Boy soldiers in a war that turned out to be a “mistake”
Growing up in Germany and learning about World War II in school and from my parents and grandparents, among the things that impressed me most – that I just couldn’t get out of my mind – were the pictures of those boys drafted into Adolf Hitler’s “Volkssturm” (literally: “People’s Storm”); the pictures of those 16-, 18- and 19-year-old boys torn out of school before they had even had a chance to graduate, and turned into cannon fodder; the pictures of those eyes staring out of faces grown old long before their time. I have seen those same eyes and those same faces again in Vladislav Tamarov’s photo-journalistic report on his experiences as a Russian soldier in Afghanistan, subtitled simply “A Russian Soldier’s Story.”
There is, for example, Sergei, the author’s best friend in Afghanistan, who had his leg shattered by an exploding bullet – and so much more than just his leg was shattered with it. Then there is Sasha, who wanted to be a pilot and asked his friend Vlad, who was from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), whether his parents could enquire for him about the application procedures for the city’s flight school – and who didn’t even live to receive his answer. There is Aleksei, who walked into a minefield because somebody misread a map. There is Aleksandr, who got killed covering his commanding officer’s body with his chest and who was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union’s highest medal – which was given to his mother, to take the place of her dead son. There is Kravchenko, who went out to check a road with a couple of newcomers and was blown up by a mine – only weeks before he was scheduled to return home. There is Volodya, who couldn’t look into the eyes of other minesweepers returning to camp if he hadn’t gone out with them – and who was also killed only months before his time in Afghanistan was supposed to be over. There is the group picture of Oleg, Renat, Aleksandr, Vladimir and Sergei, taken while they are resting somewhere under a tree – only 14 hours before one of them would be killed by an ambush, 46 days before two more of them would be seriously injured and another one killed, and one year before the last of them would also be killed. And there is Vladislav Tamarov himself, who in 1984, like so many others, suddenly found himself in a boot camp, being trained for a two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan because the Supreme Soviet had proclaimed seven years earlier in the country’s revised constitution that “[t]o serve in the Soviet army is the honorable duty of Soviet citizens” – and ever since the Communist party leaders’ 1979 decision to yield to the “call for help” issued by the communist satellite government in Kabul, that “honorable duty” consisted in “supporting the Afghan revolution.” And so Tamarov was pulled out of university, learned to put on a parachute and jump into the abyss below his plane (a completely useless skill in Afghanistan), learned to kill boys as young as himself in order to survive, was made a minesweeper without any prior training at all; and as a minesweeper, quickly learned that you make a mistake only once – it’s between you and that mine, and there is no second chance. Not ever.
“Afghanistan – A Russian Soldier’s Story” is Vladislav Tamarov’s intensely personal report of his two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan; not a journalist’s or a professional writer’s detached account but the story of one who was there, experienced “what it was like” and came back alive: the human side of the inhumanity of war. The book very much has the feeling of a conversation with the author – in the form of letters, perhaps, or excerpts from a diary shared with the book’s readers. Divided into chapters entitled for the main components of the author’s experience (Boot Camp, Combat Missions, Minesweepers, the Base, etc.), the narrative structure nevertheless frequently alternates between the report of events in Afghanistan and the sensation of being back home again afterwards; thus introducing the reader to the confusing feeling of conflicting audiovisual and sensory associations; and of waking up in the morning and not knowing for a few seconds where you are. Most impressive, however, are Tamarov’s black and white photographs, processed by the author himself (primarily while still “in country”), which convey a darkly acute and poignant sense of Afghanistan, of the Russian soldiers’ scarce encounters with its people, and again and again, of the dangers and desolation of a minesweeper’s life, and his loneliness even in a group of fellow soldiers. The author’s comparisons of his experience with that of American VietNam veterans further add to the complexity of his account, and deepen the understanding that the terror of war is the same, regardless on which side you are fighting. “When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible,” Tamarov writes, and: “We didn’t believe in tomorrow. And we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.” Like too many others, Tamarov had to learn to live with this experience for the rest of his life – and it was certainly not made easier by the Soviet Union’s belated admission that the war in Afghanistan was “a mistake.” His story is a powerful reminder that regardless of its motivation, war is never, ever a glorious thing – at least not for those who are sent to fight it; even if they are not as young as the boys who made up the largest contingent of the Soviet Union’s troops in Afghanistan.
A Selection of Quotes and Photos:
“When I was drafted into the army in April 1984, I was a nineteen-year-old boy. The club where they took us was a distribution centre. Officers came there from various military units and picked out the soldiers they wanted. My fate was decided in one minute. A young officer came up to me and asked, “Do you want to serve in the commandos, the Blue Berets?” Of course I agreed. Two hours later I was on a plane to Uzbekistan (a Soviet republic in Central Asia), where our training base was located.
During the flight, I learned most of the soldiers from this base were sent to Afghanistan. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t surprised. At that point I didn’t care anymore because I understood that it is impossible to change anything. ‘To serve in the Soviet army is the honourable duty of Soviet citizens” – as it’s written in our Constitution. And no one gives a damn whether you want to fulfil this “honourable duty” or not. But then I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. Up until 1985, in the press and on television, they told us that Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were planting trees and building schools and hospitals. And only a few knew that more and more cemeteries were being filled with the graves of eighteen- to twenty-year-old boys. Without the dates of their death, without inscriptions. Only their names on black stone …
At the base we were trained and taught to shoot. We were told that we were being sent to Afghanistan not to plant trees. And as to building schools, we simply wouldn’t have the time …
Three and a half months later, my plane was landing in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan … We were taken to a club on base. A few minutes later, officers started to come by and choose soldiers. Suddenly, an officer with a smiling face and sad eyes burst in noisily. He looked us over with an appraising glance and pointed his finger at me: “Ah ha! I see a minesweeper!” That’s how I became a minesweeper. Ten days later, I went on my first combat mission.”
“On August 10, 1984, my plane landed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. There were no skyscrapers here. The blue domes of the mosques and the faded mountains were the only things rising above the adobe duvals (the houses). The mosques came alive in the evening with multivoiced wailing: the mullahs were calling the faithful to evening prayer. It was such an unusual spectacle that, in the beginning, I used to leave the barracks to listen – the same way that, in Russia, on spring nights, people go outside to listen to the nightingales sing. For me, a nineteen-year-old boy who had lived his whole life in Leningrad, everything about Kabul was exotic: enormous skies – uncommonly starry – occasionally punctured by the blazing lines of tracers. And spread out before you, the mysterious Asian capital where strange people were bustling about like ants on an anthill: bearded men, faces darkend by the sun, in solid-colored wide cotton trousers and long shirts. Their modern jackets, worn over those outfits, looked completely unnatural. And women, hidden under plain dull garments that covered them from head to toe: only their hands visible, holding bulging shopping bags, and their feet, in worn-out shoes or sneakers, sticking out from under the hems.
And somewhere between this odd city and the deep black southern sky, the wailing, beautifully incomprehensible songs of the mullahs. The sounds didn’t contradict each other, but rather, in a polyphonic echo, melted away among the narrow streets. The only thing missing was Scheherazade with her tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights … A few days later I saw my first missile attack on Kabul. This country was at war.”
“October 1984, Macedonian Column: The column was built by the troops of Alexander the Great many centuries ago. By the same Alexander the Great who said, ‘One can occupy Afghanistan, but one cannot vanquish her.’ This column, visible from Kabul, stood in this same place when Alexander the Great and his troops left Afghanistan; it stood there where our troops came into Afghanistan, and it remained standing even after our troops left Afghanistan.”
“This is a page from my Afghan notebook. Here, I wrote down each of my combat missions. First, I wrote down the mission number. If I’d been in the mountains, I circled the number. Then I wrote the last name of the place where we’d been and how many days we were there. Last, I wrote the month and the year. That was my system.”
“Someone once said that a minesweeper makes only two mistakes: the first is when he decides to be one. The second …”
May 1985, Djalalabad, from left to right: Oleg (3 shell shocks from explosions) Renat (over 200 days in combat) Alexandr (killed in action 11 hours later) Vladimir (killed in action in June 1986) Sergej (killed in action in June 1985, 6 weeks after this picture was taken).
“We stayed here for only a few hours. We rested and went on. But the camera snatched this fraction of a second from the eternal flow of time and froze it forever. At this moment we didn’t know that in a few hours we would fall into an ambush. At this moment, while we were filling our canteens from the stream, we didn’t yet know that we would stay in the mountains for three days without a drop of water. We didn’t yet know anything …”
“There’s nothing I can do to erase the shadow of misery and despair from the eyes looking back at me from the photos.”
“Sasha was my friend … Like me, he was 19. But he didn’t come home. He was killed 12 hours after this photo was taken.”
“Autumn 1985 Kabul Airfield, Afghanistan: These two soldiers are from my platoon: A few minutes from this moment, they’ll be flying in helicopters toward the mountains. In forty minutes, people will be shooting at these 19 year old boys. And they will shoot back, and they will kill. That is the law of war: if you don’t kill first, they’ll kill you. We didn’t invent this law.
But having landed in a war, we have to live by its rules. And the quicker you learn the rules, the longer you have to live by them. You don’t think about whether you are defending someone’s revolution or defending the ‘southern borders of the motherland’. You simply shoot at those who are shooting at you and at your friend behind you – you shoot at the guys whose mines blew away your friend yesterday.”
“I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember where he was from. I remember that our climb into the mountains was grueling, and we were exhausted. He was new. This was one of his first battles and I wanted to encourage him, to cheer him up.”
“September 1985, Charikar: These are prisoners. A few hours ago, they were free men in the mountains but now they are here in our camp. Now they are silently looking us over, while we are silently looking them over. But it wasn’t always like this …”
“I saw houses burned by the Mujahadeen, as well as disfigured bodies of prisoners they’d taken. But I saw other things too: villages destroyed by our shelling and bodies of women, killed by mistake. When you shoot at every rustling in the bushes, there’s no time to think about who’s there. But for an Afghan, it didn’t matter if his wife had been killed intentionally or accidentally. He went into the mountains to see revenge.”
“He was holding his right leg, but the blood soaked through his fingers and flowed over his hand onto his sleeve. Intuition had served me again this time: my kick had knocked his automatic out of his grasp a fraction of a second before he could press the trigger. The second kick was to his face. It sent him flying about six feet. I set my sights on his head, but something stopped me, one of our guys let out a yelp behind me. Another bullet whistled by right next to me. Apparently, this Mujahadeen was not the only one here. Again, I aimed at his head, but something again stopped me. I saw how his hands were trembling. I noticed the horror in his eyes. “He is only a boy!” I thought and pressed the trigger.”
“I never sat like this, in such an open and vulnerable position. I just liked the view from this cliff, and I decided to take this shot especially for my parents: to show how peaceful it was in Afghanistan … but within two seconds I wasn’t anywhere near that rock.”
“The photos I took in Afghanistan are lying in front of me. I peer into the faces of those who were with me there and who are so far away from me now, into the faces of those who were dying right next to me and those who were hiding behind my back. I can make these photos larger or smaller, darker or lighter. But what I can’t do is bring back those who are gone forever.”
“We didn’t believe in tomorrow. We we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.”
“When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible.”
“Once, back home, I decided to count how many days out of my twenty months in Afghanistan I’d been on combat missions. 217 days. And I’m still paying the price for every one of those days.”
“When I came home, I was asked to put my pictures in a photo exhibit at the Cinematography College … my pictures won first prize. I began to ask myself what I was doing, and why. A few months after the exhibit, I dropped out of college, left my wife and began to write this book.”
“This picture – me standing with an arm around an Afghan government soldier – was one of three photos I gave them for the exhibit. For the exhibit, I gave this photo a short, bogus title: They Defend the Revolution.”
“I am asked if I think the war was a just war…how can I answer? I was a boy born and raised in beautiful Leningrad, a boy who loved his parents and went obediently to school. A boy who was yanked out of that life and dumped in a strange land where life followed different rules.”
“By 1989, the total number of Vietnam veterans who had died in violent accidents or by suicide after the war exceeded the total number of American soldiers who died during the war.”