find them. I went to the neighbours, on to the street â they were nowhere to be found and nobody had seen them. I started crying and carrying on. Suddenly, out they crawled from the big box our new television had been packed in. We hadn't got round to throwing it away! They'd laid the table, made the tea, and while they were waiting for us Sasha had an idea for one of his surprises â hiding in the box. They'd got in the box and then fallen asleep!
He was unusually affectionate for a boy. He loved kissing and cuddling me, and after he went to Afghanistan he became even more loving. He loved his home, but there were times when he'd just sit there, saying and seeing nothing. At night he'd jump out of bed and pace up and down his room. Once he woke me up with his shouting. âExplosions! Explosions! Mama, they're firing!' Another time I was woken up by crying. Who could it be? There were no small children in the house. I opened his door. He was holding his head in his hands and sobbing.
âWhy are you crying, my love?'
âIt's horrible, Mama, horrible.' He wouldn't say another word, to me or his father.
His leave came to an end and off he went. I baked him a suitcaseful of his favourite nutty biscuits, enough for him and all his friends. They missed home cooking over there.
He spent the following New Year with us too. We originally expected him for the summer. âMama, make lots of preserves and jam. I'll eat the lot!' he wrote. He postponed his August leave until September because he wanted to walk in the woods and pick the chanterelles, but still hadn't arrived by November. Then he wrote to say he'd like to come for New Year, for the Christmas Tree, for his father's birthday in December and mine in January.
I spent the whole day at home on 30 December, reading his latest letter. âMama, bake lots of your special blueberry dumplings, cherry dumplings and cream cheese dumplings.' When my husband got home from work he waited while I rushed to the shop to buy a guitar we'd ordered and which had just come in. Sasha had asked for one. âNothing too professional,' he'd said.
By the time I got back he'd arrived.
Oh, and I wanted to be here to welcome you'.
âWhat a beautiful guitar!' he said when he saw it. He danced round the room. âI'm home. How lovely it is! I could smell that special smell downstairs in the street.'
He said we lived in the most beautiful town, and the most beautiful street, with the most beautiful acacias in our courtyard. He loved this flat. It's hard to stay in now â everything reminds us of Sasha. And it's hard to go out â he loved it all so much.
He had changed, though. We all noticed it, his family as well as his friends. âHow lucky you are!' he told them. âYou don't know how lucky you are. Every day's a holiday here.'
I went to the hairdresser and came home with a new hair-do. He liked it. âHave your hair done like that all the time, Mama. You're beautiful!'
âIt's expensive, dear.'
âI've brought money. Take it all. I don't need it.'
A friend of his had a baby son. I remember the way Sasha looked when he asked to hold him. Towards the end of his leave he got toothache, but he'd been scared of the dentist ever since he was a child, so I had to drag him by the hand to the clinic and wait with him until it was his turn. He was literally sweating with fear.
If a TV programme about Afghanistan came on he'd leave the room. A week before he was due to go back his eyes became full of real anguish, that's the only word for it. Can it be that I'm imagining it now? But I was a happy woman then. My son was a major at thirty and this time he'd come home with a Red Star, awarded for valour. At the airport I looked at him and couldn't believe that this handsome young officer was really my son. I was proud of him.
A month later we had a letter wishing his father all the best on Soviet Army Day and praising me for my mushroom pies. But after that letter something happened inside me. I couldn't sleep. I'd lie in bed, wide awake, until five o'clock.
On 4 March I had a dream. There was a great field with explosions of white everywhere, and flashes and long ribbons of white stretching into the distance. Sasha was running, running in
zigzags, with nowhere to hide. Still there were flashes everywhere. I raced behind him, trying to overtake him, to get in front of him. Once in the country I had thrown myself over him during a thunderstorm, and I had heard him scratching under me like a little mouse, whimpering, âSave me, Mama, save me â¦ ' But in the dream I can't catch up with him, he's so tall and his strides are so long. I run until I drop, but I can't reach him â¦