Highlights from Zinky Boys

At the hospital I watched a Russian girl put a teddy bear on an Afghan boy’s bed. He picked up the toy with his teeth and played with it, smiling. He had no arms. ‘Your Russians shot him,’ his mother told me through the interpreter. ‘Do you have kids? A boy or a girl?’ I couldn’t make out whether her words expressed more horror or forgiveness.

Svetlana Alexievich

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.

Private, Artillery regiment

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. ‘You 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 — which I drank down without getting drunk — and realised with horror that if I hadn’t shot straight my mother would have been sent a ‘200’.

civilian employee

You see burnt skin roll up like a laddered nylon stocking.

Civilian employee

In these conditions good men get better and the bad get even worse.

Civilian Employee

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. ‘Miss, 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.

Civilian employee

Dum-dum wounds from exploding bullets were the worst. My first casualty had one leg blown off at the knee (with the bone left sticking out), his other ankle ripped away, his penis gone, his eyes blown out and one ear torn off. I started shaking and retching uncontrollably. ‘If you don’t do it now you’ll never make it as a medic,’ I told myself. I applied tourniquets, staunched the blood, gave him a pain-killer and something to make him sleep. Next was a soldier with a dum-dum in the stomach. His guts were hanging out. I bandaged him, staunched the blood, and gave him a pain-killer, something to make him sleep. I held him for four hours, then he died.

sergeant-major, medical instructor in a reconnaissance unit

There was a general shortage of medication. Even the iodine ran out. Either the supply system failed, or else we’d used up our allowance — another triumph of our planned economy. We used equipment captured from the enemy. In my bag I always had twenty Japanese disposable syringes. They were sealed in a light polyethylene packing which could be removed quickly, ready for use. Our Soviet ‘Rekord’ brand, wrapped in paper which always got torn, were frequently not sterile. Half of them didn’t work, anyhow — the plungers got stuck. They were crap. Our homeproduced plasma was supplied in half-litre glass bottles. A seriously wounded casualty needs two litres — i.e. four bottles. How are you meant to hold them up, arm-high, for nearly an hour in battlefield conditions? It’s practically impossible. And how many bottles can you carry? We captured Italian-made polyethylene packages containing one litre each, so strong you could jump on them with your army boots and they wouldn’t burst. Our ordinary Soviet-made sterile dressings were also bad. The packaging was as heavy as oak and weighed more than the dressing itself. Foreign equivalents, from Thailand or Australia, for example, were lighter, even whiter somehow … We had absolutely no elastic dressings, except what we captured — French and German products. And as for our splints! They were more like skis than medical equipment! How many can you carry with you? I carried English splints of different lengths for specific limbs, upper arm, calf, thigh, etc. They were inflatable, with zips. You inserted the arm or whatever, zipped up and the bone was protected from movement or jarring during transportation to hospital.

In the last nine years our country has made no progress and produced nothing new…

sergeant-major, medical instructor in a reconnaissance unit

My grandma was in tears for her grandson with only one arm. ‘You don’t understand Party policy!’ Grandpa shouted at her.

private, signal corps

Why is it that seventeen and eighteen-year-olds find it easier to kill than thirty-year-olds, for example? Because they have no pity, that’s why.

major, propaganda section of an artillery regiment

We filled five crates and divided them so that there would be something of each man to be sent home.

1st lieutenant i/c mortar platoon

I want to move on again. I’ve applied to go to Nicaragua. Someplace where there’s a war going on. I can’t settle down to this life any more. War’s better than this. It gives you a justification — or an excuse — for anything you do, good or bad.

doctor, bacteriologist

Lunatics in asylums used to shout, ‘I’m Stalin!’

1st lieutenant, battery commander

You can’t go on repenting and praying for forgiveness all your life. I want to get married and I want a son. The sooner we shut up about all this the better it’ll be for everyone. The only people who need this ‘truth’ are the know-nothings who want to use it as an excuse to spit in our faces. ‘You bastards! You killed and robbed and now you expect special privileges?’ We’re expected to take all the blame, and to accept that everything we went through was for nothing.

1st lieutenant, battery commander

The first time we drove out to a village the battalion commander taught us how to behave towards the local populace: ‘You call all Afghans, regardless of age, “batcha”, which means “boy’, roughly. Got that? I’ll show you the rest later.’ On the way we came across an old man. ‘Halt! Watch this!’ The commander jumped down from the vehicle, went up to the old man, pushed his turban off his head, poked his fingers in his beard. ‘Right, on your way, batcha!’ Not quite what we’d been expecting. In the village we threw briquettes of pearl barley to the kids, but they ran away thinking they were grenades.

private, gunlayer

The Afghans weren’t people to us, and vice versa. We couldn’t afford to see each other as human beings.

private, gunlayer

One day two of our lads went to a shop, shot the shopkeeper and his family and stole everything they could lay their hands on. There was an enquiry and of course everyone denied having anything to do with it. They examined the bullets in the bodies and eventually charged three men: an officer, an NCO and a private. But when our barracks were being searched for the stolen money, etc, I remember how humiliated and insulted we felt — why all this fuss about a few dead Afghans? There was a court martial and the NCO and the private were sentenced to the firing squad.

private, gunlayer

There’s not much humanity in a human being — that’s what war taught me.

private, gunlayer

Out there we all hated the enemy together. But I need someone to hate now, so that I can find some friends again. But who?

A Soldier

In Kunduz two ‘grandads’ forced a new recruit to dig a hole one night and stand in it. They buried him up to his neck, with only his head sticking out of the ground, and urinated over him all night long. When they dug him out in the morning he shot them both dead.

A Nurse

There’s an old woman doctor living in our block of flats. She’s seventy. As a result of all these articles nowadays, the revelations, exposes, speeches, the avalanche of truth crashing down on us, she’s gone mad. She opens her ground-floor window and shouts: ‘Long live Stalin! Long live communism — the glorious future of all Mankind!’

Private, artillery regiment

We put up the stone, a good one, of expensive marble, and spent all the money we’d been saving for his wedding on the memorial. We adorned the grave with red tiles and planted red flowers.

A Mother

We were hungry every minute of the day. There were two 20 gallon drums in the kitchen, one for the first course, a watery cabbage-soup without a scrap of meat, and one for the second course, a gooey paste of dried potato mash or pearl barley, also without meat. Oh, and canned mackerel, one tin between four of us. The label said: ‘Year of manufacture: 1956. Consume within 18 months.’ In my year and a half in Afghanistan I stopped being hungry only once, when I was wounded. You were looking for ways to get or steal food the whole time. We climbed into the Afghans’ orchards and gardens, even though they shot at us and laid mines to blow us up with. We were desperate for apples, pears, fruit of any kind. I asked my parents to send me citric acid, which they did. We dissolved it in water and drank it. It was nice and sour and burnt your stomach.

private, intelligence corps

I loved my son to distraction. And he loved me back the same way. His grave draws me as though I hear him calling.

‘Have you got a girlfriend?’ his army pals asked him.

‘Yes,’ he said, and showed them my old student card with a photo of me in long, long curls.

a mother

At a seminar at city Communist Party HQ the following question was posed: why did we allow Amin to kill Taraki? The seminar leader, a Moscow functionary whose job it was to lay down the Party line, replied: ‘The strong had to be replaced by the weak.’ This left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

At the time, the official justification for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was that ‘the Americans were on the brink of an airborne invasion which we anticipated and thus prevented by less than one hour.

N. Goncharov

‘Who needs your dreadful truth? I don’t want to know it!!! You want to buy your own glory at the expense of our sons’ blood. They were heroes, heroes, heroes! They should have beautiful books written about them, and you’re turning them into mincemeat.’

a mother

‘You want me to accept that it was a sick generation that came back from the war, but I prefer to see it as the generation whose eyes were opened. At least we found out who our real friends were. Yes, of course young boys were killed, but who knows how many of them might have died in drunken brawls and knife-fights anyway? I read somewhere (I can’t remember the exact statistics) that more people die in car accidents every year in this country than were killed in ten years of war. The army hadn’t had a real war to fight for a long time and this was a chance to test ourselves and our latest weapons. Those boys were heroes, every one of them, but it’s because of people like you that we’re now in retreat on all fronts. We’ve lost Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia. What’s happened to our Empire? Is this what I fought all through the war for, right up to Berlin in 1945?’

[…]

You’re depriving our youth of their heroic heritage.

a father

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