Authors: Svetlana Alexievich
When I was about eleven we had a visit and lecture at school from a woman called Old Mother Sniper, whose claim to fame was that she'd killed 78 Germans in the war. When I got home that day I started stammering and my temperature shot up. My parents thought I'd caught the flu. I stayed at home for a week and read my favourite book,
Why force me to remember all this? After I got back I couldn't bear to wear my âpre-war' jeans and shirts. They belonged to some stranger, although they still smelt of me, as my mother assured me. That stranger no longer exists. His place had been taken by someone else with the same surname â which I'd rather you didn't mention. I rather liked that other person.
âFather,' the gadfly asks his former mentor, Montanelli, âis your God satisfied now?' I'd like to throw these words like a grenade â but at who?
How did I end up here? I simply believed what I read in the papers. âThere was a time when young people were really capable of achieving something and sacrificing themselves for a great cause,' I thought, âbut now we're good for nothing and I'm no better than the rest. There's a war on, and I sit here sewing dresses and thinking up new hair-dos.' Mum wept. âI'll die,' she said. âI beg you. I didn't give birth to you just so as to bury your arms and legs separately from the rest of you.'
My first impressions? Kabul Airport was all barbed wire, soldiers with machine-guns and barking dogs. Officers turned up to pick out the prettiest and youngest of us girls. Quite openly. A major came up to me. âI'll give you a lift to your battalion if you don't mind my truck'.
âWhat truck's that?'
âIt's a 200.'
I already knew that â200' meant dead bodies and coffins. âAny coffins?' I asked.
âThey're being unloaded right now,' he told me.
It was an ordinary KamaZ truck with a tarpaulin. They were throwing the coffins out like so many crates of ammunition. I was horrified and the soldiers realised I was a new arrival.
I got to my unit. The temperature was 60 degrees Celsius and there were enough flies in the toilet to lift you from the ground with their wings. No showers. I was the only woman.
Two weeks later I was summoned by the battalion commander. âYou're going to live with me, sweetheart!' he informed me. I had to fight him off for two months. Once I almost threw a grenade at him: another time I grabbed a knife and threatened him with it. âYou're just after bigger fish. You know which side your bread's buttered!' was his usual comment. I got as tough as old boots there. Then one day he just said, âFuck off!' and that was the end of it.
I started swearing too. In fact, I got really coarse. I was transferred to Kabul as a hotel-receptionist. To begin with I reacted to men like a wild animal. Everyone could tell there was some
thing wrong with me. âAre you crazy? We won't bite you!' they'd say.
I just couldn't get out of the habit of self-defence. If someone asked me for a cup of tea I'd yell at them: âYeah, and what else â a quickie?' Then one day I found â¦ love? That's not a word much used over there. He used to introduce me to his friends as his âwife', and I'd whisper in his ear, âYour
wife, you mean.'
Once, when we were driving together in an armoured car, we were shot at. I threw myself over him but luckily the bullet went into the hatch. He'd been sitting with his back to the sniper and hadn't seen him. When we got back he wrote to his wife about me. He didn't get any letters from home for two months after that.
I love shooting. I enjoy emptying a whole magazine at a single burst â it makes me feel good. Once I killed a muj. We'd gone into the hills to get some fresh air and make love. I heard a noise from behind a rock. I was so scared it was like an electric shock. I fired a burst, then went to look and saw this strong, goodlooking bloke lying there. âYou can come with us on recce patrol!' the lads said. That was the highest compliment they knew and I was as pleased as Punch. They also liked the fact that I didn't loot the body, except for the gun. On the way back, though, they kept an eye on me, because I started retching and vomiting. But I felt OK. When I got home I went to the fridge and ate as much as I'd normally get through in a week. Then I broke down. They gave me a bottle of vodka â which I drank down without getting drunk â and realised with horror that if I hadn't shot straight my mother would have been sent a â200'.
I wanted to be in a war, but not like this one. Heroic World War II, that's what I wanted.
Where did all the hatred come from? There's a simple answer to that. They killed your mate. You'd shared a bowl of chow, and there he was, lying next to you, burnt to a cinder. So you shot back like crazy. We stopped thinking about the big questions, like who started it all and who was to blame? That reminds me of our
favourite joke on the subject. Question to Radio Armenia:
âWhat is the definition of politics?' Radio Armenia replies: âHave you heard a mosquito piss? That's the definition, except politics is even thinner.'
The government's busy with politics while here you see blood all around you and you go crazy. You see burnt skin roll up like a laddered nylon stocking. It's especially horrible when they kill the animals. Once they ambushed a weapons caravan. The humans and mules were shot separately. Both lots kept quiet and waited for death â except one wounded mule, which screeched like metal scratching metal â¦
This place has changed the way I look and speak. The other day some of us girls were talking about a bloke we knew and one of us said: âSilly idiot! He had a row with his sergeant and deserted. He should have shot him and they'd have put it down as killed in action.' That just shows how life here coarsens us all, even the women.
The fact is many officers assumed it was the same here as back home, that they could hit and insult their men as much as they liked. Quite a few who thought that way have been found dead in battle, with a bullet in the back. The perfect murder!
Some of the boys in the mountain outposts don't see anybody for months at a time, except a helicopter three times a week. I went to visit one once. A captain came up to me. âMiss, would you take off your cap? I haven't seen a woman for a whole year.' All the men came out of the trenches, just to have a look at my long hair. Later, during a bombardment, one of them protected me with his own body. I'll remember him as long as I live. He didn't know me, but he risked his life simply because I was a woman. How could you ever forget something like that? In ordinary life you'd never find out if a man was prepared to give his life for yours.
In these conditions good men get better and the bad get even worse. During that same bombardment one soldier shouted some obscenity at me and a few minutes later he was dead, his brain
blown to bits before my eyes. I started shaking like in an attack of malaria. Even though I'd seen plenty of body-bags, and bodies wrapped in foil like big toys, I never shook as much as I did at that moment. In fact, I couldn't calm down all the time I was up there.
I never saw any of us girls wearing military medals, even when we'd won them honestly. Once someone wore the one âfor Military Merit' but everyone laughed and said, âFor sexual merit', because they knew you could win a medal for a night with the battalion CO.
Why are there so many women here? Do you think they could do without them? Certain officers I can think of would simply go mad. Why are women so desperate to get here? The short answer's money. You can buy cassette-recorders, things like that, and sell them when you get home. You can earn more here in two years than in half a lifetime at home.
Look, we're talking honestly, woman to woman, right? They sell themselves to the local traders right in those little shops of theirs, in the small store-rooms at the back, and they are
, I can tell you! You go to the shops and the kids follow you, shouting âKhanum [woman], jig-jig â¦ ' and point you to the store-room. Our officers pay for women with foreign currency cheques, in fact they're called
Want to hear a joke? Zmei Gorynych, Kashei Bessmertny and Baba Yaga
meet at a transportation centre here. They're all off to defend the revolution. Two years later they meet again on the way home. Zmei Gorynych has only one head left (the others have been shot off), Kashei Bessmertny is alive only because she's immortal, but Baba Yaga is looking marvellous in the latest French fashions. She's in a wonderful mood and says she's signing on for another year. âYou must be mad, Baba Yaga!' say the others, but she replies: âBack home I'm Baba Yaga, but over here I'm Vasilis Prekrasnaya.'
Yes, people leave here morally broken, expecially the ordinary soldiers, the eighteen and nineteen-year-olds. They see how everything is for sale here, how a woman will sell herself for a crate, no, for a couple of tins of corned beef. Then they go home, these boys, and look at their wives and sweethearts in the same way. It's not surprising they don't behave themselves too well. They're used to deciding things with the barrel of a gun.
Once I saw a local selling melons at 100 Afganis each. Some of our boys reckoned that was too much, but he refused to go down â so one of them shot up the whole pile of melons with his machine-gun. When that boy gets back home just you try to tread on his foot in the bus or not let him push in front of you in the queue â¦
I used to dream that I'd go home, take the little camp-bed into the garden and lie under the apple-trees, but these days the thought frightens me. You hear that a lot, especially now we're being withdrawn in large numbers. âI'm scared to go home,' people say. Why? Simple! We'll get home and everything will have changed in those two years, different fashions, music, different streets even. And a different view of the war. We'll stick out like a sore thumb.
Sergeant-Major, Medical Instructor in a Reconnaissance Unit
I accepted the official line so completely that even now, after all I've read and heard, I still have a minute hope that our lives weren't entirely wasted. It's the self-preservation instinct at work. Before I was called up I graduated from an institute of physical culture. I did my final practical and diploma at Artek
, where I was a group-leader. I was always intoning high-sounding phrases about the Pioneer spirit, the Pioneer sense of duty, and when I was called up I naturally volunteered for Afghanistan. The political officer gave this lecture about the international situation: he told
us that Soviet forces had forestalled the American Green Berets airborne invasion of Afghanistan by just one hour. It was so incessantly drummed into us that this was a sacred âinternational duty' that eventually we believed it.
I can't bear to think of the whole process now. âTake off your rose-tinted spectacles!' I tell myself. And don't forget, I didn't go out there in 1980 or 1981, but in 1986, the year after Gorbachev came to power. They were still lying then. In 1987 I was posted to Khost. We took a ridge but lost seven of our boys in the process. A group of journalists arrived from Moscow and were told that the Afghan National Army (the Greens, as they were known) had taken the ridge. The Greens were posing for victory photographs while our soldiers lay in the morgue.
Only the cream were selected. No one wanted to be posted to dreary provincial Russian towns like Tula, or Pskov, or Kirovabad. We begged to go to Afghanistan. Our Major Zdobin tried to convince me and my friend Sasha Krivtsov to withdraw our applications. âLet Sinytsin get killed instead of either of you,' he advised us. âThe State's invested too much in your education.' Sinytsin was a simple peasant lad, a tractor-driver, but I had my degree and Sasha was studying at the faculty of German and Romance Philology at Keremovo University. (He was a good singer, played the piano, violin, flute and guitar, composed his own music and had a talent for drawing. We were like brothers.) At our political instruction seminar the talk was all of heroic deeds, and how the Afghanistan war was like the Spanish civil war â and then, lo and behold! âLet Sinytsin get killed instead of either of you.'
War was interesting from a psychological point of view. First of all, it was a test of oneself, and that attracted me. I used to ask lads who'd been out there what it was really like. One, I realise now, completely pulled the wool over our eyes. He had a patch on his chest, like a bum in the shape of a âp', and he deliberately wore his shirt open so that everyone could see it. He claimed that they'd landed in the mountains from âcopters' at night. I can hear him now, telling us that paras were angels for three seconds (until the parachutes opened), eagles for three minutes (the descent) and cart-horses the rest of the time. We swallowed it hook, line
and sinker, I'd like to meet that little Homer now! If he ever had any brains they must have been shell-shocked out of him.
Another lad I spoke to tried to talk us out of going. âDon't bother,' he'd say. âIt's dirty and it ain't romantic!' I didn't like that. âYou've had a go, now it's my turn,' I told him. Still, he taught us the ten commandments for staying alive: âThe moment you've fired, roll a couple of metres away from your firing position. Hide your gun-barrel behind a wall or rock so the enemy can't see the flame when you fire. When you're fighting, don't drink, or you're finished. On sentry-duty, never fall asleep â scratch your face or bite your arm to keep awake. A para runs as fast as he can, then as fast as he has to, to keep alive.' And so on.
My father's an academic and my mother's an engineer. They always brought me up to think for myself. That kind of individualism got me expelled from my
group [an approximate Soviet equivalent of the Cubs and Brownies] and I wasn't accepted into the Pioneers for ages. When eventually I was allowed to wear that bright red Pioneer scarf I refused to take it off, even to go to bed. Our literature teacher once stopped me while I was saying something in class. âDon't give us your own ideas â tell us what's in the book!' she said.