Authors: Svetlana Alexievich
âThe one who led us into that ambush. You know, the one where we lost four of our lads.'
âI don't know. Probably not. At school I was called “lover-boy” because I always defended the girls. Would you?'
âI'm ashamed â¦ ' he starts to say, but I woke up and never discovered what it was he was ashamed of. When I got home I found a telegram from Sasha's mother waiting for me: âPlease come. Sasha killed.'
âSasha,' I say to him at the cemetery, âI'm ashamed that in my finals I got an “A” in Scientific Communism
â â â
for my critique of bourgeois pluralism. I'm ashamed that after the Congress of People's Deputies pronounced this war a disgrace we were given âInternationalist Fighters' badges and a Certificate from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
âSasha, you're there and I'm here â¦ '
He was always small. He was as small as a girl when he was born, just a couple of kilos, and he grew up small. I'd cuddle him and call him my little sunshine.
The only thing he was afraid of was spiders. Once he went out to play. We'd bought him a new coat and when he returned I hung it up in the cupboard and went into the kitchen. A few minutes later I heard this strange noise, shlep-shlep, shlep-shlep. The entrance-hall was full of frogs. They were jumping out of his pockets. He picked them all up. âDon't be frightened, Mum,' he said, stuffing them back in the pockets, âthey're nice little creatures.' My little sunshine â¦
He loved toys to do with war, tanks, machine-guns, pistols. He'd strap guns round himself and march round the house. Tm a soldier, I'm a soldier.'
When he went to school we couldn't find a uniform to fit him and he was lost in the smallest one they had. My little sunshine â¦
Then they took him off to the army. I prayed he wouldn't be killed. I prayed he wouldn't be beaten up and humiliated by the bigger, senior ones â he was so small. He told us how they could force you to clean out the toilets with a toothbrush and wash out other people's underpants. That's what I was afraid of. He wrote and told us he was being posted and to send him photos of his mum and dad and sister ...
He didn't write where he was being sent. Two months later we had a letter from Afghanistan. âDon't cry, Mum, our flak-jackets are very good,' he wrote. Our flak-jackets are good â¦ ' My little sunshine â¦
I was already expecting him home, he had only a month more to go in the army. I managed to buy him some shirts, and a scarf, and shoes. They're still in the cupboard.
The first thing I knew about it was when a captain from headquarters arrived.
âTry to be strong, mother â¦ ' That's what he called me.
âWhere is my son?'
âHere in Minsk. They're bringing him now.'
I fell to the floor. âMy little sunshine. My little sunshine.' I got up and threw myself at the captain. âWhy are you alive and my son dead? You're big and strong and he's so small. You're a man and he's just a boy. Why are you alive?'
They brought in the coffin. I collapsed over it. I wanted to lay him out but they wouldn't allow us to open the coffin to see him, touch him â¦ Did they find a uniform to fit him? âMy little sunshine, my little sunshine.' Now I just want to be in the coffin with him. I go to the cemetery, throw myself on the gravestone and cuddle him. My little sunshine â¦
Private, Signals Corps
I put a little lump of earth from our village in my pocket and had such strange feelings in the train â¦
Of course, some of us were cowards. One lad failed his medical on account of his eyes and ran out crowing about his good luck. The very next guy was failed too, but he was almost in tears. âHow can I go back to my unit? The send-off they gave me lasted two weeks. If I had an ulcer, at least, but not for tooth-ache!' He ran, still in his underpants, straight to the general, begging to have the teeth pulled out so he could go.
I got an âA' in geography at school, so I shut my eyes and imagined mountains, monkeys, getting a sun-tan and eating bananas. The reality was being stuck in a tank in our greatcoats, with machine-guns poking out left and right. I was in the rear vehicle with a machine-gun pointing backwards, of course, and all automatics cocked. We were like a great iron hedgehog. Then we'd come across the paras in their special T-shirts and panama hats, sitting on their APCs and laughing at us. I saw a dead mercenary and got a shock. He had an athlete's physique and there was I, who didn't even know how to climb a rock.
I lugged the field-telephone up ten metres of sheer rock. The first time a mine went off I shut my mouth when you're meant to open it â to avoid your eardrums bursting. We were issued with gas-masks but threw them away the same day because the mujahedin didn't have chemical weapons. We sold our helmets. They were just one more thing to carry and they get as hot as frying-pans. My big problem was how to steal extra magazines. We were issued with four, so on my first payday I bought a fifth from a friend of mine and I was given a sixth. In battle you take out the last round from your last magazine and hold it between your teeth. To use on yourself if necessary.
We went to Afghanistan to build socialism but found ourselves penned in by barbed wire. âDon't leave the compound, lads! No need to spread the message, we've got specialists for that.' Pity they didn't trust us.
I talked to a shopkeeper once. âYou've been living you
lives the wrong way. Now we'll teach you how to build socialism.'
He smiled. âI did business before the revolution and I do business now. Go home. These mountains belong to us. Let us sort out our problems in our own way.'
When we drove through Kabul the women threw sticks and stones at our tanks, kids swore at us in perfect Russian: âRussky, go home!'
What were we doing there?
We got hit by mortar-fire. The shell was going straight for my chest but I managed to turn the machine-gun round in its path, which saved my life. One hand was shattered and the other was full of shrapnel. I remember having a nice warm feeling, no pain, and someone shouting above me: âFire! Fire!' I tried to squeeze the trigger but the machine-gun wouldn't fire. Then I saw my arm hanging down, and my palm all scorched. I thought I was squeezing the trigger but my fingers had gone.
I didn't lose consciousness, but crawled out of the vehicle with the others. Someone applied a tourniquet. Then I tried to walk but after a couple of paces I collapsed. I lost about a litre and a half of blood. âThey're surrounding us!' I heard someone shouting, and another voice: âWe'll have to dump him or we'll all be killed.'
âShoot me!' I begged.
One lad just ran away, the other loaded his gun, but very slowly. When you do it slowly the cartridge can go in crooked. Which it did. He threw the gun at me: âI can't! Do it yourself!' I dragged it towards me, but you can't do anything with one hand.
I was lucky: I found a small gully and lay in it behind some rocks. Some mujahedin walked right past without seeing me. I kept thinking, if they notice me I must kill myself somehow. I tugged at a big stone, dragged it towards me and tried to lift it.
Next morning I was found by the two boys who'd scarpered the night before. They made a stretcher out of my greatcoat and carried me on it to the dressing-station. I realised they were worried I'd report what had happened, but I kept quiet. In the hospital I was taken straight to theatre. I heard the surgeon ordering amputation. When I woke up I sensed my arm was gone.
Everyone on the ward was missing an arm or a leg, or both, or all. They used to cry quietly. Some lost themselves in drink. I started learning how to hold a pencil in my left hand.
I went home to my grandfather's house â I haven't got any parents. My grandma was in tears for her grandson with only one arm. âYou don't understand Party policy!' Grandpa shouted at her. I met some old friends. âDid you bring back a sheepskin? A Japanese cassette-player? What, nothing? Are you sure you were in Afghanistan?' I only wish I'd brought my gun back with me!
I started looking other vets up. We spoke the same language, and it was a language only we could share. The dean of the university called me in to see him. âLook,' he said, âwe gave you a place even though your grades weren't really good enough. We gave you a grant. Now don't go spending your time with that lot. Why do you keep going to the cemetery? It doesn't go down too well here, you know.'
The powers-that-be stopped us meeting. They were frightened of us, because they knew that if we organised we'd fight for our rights and they'd have to give us flats and so on. We made them give some help to the mothers of those boys in the cemetery here and we're going to insist on memorials and railings for the graves. The authorities don't give a damn. âNow, lads,' they tried to persuade us, âdon't talk too much about what you did and saw over there.' A State Secret, with 100,000 soldiers in a foreign country! Even the temperature in Kabul was classified information.
War can't make a man better. Worse, yes, but not better, that's for sure. I'll never be the way I was before I went to war. How can I be better, after some of the things I've seen?
For a few foreign currency vouchers the medics would sell you a couple of glasses of urine from a hepatitis patient. You drank it, fell ill and then got yourself discharged from the army. Some of the lads shot their fingers off or mutilated themselves. Then I remember seeing planes taking off for home with a cargo of zinc coffins, plus suitcases full of leather jackets, jeans, women's underwear, China tea â¦
My lips used to tremble when I said the word âMotherland'. I don't believe in anything now, let alone in fighting for something.
What's there to fight for? And who against? We fought. Fair enough. Perhaps it
justified, after all. If the newspapers start saying it was right, it'll be right again. Now they're starting to say we're murderers. Who to believe? I don't know. I don't believe anything. Newspapers? I don't read them or buy them. They write one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. I don't know where the truth is. I have two or three friends I trust. I can rely on them. I've been home six years now, and I've seen it all.
I have an invalid card â it's meant to give you a few privileges. So, at the cinema, for instance, I go to the window for war veterans. I hear someone say, âHey, you! Boy! you're in the wrong queue!' I clench my teeth and say nothing. Behind my back a voice says, âI defended the Motherland but â¦ what's
If a stranger asks me how I lost my arm I tell him I was drunk and fell under a train and he's full of understanding and sympathy.
Recently I read a novel by Valentin Pikul about an officer in the Imperial Russian Army. âNowadays,' (this was in the dreadful aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905) âmany officers are resigning because, wherever they go they are treated with ridicule and contempt. It has reached the point where an officer is ashamed to wear his uniform and prefers to go about in civilian dress. Even severely wounded cripples arouse no sympathy. A legless beggar will earn more if he tells people that he lost his leg under a tram in Nevsky Prospect than if he mentions Mukden or Lyagolyan.'
They'll soon be writing the same thing about us. I think I could find another âMotherland' now, or at any rate get out of this one.
I volunteered to go to Afghanistan. I longed to go. I thought it would be interesting. I used to go to bed and imagine what it was like out there. I wanted to know what it was like to have one apple and two friends, you're hungry and they're hungry, so you give
them the apple. I thought it would be one big happy family. That's the reason I went.
I got off the plane, stared at the mountains and a
going home on the same plane gave me a shove.
âGive me your belt!'
âWhy should I?' It was my own belt, foreign-made.
âYou idiot, they'll take it anyhow.'
Sure enough, I lost it the very first day. So much for the big happy family! What a fool I was. The new recruit is an object. He can be got out of bed at night and beaten up with chairs, sticks, fists and feet. In the daytime, he's beaten up in the toilet, and his backpack, personal possessions, his cans of meat and biscuits from home (if any) are stolen. There's no television or radio or newspapers, so entertainment goes according to the law of the jungle. âWash my socks, sweetie-pie!' That's nothing compared to âNow, lick my socks, sweetie-pie, lick them good so that everyone can see you!'
The temperature's 70 degrees Celsius. It's so hot you just stagger about and they can do what they like with you. On the other hand, when it came to fighting the
went up front and protected us, I admit. They saved our lives, in fact. But back to barracks and it's âNow, sweetie-pie, lick my socks â¦ ' all over again. It's more frightening than your first taste of action.
First âop', well, that
interesting. It's like being in the cinema. Hundreds of times I've seen them walk into attack â well that's sheer rubbish. You don't walk, you run, and I'm not talking about an elegant jog, you run as fast as you can, like crazy. You zigzag like a mad rabbit.
I used to love those parades on Red Square, all that weaponry going by. Now I realise that there's nothing particularly admirable about it. Those tanks and armoured carriers would be better off kept under their wraps. Better still, they should parade all the Afghan
, the veterans with artificial limbs, including me, through Red Square.
Both my legs were amputated above the knee. If only they'd been taken off
the knee â that would've been fine! I'd be a happy man! I envy men who kept their knees. In hospital, after my dressings were changed I used to have a fit of shaking for a
good hour and a half. I felt so tiny without my prostheses. I'd lie there in my underpants and para T-shirt, which was as long as I was. At first I refused to see anybody, or even speak. Both legs gone. If only I could have kept one â¦ The hardest thing of all is to forget that I once had two legs.