[Extract] One Soldier’s War in Chechnya by Arkady Babchenko

Alkhan-Yurt

Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible

Men of the 7th climbed out of the trenches and came over to us to ask about the fight. And the infantry fluffed up their feathers and, with the casual air of seasoned soldiers, recounted their ‘battle’. This was the first taste of action for many of them and it had gone well, with no casualties, and now that they had rested, they were filled with the feeling that it wasn’t so terrifying; the fighting had been a piece of cake this time, and maybe it would always be that easy. They had fired and been fired at, bullets really had whistled over their heads and they’d have something to tell the folks back home. They felt like real rangers who had walked through fire and water. The adrenalin that their fear had driven out of them in huge quantities now churned in their
blood, and their energy flooded back.
   I looked at them with a smile and listened to their chatter – I had been like them once myself.
   ‘… The Kombat and I were running, looking around, and this Chechen appears from a house porch to see what’s happening. So the Kombat whips off his rifle and goes for him. The guy falls down and crawls round the house to croak, and the Kombat keeps firing at him, must have loosed off a whole magazine. He’s got a big smirk on his face, very pleased with himself. ‘Huh, dumb prick,’ he says…’
   ‘… These recon were checking out the routes to see where we could get out of the village. There weren’t many of them, see, so they didn’t stop to muck about, they even shot the hell out of the bushes. That’s their tactic. They crawl up, hit them with a grenade launcher and pull out. When we were going to reinforce the 15th outside Oktyabrskoye they burnt out a carrier doing just that…’
   ‘… I fell from the carrier and there were bullets going whack-whack in the branches, right over my bloody head. Man did they start up then! I crawled behind the bushes and then I saw our guys lying over in the
clearing…’
   No-one was paying any attention to the village now. The battle had finished, the Chechen recon we’d run into had gone, they’d either pulled out or holed up somewhere. So we relaxed. We lay on the wet ground in front of the trenches, without digging in or camouflaging ourselves, we just sat around in a group. Which you do not do in war, under any circumstances. The Chechens immediately punished us for this carelessness. We all heard the whistle.
   It started in the village and grew in strength, cutting through the exhaustion in our brains and throwing us onto the ground.
   ‘Incoming!’
   ‘Get down!’
   ‘They aren’t letting us pull back, bastards!’
   We landed in the ruts. My fatigue dissolved instantly and my body was flushed with heat once again.
   The first shell exploded a fair distance away from us, on the pasture. But behind this one a few more flew out of the village and exploded closer and closer as they advanced on us.
   I had landed badly. I lay exposed on a slope, presenting a perfect trap for shrapnel, and I was entirely visible from all sides. The next shell hit the ground like a fat raindrop; a shower of clay clods rained down from the sky, smacking me painfully on the back of the head.
   I desperately wanted to shrink, become tiny, congeal into a ball and disperse into the ground, merging with its protective lap. I even managed to picture a tiny burrow where I would be safe from shrapnel and bullets,
protected from all sides as I peeped out with one eye. With every fresh explosion my desire to be in the burrow grew stronger and stronger, and with my eyes pressed tightly shut, afraid to open them before I died, I groped around in the grass for a way in.
   But there was none. My body no longer responded to me; it did not want to crawl into hiding but instead became huge, filling the field, presenting a target that couldn’t be missed. I would now be killed.
   I shouldn’t have come to Chechnya. I shouldn’t have come.
   Oh my God, just make it so that I’m no longer in this hellhole Chechnya, whisk me home so that the shell finds only an empty space. I swear I’ll beg forgiveness from all those I wrong or failed in this life, that I’ll
love the whole world from now on and donate all my army wages to Chechen orphans, whatever it takes, just get me out of here. And dear God, do it right now, because here comes another.
   This time it was certain death and there was nothing I could do in those rapidly contracting fragments of the only second that remained – the shell would hit much faster than I could think to race into the ditch with Igor, who had made it, faster than it took me even to move a finger – here it comes now – I leapt up with a throaty scream of defiance and fear, eyes bulging and seeing nothing but the ditch I was dashing for, slipping on the wet grass, tumbling hand and foot before I flew face down in a cowpat.
   The shell dropped way beyond us and blew up on the other side of the pasture. No one moved.
   Igor and I started to shift and shake off the mud. I pulled my face out of the pat, looked around through one crazed eye and mumbled, ‘Got away with it.’
   My head was still vacant. All I could hear ringing in my ears was the whistle of the shell, my shell, short, sharp and piercing, flying towards me again and again out of the village, coming right at me. I automatically
cleaned the fresh, liquid mess from my hands, and I felt no trace of disgust; I was ready to dive straight back into shit if the need arose.
   Beside us the infantry platoon commander was brushing himself off just as dismally. Standing at his full height he slowly picked off blades of grass from his trousers, one by one, and dropped them on the ground. Then he held one of them in his hand, twirled it in his fingers and said thoughtfully: ‘It’s actually my birthday today.’
   I looked at him in silence for a few seconds, and then suddenly I began to laugh.
   At first I tremored quietly, trying to contain it, but then I gave in and started to roar, louder all the time. Hysterical notes crept in, and with my head thrown back I flopped down on my knees facing the low, clouded sky, threw my arms out and howled, purging my fear with laughter, the smothering fear of a bombardment, when everything is out of your hands and you have no way of protecting yourself or saving your life, and you just lie there face down on the ground, praying that you’ll get away with it this time too. It’s not the rousing fear you feel in battle, but a lifeless fear, as cold as the grass you are pressing yourself into.
   Igor crouched down beside me and lit up. He looked at me without saying anything for a while, then poked me in the shoulder.
   ‘Hey, homeboy, what’s with you?’ Fatigue weighed heavy in his voice, making it dry and hoarse. He too had been scared, and fear ravages you, sucks the energy out of you and makes it hard even to speak.
   I couldn’t answer him; I carried on heaving with laughter, unable to stop. Then after I’d caught my breath, I managed to say something, punctuating my words with more chuckles.
   ‘Birthday! Exactly! Don’t worry, I’m okay, my head’s still on my shoulders. You know what?’ I said, wiping my tears and feeling the cow dung smear across my face. ‘I just remembered. Today is the fifth of January… the fifth… of January,’ I said, still snorting.
   ‘So what?’
   ‘Well, it’s my Olga’s birthday today too, see?’ I said. ‘Today’s the fifth of January, they’ve just celebrated New Year back home – belated Happy New Year to you, by the way – and now they’re sitting round a table celebrating, all dressed up smart, drinking wine and eating tasty food. All they do is party and they have no idea what a bombardment is like. And people are giving my girl flowers…. They’ve got flowers there, imagine! Flowers! And here I am, covered in crap, with lice scuttling round my nuts, it’s a scream all right!’ and I burst into laughter again, falling onto my back and rolling from side to side.
   The thought of flowers staggered me. I could clearly picture Olga sitting at the table covered with a white cloth, with a glass of fine white wine – she loves dry white wine and doesn’t drink cheap plonk – surrounded by
enormous, beautiful bouquets. She has a big smile on her face as she listens to her friends’ birthday wishes for her. The room is full of bright light and the guests are wearing ties, making merry and dancing; their day’s work is over and they are free of problems, they don’t have to think about finding food and warmth, and instead they choose flowers for a girl. In that world there is time to work and time to have fun. And a person gets food and warmth right there in the maternity ward, along with their birth certificate.
   It was only here that people got killed regardless of the time of day.
   Sitting in that trench it seemed to me that there was war everywhere, that everyone was out to kill everyone else, that human grief permeated every corner of the world, right to the door of my own home, that there was no way it could be otherwise.
   And yet it turns out that there is a place where people give flowers.
   And that is so strange, so stupid and so funny.
   Olga, Olga! What happened to our lives, what happened to the world, how did I come to be here now? Why must I now kiss a rifle instead of you, and bury my face in crap instead of in your hair? Why?
   After all, these constantly drunk, unwashed contract soldiers, smeared in muck, are not the worst people in the world. We have atoned for a hundred years of sin in that marsh. So how come this is all we get for our
pains? I just couldn’t get my head round it all.
   My darling, may everything be well with you. May you never in your life know what I’ve known here. May you always have a celebration, a sea of flowers, and wine and laughter. But I know that you are thinking about me now, and your face is sad. Forgive me for this. You are the brightest; you are worthy of the very best.
   Let me be the one who has to die in a marsh. Lord, how we are different! Only a two-hour flight separates us, but what completely dissimilar lives we lead, we who are two identical halves! And how hard it will be to connect our lives again.
   Igor took the last drag on his cigarette and ground it out. He became pensive, I could tell he was thinking of pretty dresses, perfume, wine and dancing. Then he looked at me, at my ragged jacket and filthy face, and
grinned. ‘Bloody right, Happy New Year.’

From One Soldier’s War in Chechnya by Arkady Babchenko

Translated from the Russian by Nick Allen (Portobello Books 2006)

Arkady Babchenko was drafted to fight in the first Chechen War in 1995, and then in late 1999 volunteered to return for six months during the second Chechen War. A law graduate, he currently works as a journalist on the non-conformist newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Nick Allen is a British journalist working for the German Press Agency, DPA, in Pakistan. He worked in Russia for eleven years, also covering the conflict in Chechnya, and has translated for the literary journal Glas New Russian Writing.

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