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Authors: Svetlana Alexievich

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BOOK: Zinky Boys
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They both left home and I moved into their bedroom. I lost interest in everything except their things, their books and their letters. Yura wrote about Mongolia but he muddled up his geography and I knew where he really was. Day after day, night after night, I brooded over the past, and cut myself into little pieces with the knowledge that I myself had sent him there. No words, no music can convey that agony to you.

Then, one day, strangers came to the door and I knew from their faces that they were bringing bad news. I stepped back into
the flat. There was one last, terrible, hope: ‘Is it Gena?' They wouldn't look at me but I was still prepared to give them one son to save the other. ‘Is it Gena?'

‘No, it's Yura', one of them said, very quietly.

I can't carry on any longer, I just can't. I've been dying for two years now. I'm not ill, but I'm dying. My whole body is dead. I didn't burn myself on Red Square and my husband didn't tear up his party card and throw the bits in their faces. I suppose we're already dead but nobody knows. Even we don't know …

A Military Adviser

‘I'll forget it all … in time.' That's what I told myself. It's a taboo subject in our family. My wife went grey at forty. My daughter used to have long hair but wears it short now. She used to be such a good sleeper we had to pull her pigtails to wake her up during the night bombardments in Kabul but not any more.

Now, four years later, I'm desperate to talk. Yesterday evening, for example, some friends of ours dropped in, and I couldn't stop talking. I got out the photo album and showed a few slides. Helicopters hovering over a village, a wounded man being laid on a stretcher, with his leg next to him, still in its trainer, POWs sentenced to death gazing innocently into the camera lens — they were dead ten minutes later …
Allah Akbar
— Allah is great!

I looked round and realised the men were having a smoke on the balcony, the women had retreated to the kitchen, and only their children were sitting listening to me. Teenagers. They were interested. I don't know what's the matter with me. I just want to talk. Why now, suddenly? So that I'll never forget …

I can't describe how things were over there or what I felt about them at the time. Come back in another four years, perhaps I'll be able to then. And ten years from now everything may look completely different, the picture may have shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.

I remember a kind of anger. Resentment. Why should
I
have to go? Why is this happening to me? Still, I coped with the pressure, I didn't break, and that was satisfying in itself. I remem
ber getting ready to go, worrying about tiny details like what knife to take, which razor … Then I was impatient to be off, to meet the unknown while I was still on a high. I was shaking and sweating. Everybody feels that way, ask anyone who's been through it. As the plane landed I was hit by a sense of relief and excitement at the same time: this was the real thing, we'd see and touch and live it.

I recall three Afghans, chatting about something or other, laughing. A dirty little boy running through the market and diving into thick bundles of cloth on a barrow. A parrot fixing me with his green, unblinking eye. I look round and don't understand what's going on. They're still chatting, then the one with his back to me turns round and I see the barrel of a pistol. It rises … rises, until I'm face to face with the muzzle and at the same instant I hear a sharp crack and I'm nothing. I hover between consciousness and oblivion, but I'm standing, not lying. I want to talk to them but I can't.

The world takes shape slowly, like a negative being developed … A window … a high window … Something white, and something else, big and heavy, framed by it. Spectacles obscure a face from which sweat drips, painfully, on to my own face. I raise my impossibly heavy eyelids and hear a sigh of relief.

‘Well, colonel, so you're back from your travels!' But if I try and lift my head, or even turn it, I feel my brain will fall out … Again the little boy dives into the thick bales of cloth on the barrow, the parrot's unblinking green eye is fixed on me, and the three Afghans are standing there. The one with his back to me turns and I stare into the barrel of his pistol. I see the muzzle … But this time I don't wait for the familiar bang, instead I scream ‘I've got to kill you, I've got to kill you!'

What colour is a scream? What does it taste like? What is the colour of blood? Red in hospital, grey on dry sand and bright blue on stone, in the evening when it's all dried out. Blood spills as quickly from a seriously injured person as liquid from a broken jar … his life flickers out, only the eyes shine bright and stare past you, stubbornly, until the very end.

Everything's been paid for. By us. And in full.

You know how if you look up at mountains from below they
seem endless and unattainable, but from the air they look like upturned sphinxes lying there? Do you have a clue what I'm on about?
Time
, that's what. The distance between events. At the time even we who were part of it didn't know what kind of war this was. Don't confuse the man I am today with the man I was in 1979. Then I believed in it. But in 1983 I went to Moscow, where life seemed to be going on as usual, as though we didn't exist. There was no war in Moscow. I walked along the Arbat, stopped people and asked them: ‘How long's the war in Afghanistan been going on?'

‘I don't know.'

‘How long's the war … ?'

‘I don't know. Why d⁏you ask?' Or, ‘Two years, I think.' Or even, ‘Is there a war there? Really?'

What were we thinking about all that time? Well? Nothing to say? Nor have I. There's an old Chinese proverb which goes something like this: ‘The hunter who boasts of his prowess when the lion at his feet has died of old age is worthy of the greatest contempt: but the hunter who has vanquished the lion at his feet is worthy of the highest praise.' Some may say the whole thing was a terrible mistake, but not I. Sometimes I'm asked: ‘Why did you keep silent at the time? You were no youngster, you were nearly fifty.'

Well, I admit it. I had the greatest respect for the Afghan people, even while I was shooting and killing them. I still do. You could even say I love them. I like their songs and prayers, as peaceful and timeless as their mountains. But the fact is that I, personally, truly believed that their nomadic tents, their
yurts,
were inferior to our five-storey blocks of flats, and that there was no true culture without a flush toilet. We flooded them with our flush toilets and built concrete homes to put them in, brought in desks for their offices, carafes for their water and pretty tablecloths for their official meetings, together with countless portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin. You'd see them on every office wall, just above the boss's head. We imported thousands of shiny black Volgas, and tractors, and our finest breeding-bulls. The peasants,
dekhkani
they were called, wouldn't accept the land we gave them because
it belonged to Allah. The broken skulls of the mosques looked down on us as if from outer space …

We have no idea how the world appears to an ant.
Look that up in Engels. As Speserov, a famous orientalist said: ‘You cannot buy Afghanistan new, only secondhand.' One morning I lit up a cigarette and there was a lizard, no bigger than a mayfly, sitting on the ashtray. I came back a few days later and the lizard was still silting there in exactly the same position. He hadn't even moved his little head. It suddenly occurred to me, that's the essence of the Orient! I could disappear and reappear a dozen times, break things up and change things round as often as I wanted, and he'd
still
be in no great hurry to turn his tiny little head. It's the time-scale, you see. It's 1365 according to their calendar.

Now I sit at home in my armchair in front of the TV. Could I kill a man? I couldn't swat a fly! If we buy a live chicken from the market, it's my wife who has to slaughter it. Those first few days I was there, with the bullets slicing off the mulberry branches, there was a sense of unreality. The psychology of war is so different from anything else. You run and aim at the same time, moving in front of you, to the side. I never did body-counts, I just ran; took aim, here, there … I was a target too, a living target. No, you don't come back a hero from a war like that …

We've paid our debt. In full.

We have this image of the soldier returning home in 1945, loved and respected by all. Naïve, a bit simple-minded, with his heavy army belt, asking nothing except victory and to go home. But these soldiers back from Afghanistan are something else — they want American jeans and Japanese cassette-recorders. You know that saying: Let sleeping dogs lie? It's a mistake to ask more of human beings than they can humanly be expected to give.

I couldn't bear to read my beloved Dostoevsky over there. He was too grim. I took science fiction with me everywhere. Ray Bradbury I liked. Who wants to live for ever? No one.

I remember once seeing a mujahedin leader in prison. He was lying on his metal bed reading a book with a familiar cover. Lenin's
The State and Revolution.
‘What a pity I shan't have time to finish this,' he said, ‘but perhaps my children will.'

Once a school got burnt down and just one wall was left standing. Every morning the kids came to school and wrote on that wall with bits of charcoal from the fire. After school the wall was whitewashed as clean as a blank sheet of paper, ready for the next day's lessons.

A lieutenant was brought back from the bush with no arms or legs. They'd cut off his manhood too. You know what his first words were, when he came out of shock? ‘How are my men?'

The debt has been paid and we've paid more than anybody — more than you, that's for sure.

We don't need anything. Just listen to us and try to understand. Society is good at
doing
things, ‘giving' medical help, pensions, flats. But all this so-called giving has been paid for in very expensive currency. Our blood. We come to you, now, to make our confession. We want to confess, and don't forget the secrecy of the confessional.

Private, Artillery Regiment

No, it's not a bad thing it ended the way it did, in defeat. It opened our eyes.

It's impossible to give you a complete picture of life out there. I saw only a small part of it and I can describe only a tiny part of what I saw. What's the point anyway? It won't help Alyoshka, who died in my arms with eight bits of shrapnel in his belly. We got him down from the mountains at six in the evening, he'd been alive an hour earlier. You think all this might be a memorial to Alyoshka? That would mean something only to people who believe in God and an after-life. Most of us feel no pain, no fear and no guilt about what we did. So why rake over the past? Do you expect us to talk about our ‘socialist ideals' like all those interviews in the official media? I don't need to tell you it's hard to have ideals when you're fighting a useless war in a foreign country. We were all in the same boat there but that didn't mean we all thought the same way. What we had in common was that we were trained to kill, and kill we did. We are all individuals but we've been made into sheep, first here at home and then over there.

I remember when I was twelve or thirteen our Russian literature teacher called me to the blackboard and asked: ‘Who is your favourite hero, Chapayev or Pavel Korchagin
¶
?'

‘Huckleberry Finn,' I answered.

‘Why Huck Finn?'

‘Because when he had to decide whether to turn in Jim the runaway slave or burn in hell, he said, “I don't give a damn, I'll burn,” and didn't turn him in.'

‘What if Jim had been a White Russian, a counter-revolutionary in the Civil War, and you'd been in the Red Army?' asked my friend Alyoshka after class. It's been like that all our lives, red or white, ‘he who is not with us is against us'.

I remember once in Afghanistan, near Bagram it was, we came to a village and asked for something to eat. According to their law it is forbidden to refuse warm food to a person who comes to the door hungry. The women sat us down and fed us. After we left the other villagers beat them and their children to death with sticks and stones. They knew they'd be killed but they didn't send us away. We tried to force our laws on to them, we entered their mosques with our army caps on …

Why force me to remember all this? It's terribly private — the first man I shot dead, my own blood on the sand, the camel swaying high over me just before I lost consciousness. And yet I was there, no different from all the others.

Only once in my life did I refuse to be like all the rest. At primary school. They made us hold hands and march in twos, but I wanted to walk on my own. The young teachers tolerated this little quirk of mine but then one of them got married and left and we got a new one we called Old Mother Klava. ‘Hold Seryozha's hand!' said Old Mother Klava.

‘Don't want to!'

‘Why not?'

‘I want to walk on my own!'

‘Do what all the good little boys and girls do!' said Old Mother Klava.

‘No.'

After our walk Old Mother Klava undressed me, she even took my pants and vest away, and left me in a dark empty room for three hours. Next day I took Seryozha's hand and behaved like all the rest.

At school and university it was the class or the course which dictated everything: at work the collective was in charge. It was always
other
people making decisions for
me.
We had it drummed into us that one person on his own could achieve nothing. In some book or other I came across the phrase ‘the murder of courage'. When I was sent over there I didn't want to kill anybody but when they said: ‘Volunteers, two paces forward, march!', forward I stepped.

In Shindanda I saw two of our soldiers who'd gone crazy. They kept talking to the mujahedin, trying to explain socialism to them the way we'd learnt it in our last year at school. They reminded me of that fable of Krylov's
#
, where the pagan priests climb inside the hollow idol to harangue the credulous populace.

BOOK: Zinky Boys
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