“‘I cried when I read your article, but I shan’t read the whole book, because of an elementary sense of self-preservation. I’m not sure whether we ought to know so much about ourselves. Perhaps it’s just too frightening. It leaves a great void in my soul. You begin to lose faith in your fellow-man and fear him instead.’”
This is the second book I have that is written by Svetlana Alexievich and her books really do make me wonder about why I read. On one hand, her books are about truth – and plain, ugly truth at that which needs to be told or it would be suppressed, and thus exactly the kind of books that should be read on the priority basis. On other hand, her books are so depressing – being full of accounts of lost and wasted lives; making one wonder whether there really is any point in reading them.
Though not as depressing as Chernobyl diaries, this one is full of sad accounts of all those whose lives were ruined in Afghanistan – including accounts of soldiers who lost their limbs, mothers, and wives of soldiers who lost their lives, the traumatic experiences of women who were sent there as nurses etc. The name of the book comes from the Zinc coffins in which the Russian soldiers who died in Afghanistan war were brought back home – in an effort by the Soviet government to maintain secrecy about the existence of a conflict. And it is Zincy Boys because they were really boys too young to understand life at all, many still mamma’s boys. And though they were forced to go there through coercion or fraud, they and their families still have to deal with prejudice of people who hold them responsible for the war. They try to get together because no one who wasn’t in the war could understand them.
“In the eight years since the war the number of suicides – officers as well as other ranks – is about the same as the number of fatalities in the war itself.”
The worst parts are those where an account of a compassionate soldier or nurse, contains details of Afghan Children who lost his or her limbs or life in war.
“I drove to a hospital for Afghan civilians with a group of nurses – we brought presents for the children. Toys, candy, cookies. I had about five teddy bears. We arrived at the hospital, along barracks. No one has more than a blanket for bedding. A young Afghan woman approached me, holding a child in her arms. She wanted to say something – over the last ten years almost everyone here has learned to speak a little Russian – and I handed the child a toy, which he took with his teeth. “Why his teeth?” I asked in surprise. She pulled the blanket off his tiny body – the little boy was missing both arms. “It was when your Russians bombed.” Someone held me up as I began to fall.”
The introduction focuses on the similarities between the Vietnam war and Afghanistan war. In both cases, a government of one of the most powerful countries of the time decides to wage a useless war and forced or frauded her boys (the ones who were not rich enough to pay their way out of it) into going to fight in a third world country that was fighting for its independence. Moreover, in both cases, people of the attacking countries didn’t support the war.
It is tragic how people are quick to jump to conclusions that wars are the only solutions to most international conflicts.
“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. When the war was over I noticed how violent fairytales were.
People are always killing each other, Baba Yaga even roasts them in her oven, but the children are never frightened. They hardly ever even cry!”
Of course, most of these people have never been to an actual war themselves. And this kind of books are solutions to their ignorance. This is what a textbook on history should be like, instead of a book that makes you learn things like strategies each side employed or why a particular side won or which General or major won which battle. I kind of don’t understand how can anyone with open mind continue to justify any of those – the need for war, need for armies and need for the feeling of nationalism (which if you think about it is just a fancy name for tribalism):
“I had my son’s stone engraved with these words: “Remember, friends, he died that the living might live.” I know, now, that that was not true – he did not die for the sake of the living. I was lied to when I was young and continued the process with him. We were so good at believing. “Love the Motherland, son, she’ll never betray you and love you always.” I used to repeat to him. Now I would like to write something different on his grave: “Why?” ’ (A mother)
“‘I was on holiday by the Black Sea and saw a few young lads crawling over the sand to get to the water. I didn’t go to the beach anymore, I’d just have started crying. They were laughing and trying to flirt with us girls but we all ran away from them.”
“Until I 988, Soviet psychologists had never heard of PTSD, until American psychologists expert with post-war trauma visited and told them. Up till then, their answer was behavior modification with drugs – the way Soviet psychiatry had always dealt with mental illness.”
“A boy might be blown up by a mine and there’d be nothing left except half a bucket of flesh, but we wrote that he’d died of food poisoning, or in a car accident, or he’d fallen into a ravine.”
“We wanted to shut the doors so no one would hear, because there were soldiers dying alone next door, boys with no one to weep for them. ‘Mum! Mum!’ they’d shout, and I’d lie to them, ‘I’m here.’ We became their mothers and sisters, and we wanted to be worthy of their trust.”
“Nowadays I don’t just hate war. I can’t even stand seeing a couple of boys having a scrap in the park. And please, don’t tell me the war’s over now. In summer, when I breathe in the hot dusty air, or see a pool of stagnant water, or smell the dry flowers in the fields, it’s like a punch in the head. I’ll be haunted by Afghanistan for the rest of my life …”
“When we went on a raid we’d pin a note to the upper part of our body and another to the lower part so that if we were blown up by a mine one or the other would be found. Or else we wore bracelets with our name, number and blood group engraved on them. We never said ‘I’m going … ’ always ‘I’ve been sent … ’ And we never said the word ‘last’:
‘Let’s go and have a last drink.’”
“‘Could you have refused to go to Afghanistan?’ Me personally? Only one of our group of professional army officers, Major Bondarenko, a battery commander, refused. The first thing that happened was, he had to face a ‘court of honor’, which convicted him of cowardice. Can you imagine what that does to a man’s self-esteem? Suicide might be the easiest way out. Then he was demoted to captain and posted to a building battalion as punishment. Then he was expelled from the party and eventually discharged with dishonor. How many men could go through all that? And he was a military man to the bone – he’d spent thirty years in the army.”
“That was five years ago. I still have this dream. I’m in a long mine-field. I’ve drawn up a plan, based on the number of mines and the number of rows, and markers to find them by. But I’ve lost the plan. (In fact we often did lose them, or else the marker was a tree which had been destroyed or a pile of stones which had been blown up. Nobody wanted to go and check, and risk getting blown up by our own mines.) In my dream I see children running near the mine-field, they don’t know there are mines there. I want to shout: ‘Stop! Mines!’ I want to warn the children. I want to warn the children … I’m running … I have both my legs back, and I can see, my eyes can see again … But that’s only at night, only in my dream. Then I wake up.”
“Did you know that drugs and fur coats were smuggled in coffins? Yes, right in there with the bodies! Have you ever seen necklaces of dried ears? Yes, trophies of war, rolled up into little leaves and kept in matchboxes! Impossible?”
“In the amputee wards, the men’ll talk about anything except the future, according to some girls I know. In fact, no one likes to think of the future here. Perhaps it’s more frightening to die if you’re happy.”