To the memory of all the Russian soldiers killed in Chechnya. May they rest in peace.
A grenade launcher is no joke. The first shot knocked off the radio station. Along with the operator. Good that there was another radio in the APC. Bad that the vehicle caught fire after five minutes. I had been asleep and the whole action seemed to happen in discrete bits.
Hands shaking, I pushed another clip into the rifle and aimed the clip fell on the ground. It must have gone in better the second time. I suppose. I don't remember. Lieutenant Sadykov sobbed, slipped down a wall and curled up. When I ran out of ammo, I turned him over on his back and feverishly searched his cartridge vest for clips. Judging by his smashed chest and open glassy eyes he was beyond help. Well, I've known worse lieutenants. I got a camouflaged figure with beard and clenched teeth in my sights and gave a long burst of about twenty rounds. My palms, stained with Sadykov's blood, stuck to the gunstock.
There'd been twenty-six of us at the checkpoint. Earlier that morning. And then, for some reason, the Chechens decided they needed that mashed, corpse-stinking wreck of a town that had once been Grozny. After one hour of attack there were only ten of us left, and only eight who could still fight. There probably weren't more of them than us to begin with. They just used the element of surprise to good advantage. And their fighters are more experienced. At least, they never walk into fire. Not like Sanya Krivolapov who was lying with a smashed skull alongside Sadykov and some other guys, who'd been inside.
The checkpoint was well placed. Relatively speaking, of course. Well-placed for us, that is. It'd been some kind of office. A smallish, one-floor building made of concrete blocks, with five or six rooms. It had a lot of windows, most of which we've closed with sandbags. The others made decent firing posts with a good field of vision. The nearest building was 150 meters away. The ruins 50 meters away had been a building too until a self-propelled gun went to work. We weren't too worried about the ruins they were well mined. We used nearly all our claymore mines there, so we had to use grenades on trip wires for the building. And you can't be sure of them. So we had someone watching that building all the time. We'd been watching it before the attack too. But seems not hard enough. Now there were two Chechen machine guns there. Maybe more, but we'd counted two for sure. And those machine guns were working us over. Heavy Kalashnikovs, judging by the noise.
Our sniper got hit with shrapnel early on. He died of loss of blood wrapped round his rifle. I am not a bad shot, so I decided to try being the sniper. Curious. I thought before that sniping was an easy job you look in the sights, train the cross roughly where the heart is, or on the forehead, or wherever, so he is full height and in your sight, line it up, and pull the trigger. Then you put a notch on your rifle butt. But it's not so damn easy when you try. There's no cross as such there are angles and divisions... I pretty much got the idea of the curve. It's a distance measure. If you shoot from four hundred metres, the figure is small, and you're lucky to hit it anywhere, let alone in the head or heart. And if you're aiming from eight hundred metres? A man is no more than a nit's egg. In size.
Despite the problems, I edged out bit by bit and decided to pick off those machine gunners. I looked down the sights, and thought I saw one of them. I shot and missed. I shot again, and missed. I tried four times and missed every fucking time. Then he opened up with the machine gun he didn't need to snipe. I only just had time to hit the deck. I figured that sniping was a tough way to earn a living, left the sniper rifle and picked up my own gun.
We were besieged. The Chechens weren't about to try storming us again. We'd shown some fight got about eight of them. I have a strong suspicion that even Muslims aren't in a hurry to meet the paradise maidens, well unless they're real fanatics. And we weren't giving them much trouble, as far as I could see. So they'd left those machine gun nests and a few more men on the other side, and cleared off. We weren't about to go anywhere. We didn't know the town, had no idea where our side was. We'd been brought here in an APC. The driver was now smouldering in its remains and the Loot was lying in the corner with a smashed chest along with the others who had copped it. None of us had a clue where the gun-layer was. Some of ours had copped it outside, from the grenade launcher. He was probably there. There was no map. We'd found a plan of the area around the checkpoint on the Loot's body. But we needed it like a fish needs an umbrella. We were stranded.
We had seven wounded, but most of the wounds were light, except for Rashid Khusnutdinov. He had taken shrapnel in the stomach and his guts were hanging out. We bandaged him and injected him with morphine, but he still died two hours later. He said something in his Tatar, smiled, and died. The most seriously wounded of the others was Tiny one eye had been blown out and the other blinded. He sat in a corner, saying nothing, crying. There was no one to comfort him, no time and no reason. Pointless. The others had nothing much wrong with them. An arm grazed by a bullet, a scratch on the hip...
No one knew what to do. The machine gunners occasionally gave a burst at our windows. Luckily the building didn't stand too well for them, there were dead zones. The other Chechens, who had gone round the other side, were better placed. As we realized when Murza caught a round in the chest... "and then there were eight". Tiny was out of action. Murza was still alive but obviously not for long. We shot the second-last tube of morphine into him, bandaged him up and put him beside Tiny.
We had a meeting, a quick exchange of views, damn it... a tense exchange. There were four of us. The others were at the windows keeping an eye on the Chechens.
"Well," I said, "what do we do?"
Sanya Kikin (we called him Kika) said:
"What do we fucking do, we break out and go look for ours."
"So you know where ours are?"
"We'll find them."
"Like fuck you'll find them, you dumbass!"
That was Vagiz getting wound up. He had sat ten years at the same school desk with Rashid in Naberezhniye Chelni. They'd been called up together, served together. Now one of them had copped it and the other was in deep shit, as we all were. We were all wound up.
"Have you got a map? Do you know the town? Where are you going to look?"
"Well, what the fuck are we going to do here?"
"Here we still have a fucking chance. We haven't made contact on time, the brigade will realize something's wrong, they'll come and fetch us."
"Yeah, if the brigade hasn't been fucked over too."
We stopped and thought. No one seriously believed that the brigade could have been "fucked over", but the situation didn't encourage optimism.
"They'd get what's coming to them if they tried that. Anyway, I say we stay here and sit it out."
That was Bull putting his weighty word in. Bull was an optimist nevertheless.
Anyway I agreed with him one hundred percent. We were better off with a slim chance on familiar territory than crawling off Hell knows where with no chance at all. What scared me most was being taken prisoner. Better like Rashid. Or even better like Sadykov. Bang, and you are up there. Guys in the brigade told us how they were at a checkpoint once and got chatting with the locals. The peaceful locals. Yeah, yeah, peaceful. "Don't be scared of the hand grenade it's kind to hands." These peaceful locals promised them whatever they wanted: "We'll send you home, give you money for the trip, just quit fighting..." Two idiots believed it and went off at night, took their guns with them. The Chechens sent body of one of them back later. His nose and lips were cut off and his eyes had been poked out. If that's what the Chechens do with people who surrender of their own accord, what would they do if they caught us? To fucking Hell with that, I'd say.
"I agree," I said.
"Me too," said Vagiz.
Kika just shrugged.
"You're real dumb fuckers. What are we going to do at night? What about water? What about ammo? What are we going to eat? How long are we stuck here for, anyway?"
"As long as it takes," Bull snapped. "As for all the rest, we'll have to look."
I went off to look in the kitchen first it had a big water container that got filled once every few days. The kitchen window happened to look straight onto that damned building and the lowest of ten bullet holes in the container was eight or ten centimeters off the bottom. The floor all around was soaking wet. I crawled up to the container, trying not to show myself, and nudged it. Water splashed out of the holes. So it had about ten centimeters of water in it. About six or eight liters. Shared between all of us, it wouldn't even fill our canteens. Bad news.
Psychology... As soon as I realized how short of water we were, I felt thirsty. I tipped a bit into my canteen about half full, or a bit more. I thought a moment, and decided to wait. Then I crawled to the corner, where there was a crate of corned beef. There were about twenty cans. Not so bad.
I got carried away and exposed myself. The Chechen gave a burst with his machine gun and it's a miracle he missed. Or maybe he wasn't aiming at me just decided to give a burst. Anyway, he didn't hit me. Here, you can't help believing in fate. If you were born to hang, you won't drown. You might blow yourself up on a trip wire, but you won't drown.
I curled up in the corner and waited for the Chechens to calm down, covering my balls and head with my rifle as best I could. Luckily it wasn't a corner room. In the corner rooms there was a mighty ricochet off the other concrete wall. But here the partition walls were probably made of uncooked bricks, or God knows what. Maybe some sort of homemade bricks. They crumbled and absorbed the bullets.
I crawled back to the central room, to our headquarters... told them how it was. Vagiz and Bull got some more canteens together. I said: "We need to get the container in here - some more shooting from that motherfucker and we'll have no water left. There's less than he's got rounds as it is."
So we dragged it in. It wasn't so difficult actually. Kika gave a couple of bursts from the other window and got down behind the sand bags. While the machine-gunners worked his window over, we pulled the container out of the kitchen and must have spilt at least a liter on the way. We grabbed a few cans of beef as well.
I sat down, fell back against the wall, and was about to open a can with my bayonet. Suddenly I started shaking. I dropped the can and the bayonet and wrapped my arms round my shoulders. I was shaking as if I'd got malaria. And I wanted to shit like anything, but I couldn't get up. Kuzya noticed, felt in his cartridge vest and passed me a quarter bottle. I took it and remembered instinctively where we'd tucked the vodka. By my reckoning, we had a lot more vodka than water. Some cause for cheer in this shitty life.
I tore off the seal with my teeth, and took a couple of long gulps. I felt better straight away, picked up the can and opened it. The Chechens were shooting now and again, lazily. The others sat round, chewing. I chewed as well, though I didn't particularly want to. No bread and no water. Well, a bit of water, but not much. Almost none. And God knew how much longer we had to sit there. We should go easy on the meat too. I said so to the guys, and they agreed, but carried on eating, fucking walking stomachs. I put my can aside, still two-thirds full. It was surprisingly good beef, not the string and jelly they brought us last time.
I went for a shit. It must have looked funny I wiped my backside and moved off squatting all the way to the door. On the way back I looked in at the wounded. There was only one of them now. Murza wasn't wounded any more. He was dead. Tiny was unconscious. The corpses were still there. And it was August, not the coolest month in Chechnya. There would be a stink soon.
I ducked over to Bull. He was watching the machine gunners. We watched them in pairs. So there were four of us on guard in total two in each corner room. And five relaxing.
"Murza's dead," I said.
"It's his own fault." Bull sucked on the cigarette. "He shouldn't have fucking strutted about like on parade."
None of us liked Murza. He was greedy and dumb. Even the other Tatars didn't mix with him. No one remembered his first name. Just called him Murza. I think his surname was Murzayev.
"We could do with an extra man, though."
"No shit," Bull agreed. "We could all right. But not Murza. How's Tiny?"
"It's a shame about him."
It really was a shame. He was a good soldier and a good kid. He'd have a hard time being blind.
"OK, go eat. I'll be here."
Bull ducked down and went, and I stayed with Vasya-Altai. I used to think, almost in earnest, that Vasya-Altai couldn't speak Russian. Then I decided that he couldn't speak at all. He hadn't said a word for the two weeks I'd known him. He was silent now. And I was silent. The Chechens were silent too. We were all silent. Grey silence.
Tiny shot himself that night. Blew half his head off. I was on duty, watching the building. Heard shots inside and rushed to the room where the corpses and Tiny were only to see his brains running down the wall. Now there were only corpses in that room.
The Chechens were silent. No response even to those shots. Maybe they weren't there at all, but none of us wanted to go and check. After three hours they let us know they were still there. They'd probably been smoking dope. They started rattling away with their machine guns like wild things. They must have used a cartridge box each, no less. Obviously not short of ammo. We had enough too, but no machine guns. Heaps of ordinary assault rifles, enough to decorate a Christmas tree. But nothing heavier than the sniper's rifle, which no one knew how to use properly.
So we sat there. I took off my cartridge vest and bullet-proof vest, put them under my head and lay down. Kuzya lay down next to me, unscrewed his canteen, took a swig of vodka, and offered me some. I took a couple of swigs and gave it back.
"A fucking mess," Kuzya said, screwing the cap back on, and looking thoughtfully into the corner.
"Right," I agreed.
Kuzya had only just closed the canteen when he opened it again and took another swig. He offered it to me again. We drank the whole lot.
"I read somewhere," Kuzya said, "that every war is a rehearsal for the global war between good and evil. God and the Devil fighting it out. In the World War Two, the Devil was on the Germans' side and God was on our side."
"And now," I asked, "whose side is God on? Ours or the Chechens'?"
"I don't think God is on anyone's side now. It's just a couple of minor devils on dope playing for money."
"And who wins?" I laughed.
"No one. They cheat like crazy, and no one wins. They beat each other up and that's it."
The heat was overpowering. By evening we'd drunk nearly all the water we had left. There was a definite smell of decay from the room where the corpses were. Vasya-Altai broke his silence. He swore in Russian, and something that wasn't Russian, for an hour. Then he went silent again.
The third day without sleep. I was dozing off towards morning when the Chechens started firing like mad. I sprang up all haywire, not realizing that the Chechens weren't shooting at us. There was a battle going on out there. And who could be fighting the Chechens? Only our side.
I rushed into the corner room, with windows on that damned building where the Chechens were. We decided to give our side some support, if only moral. We started firing all the guns we'd got at the windows where the machine gunners had been. I fired off two clips and slapped my pockets, but found no more. I had to run to the morgue room, where we had spare guns, the sniper rifle, and cartridge vests from the dead men. You had to breathe through your mouth in there.
The battle was over while I was looking for ammo. An IFV came out from behind the building and accelerated towards us. I just had time to think how we would fight back if it was full of Chechens. But the vehicle came racing up, turned sideways-on, and a scruffy Russian soldier looked out of the hatch and shouted: "Who the fuck are you?!"
It turned out to be a mechanized regular army unit. They were on their way to relieve their own checkpoint and ran into us. Or rather into the Chechens, who had us pinned down. We were lucky.
I flew from Khankaly to Mozdok. From there, they say, they'll send us home. On board we had equipment, fifty air force and army, and thirty dead guys. We'll be flying home soon. All together.
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