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Burbella Alexander
Salang Pass

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    Translation by © Katerina Turevich ( (Original)

   Salang Pass
   The narrow black strip of concrete, the only passage for auto vehicles, lassoes in between the huge separate cliffs of mountainous clusters, disappearing into the Salang Pass. Along the gravel bottom of the gorge, a shallow noisy river races like a mad fall, breaking into myriads of splashes against the smooth stones. A modern metallic bridge connects two steep banks. The third motor shooting company, guarding one segment of the Afghan road to life' Terbez-Kabul, spent their nights a forsaken stone-and-clay saklya, almost literally by the road, not too far away from the bridge.
   Second in command of the company The Junior Officer Haidukov Alexei, looking at the picturesque tops of the majestic Hindukush, asked himself many times: `What is it there, behind these hanging, sky-reaching mountain sweeps? Are there settlements behind them? Could a gang of dushman* potentially come from there? One ought to go up there and take a look?'
   One sunny spring morning, Alexei decided to implement the plans. The Junior Officer Beslan Emirov volunteered to come with him. Beslan was an Adigh? by nationality, of a strong body build, a man who trained martial arts before being drafted by the navy. Other soldiers, his land mates, tenderly called him "Adigha" - "Bull". Taking a flask of water and an MKalashnikov-74* with 10 clips held together by isolation tape, they started up the steep slope. They were walking up a narrow ditch that served as a course for falling stones in bad weather: the whole passage was a bed of stones, small bellow, the higher up the bigger. They were walking on both sides of this stony ditch, so that in case of an avalanche they could both hide behind the nearest rocks. From time to time they would stop to get a breath.
   About three hours into ascending, Alexei and Beslan stopped for a break. Looking back they were amazed to see the guys of their squad so small, just like ants below, and the cars seemigly like toys. Taking a slog of water, they went on with their explorations.
   `Look!', Alexei suddenly shouted. Amongst the bare gray cliffs and rocks there was a tender white-yellow-purple flower .
   ` Maybe this is edelweiss? He, Beslan?, Alexei, leaning on one knee, was mesmerized by the wondrous creation of nature, not totally believing the reality of what was happening. `People say, that whoever finds an edelweiss in the mountains, will always be happy.' Beslan silently shook his shoulders. Still looking at the flower, Alexei said decisively: `I'll pluck it, and send it to my mother in en envelope. We will find one for you too, Beslan'. Ascending further and further, they saw several other such flowers. `Although, people say', he started doubting his own words, `that edelweiss is a very rare flower'. `Maybe this isn't edelweiss at all', he thought, still not willing to admit it out loud.
   Then suddenly, in the all-surrounding silence, they heard automatic and machine gun bursts. `What happened?' carefully listening to the sounds, Alexei looked Beslan in the eyes, and then turned towards the road. But the road was not to be seen behind a twist of the passage. Alexei, looking all around, ran along the cliffs to the right, quickly jumping from one rock onto another, like a mountain goat. He tried to get to a point where he could see something happening on the road.
   Finally he could see somebody from the squad running along the river in the direction of the shooting, and somebody else stopping and holding all busses and cars going to Kabul.
   `Sonofabitch', Alexei was visibly relieved. "It's not our bridge. Thank God! It couldn't happen. They got a spook ambush there and we two lieutenants take a breather here in the mountains'.
   The shooting stopped just as suddenly as it started. From direction of the Pass came an APC, stopped for a couple of seconds by the bridge, somebody climbed out and said something to the boys regulating the traffic, and took off again on a high speed further.
   The stopped traffic started moving again towards Salang. `Something happened on the next bridge!', Alexei shouted to Beslan. `But I think the worst has been. They are letting cars go through.'
   Alexei, relaxing, looked at the picturesque landscape around. There was a hawk flying high above his head. The white virgin snow brightened, glistened in the rays of the golden son, and below, in the narrow emerald ravine, a tiny river was shining like a silver chain. Right and left one could see green spots of dwarf trees.
   Alexei breathed deeply with enjoyment. `Probably, just like somewhere in Switzerland.' He thought to himself. `Only here we got shooting.'
   `Let's go, captain', the demanding voice of Beslan shook him out of reverie. Alexei turned, and horrified, he discovered, that he was standing on a huge, protruding cliff, and that to get back to where Beslan was, he had jump over a big vertical duct between two cliffs. That was near to impossible, because the jump was a big one and chances to fall too.
   His heart was beating rapidly, and the body was covered with goose bumps. `How long would I have to sit here?' he thought with alarm.
   `Give me your hand!' Beslan said.
   With his back tight to the cliff, left leg hanging over the precipy, with the right hand holding on to a jut, Beslan stretched his left hand out to Alexei.
   `C'mon, but do be afraid', even harder repeated Beslan.
   Alexei, afraid to loose it again, stretched his arm out and jumped, tightly pressing himself against Beslan's body. Looking down at the sharp rocks, he said in a harsh voice: `yes, Beslan, now I owe it to you till the grave, you saved my life like this, one can say.'
   `Hey, don't mention it', Beslan answered trying to get through the cliffs. From the overwhelming feeling of gratitude Alexei hugged Beslan from the back, and smiling, with tenderness said: `You don't have to be so shy.'
   Coming back to the place where they first heard the shots, they saw that over the top of the mountain hung a gray heavy cloud, brought there by the north wind.
   `So, we go further or we go down?', Alexei looked into Beslan's eyes.
   `I don't go further, I am tired.' Beslan said, sitting down on his knees and leaning against a cliff with the automatic between his legs.
   `There is only a bit left till the top, Beslan, let's go.'
   `No I don't go further. I am going to wait for you here.'
   Alexei sadly looked at Beslan, slowly moved his glance towards the wet gray cloud, which was hiding the top.
   `Still, I would like to get there. It's a shame to quit halfway,' Alexei said quietly and then more firmly: `Wait for me here, I'll try to make it as fast as I can.'
   He went stridently towards the thick dewy fog.
   Small raindrops settled on his face, covering the dry lips, shirt, boots, the automatic. It was easy to walk, but he had to stop more and more often - the legs felt like they were made of iron. Finally he saw a humongous size cliff, the one he saw from the bridge. From there it seemed like it should be the last cliff, behind it there should be a declension into a ravine.
   Alexei mounted the top of the cliff and through a light smoke of the cloud he saw that behind was indeed a fairly low downhill, but that other mountain cliffs went further ahead under the midday heat of the sun. He did not contemplate any further explorations. Bitterness and offence ate at his heart because he did not have any real possibility of going on. He had to get back down, to Beslan, and the guys from the squad would be worried too. He had promised to be back by diner time.
   Alexei stood facing the road, he didn't see it because of the thick curtain of tiny water drops in front of him, but he raised his right arm with the automatic in it, and with a triumphant shout he gave several bursts, looked back at the untamed top and started on his way.
   To go down was much easier. The entire way up when they had to take each stone in stride, was now done in big jumps from stone to stone. It was only very important not to twist an ankle that way. Last hundred meters of the way, with small stones, almost gravel under foot, Alexei and Beslan made in long jumps, with legs as if tied up together, and the back tightly pressed against the slope of the cliff.
   It took them 30-40 minutes to descend as compared to five hours to go up.
   At home they found out that two kilometers away, some spooks severely wounded the captain of the company which guarded the bridge there. The captain got three gun wounds under his belt. He died on the way to the hospital.
   The story made clear that this ambush was pre-arranged, and not accidental - in most cases spooks shoot right in the heart or the forehead. It was also very strange that none of the soldiers standing around in complete visibility were hit.
   Several days later, the commanding party of the battalion made some re-dislocations of the sub-units, guarding the road between Puli-Khumri and The Salang Pass. The Third motor shooting platoon had to pack up from their place and on three AC's drive towards the Salang Pass. Commander Kobelev led the column in his own armored car. In a few minutes, the column stopped by the bridge where the captain had been killed. Alexei, listening to the radio in his own car, heard the commander's order: `First company! To the car!' `To the car!' he loudly repeated turning to the rest of the guys.
   Soon all eight people from the company stood in one line by their AC's. The gusts of cold, thorny wind painfully clapped them on their young but already manly faces. The warm sun was just getting ready to appear from behind the unapproachable tops of Gindukhush.
   Slender and muscular Captain Kobelev with a thin black mustache on his thin, sharpened face nervously walked along the bridge, pointlessly fixing his pistol pouch every two seconds. Composing himself he came towards the company.
   `Company! At the ready!', he started in a harsh voice. `Listen to the assignment!' His words were minted, and his glance was directed somewhere to the side. `Your company will guard this bridge. Your assignment is to safeguard this strategically important bridge, its importance, as well as the importance of every bridge on this road for the normal functioning of the province as well as of the whole country, I hope I do not have to explain to you. In case of the dushmen attack at this bridge, you will use your last bullets, always waiting for support to come. Alarm signal is a red rocket. Communication by radio'. Looking over the company, he switched his glance at the road twitching between the mountains, and said in a very quiet voice: ` You pay with your heads for this bridge'. Slowly looking back at the company he asked firmly this time: `All clear?'
   The young soldiers all started nodding in a civilian fashion, attentively watching the captain. He, seeing that their looks reflected understanding of the given assignment, without demanding too much protocol, said in an easy tone: `Get comfortable'.
   Abruptly turning, he jumped into his AC and together with two other companies rode away to the next bridge.
   `Just like in a war', said Alexei, looking over the faces of the other guys, who were just as taken abash as he was.
   `'The second in command calls this tactical training with action', noted someone. Captain Kobelev was respected in the squad. Before becoming a captain of the squad he had the command of the group of partisans who were the first to come to Afghanistan. As the stories went, the senior lieutenant Kobelev went always first in an attack onto the dushmen. His main outstanding qualities were courage and an ability to understand every one of the soldiers. A soldier's life was dear to him, and he didn't risk it for nothing. In one and a half months in Afghanistan he received an honorary medal and became a captain.
   An order is an order, and has to be executed. But everybody was a bit confused: yesterday there was a whole squad here, the captain was killed, and now this bridge is entrusted to only one company.
   The bridge was located by the footrest of a high and bare cliff. In one hundred meters away from the bridge stood a mud-and-wood chaichana*. These hundred meters served as a parking space for afghan buses and cars, where the drivers stopped to have a bite to eat. Further up, on both sides of the road leading up to the Pass were duchana's*, conveniently selling fresh vegetables and fruit, dry fruit, and always cool coca-cola, Pepsi, and various household articles. Behind the duchana's one could see small stone-and-mud houses of the local kishlak*.
   Between the bridge and the chaichana, on the opposite side of the gurgling river, stood a small stone house pressed like a bird nest against an abrupt slope of the cliff. It was not finished - it still missed a roof, windows and the doors were black and empty.
   Witnesses told that when captain, walking out of a construction wagon, was hit and wounded, the soldiers responded with a disorganized reply shooting first all over the cliff, and then this one lonely house. But neither automatics, nor machine guns ever did any damage to this house. The never amazed Afghanis, sitting on their knees along the wall of the chaichana, and looking at what was happening, only smiled and laughed at the pitiful efforts of the `shuravi-askar'*.
   In a few minutes a tank with supporting fire came and with two bursts it destroyed the bird- house into half-shambles. After firing the house was searched, but there were no bodies discovered, which meant that the snipers left unharmed and unnoticed.
   The day after the building battalion constructed a bunker along the bridge. Four people from the company settled there, putting their mattresses, blankets and pillows on the bare concrete floor. Four other people went to live in the AC, which was put in position of fifty meters away from the bridge, so that it was easy to come out onto the road and to see clearly the bridge's beams. From war films they all knew that the easiest and most likely place to pack dynamite was on the beams. The guarding of the bridge was done on an 24-hour basis: at night they watched from the AC because of the night sight there, in the daytime - from the bunker because it was the safest place around.
   About one hundred meters away from the bunker there was a small bakery where two local bakers made aromatic flat breads. On the first day the friendly Beslan together with the company's gunner went there to make an acquaintance, and found a common language with the bakers and brought back several fresh, hot from the oven, breads.
   Alexei was kind and receptive, but initiation of contact with other people happened only in extreme circumstances with him. Beslan, on the opposite, was a friendly guy, honest and honorable, and very soon he knew not only the bakers but all the duchanchiks too. He got on best with the owner of the chaichana - a slim modestly dressed, fifteen year old Oimyakon, who could talk Russian. Oimyakon's father was an owner of a restaurant in Kabul, and had to be present there, so he put his son in charge of this mini-restaurant at the Salang Pass as learning experience. The boy was allowed to keep all the profits for himself. The Soviet soldiers could not stop being amazed that such a young boy is able to manage such a thriving roadside business.
   From time to time Beslan would take Alexei with him to the chaichana to eat a plate of rice pilaf which had a quality of melting in the mouth every time, and tenderly cooked lamb shashlik. They would drink it all down with aromatic green tea. The chaichana was divided into halves by two massive clay columns: one room was for the locals, there were cheap carpets and straw mats put on low elevations of the floor; the other room was for the Europeans - it had plastic top tables and plastic white chairs there. Alexei liked to sit at a table and watch the Afghan people drinking tea. It was a ritual: pouring brewed tea from a pot into a deep cup, then back again into the pot, and so three times so that the bottom, where the brew is most concentrated, would mix with the top layer. They would then put a few spoons of sugar into the tea and drink it without stirring it, enjoying the bouquet of aromatic smells. Their faces showed such deep satisfaction as if they were drinking some divine magic potion.
   Afghans never hurried anywhere, never fidgeted, never got upset - they did everything with such absolute calm and self-assurance that one had to give them their worth. These were brave, work-loving people.
   By the bridge was a steep downhill on the road to Salang Pass. The road here had a sharp-twisted turn here - it was a place where trucks and jeeps took an unexpected dive under the bridge. Beslan, together with other soldiers, stripped vehicles of their parts. He sold wheels, much in deficit locally, to Oimyakon. With the money from the sell he would organize `belly festivities' for the company: quantities of tender lamb, mandarins, oranges, coca-cola, American cigarettes.
   Late one night Beslan, coming back from Oimyakon climbed into the AC. The rest of the guys were already settling to sleep. Beslan opened one of the armatures to light a cigarette, and slowly said: `Do you know, the captain who was guarding this bridge before us, was killed not from that house on the cliff, but from the second floor of the chaichana? They calmly killed him in cold blood, came down the stairs, got into the car and left.
   `How do you know that?' Alexei got up on his elbow.
   `Interesting, interesting!' exclaimed the machine gunner Sanya.
   Even the mostly silent driver of the AC Misha, who was watching the bridge through the optical sight, turned around and clicking with his tongue, said: `Isn't possible'.
   `Isn't possible!', aping him said Beslan, and after a bit of odd silence said: `Oimyakon just told me how it all happened. I would believe him.'
   `So what did he tell you?' Sanya hurried him.
   Beslan, inhaling his cigarette with joy and therefore slowly, continued, `Together with other officers this captain went one time to Mazari-Sharif. He took a leak there in one of the destroyed mosques, he did it consciously in daylight, lots of people saw it. Muslims do not forgive such things. They were looking for him for more than a month. You can imagine where Mazari-Sharif is, and Salang here, it's a distance of at least a hundred kilometers, and they found him!' Beslan was visibly impressed by the local persistence.
   That's why they shot him under his waist'.
      -- saklya - a house built of clay and mud.
      -- Dushmen - equally `spooks', local gangsters, warlords' small armies.
      -- Adigh - a small fearless folk living in the Caucasian mountains.
      -- MKalashnikov - modernized Kalashnikov
      -- Chaichana - normally a roadside restaurant - lodgings house, although there are some chaichanas in Kabul too.
      -- Duchana -a roadside shop, selling a variety of items.
      -- Kishlak - a village, normally inhabited by one clan.
   Saklya - mud and straw hut, frequent in rural Afghanistan.
   Adigh - a small but fearless nationality, living in the Caucasian Mountains
   Salang Pass

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