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Gorban Valery
No One Wanted to Kill

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   I would like to express my gratitude to Elena Tchirkova and Lawrence G. Kelley for their assistance in translating my stories.
   Around two hundred meters from the commandant's office an old woman and a small girl walked through a wasteland scarred with ditches and littered with smashed bricks. The old woman, dressed in typically dark village clothing, pushed a wheelbarrow filled with rubble. The five year-old girl, who stood scarcely taller than the wheelbarrow itself, skipped merrily alongside. She could hardly pass by a single flower that caught her fancy without stooping over to pick it.
   "Oh, look, Grandma, a string!"
   The weak-sighted old woman bent over sideways, trying to make out what her granddaughter had seen, and at just that moment heard someone shouting from the guard posts outside the commandant's office, nearly unseen behind mounds of trash.
   "Hey! And just where do you thing you're going? Go back!"
   "Screw you!" grumbled the old woman. "What do you want me to do - cart this stuff back home? Right, and now..." With that, she firmly shoved her barrow forward and tilted it on its side to quickly dump the load.
   Something banged. A strange dark object bounced up from the grass, struck the side of the wheelbarrow, careened away, and exploded in a cloud of black, fiery smoke. An OZM fragmentation mine that had long awaited its appointed hour hurled thousands of steel fragments in all directions.
   The old woman, flattened by the devastating blow to her legs, emitted a piercing scream and crawled toward her granddaughter, leaving a bloody trail in her wake. The girl lay on her back, gasping and gurgling pink bubbles.
   Men from the commandant's office ran over via a circuitous route, skirting the minefield. At a distance of about a hundred meters from the wounded, some of the troops dispersed to either side. Dropping to one knee behind various forms of cover and shouldering their automatic weapons, they kept a tense lookout over the nearby "green area" and covered the two men who went further. The latter started off almost on hands and knees, intently peering into the grass and probing suspicious sectors with rods. One of the men made his way silently, while the other, without dropping his guard for so much as a second, muttered to himself:
   "That's just what we needed - the chance to crawl right into the middle of a minefield! Thanks a lot, Granny, you lousy saboteur! Sanya, Stop!"
   His partner froze, hugging the ground. Meanwhile, the talkative trooper pulled out an imposing knife, removed some turf with precise, circular cuts, and carefully laid it to the side. He then loosened the soil around an unknown object and, inserting his fingers beneath it, smoothly extracted a brown, ebonite-like cylinder from the ground.
   "Apparently no surprises this time..."
   "Don't mess with the rest of them, there's no time to screw around. Just mark them with flags so we don't trip them on the way out."
   It took the men about ten minutes to reach the old woman and the girl.
   "They're alive and still breathing! Look - here's shrapnel from the mine!"
   "At this range it should have cut them to pieces!"
   "The mine may have stuck rather than bouncing up the way it should ... Or the wheelbarrow may have shielded them - see, it looks like a sieve."
   While talking, the combat engineers performed a cursory examination of the wounded. One of them quickly administered promedol to the old woman and applied tourniquets to her shins. The other picked up the girl.
   "She took hits in the throat and the right side of the chest. And a few in the legs too. What do you think, can we give her promedol?"
   "Don't know, Vovka. Just rush her to the doctor, he'll sort things out!"
   Vovka dashed through the corridor hastily cut across the minefield, zigzagging gracefully between the marker flags like a downhill skier. He knew that in their hurry, he and Sanya could easily have "overlooked" more than one hideous surprise. But Vovka, nicknamed "Daddy-Well-Done", was running his own race, knowing that his five-year-old sweetheart Natashka and one-week-old twins - who had not yet even seen their father - were waiting for him at home, far away. He hurtled across the killing field, holding the girl to his breast, panting and whispering in her ear:
   "Hang on, Little One, hang on! Don't be afraid! I'm your uncle - and a good one! In just a minute our Doctor Aibolit will check you over and give you some candy. It won't hurt - just hang on, Little One!"
   Sanya lugged the old woman. He hoisted her onto his back, carefully watching beneath his feet and silently listening to her wail as he went.
   "She said, `Grandma, there's a string!' Oh, what an old fool I am! What have I done to deserve such a punishment? Dear God, may I die a terrible death, but please save our little darling!"
   A Ural truck and the escorts' BTR were waiting for them on the road, across from the site of the incident. Next to those vehicles stood "Chopin" - the OMON commander - and the doctor from the commandant's office, whom everyone respectfully called "Doc" to his face but "Aibolit" behind his back. The commander's long, sensitive fingers, which he held on the forward stock of his automatic rifle as if it were the neck of a guitar, left no doubt about the source of his personal callsign, which had long since become his second name. The OMON troops, having taken cover behind the armor of the BTR and using their field glasses to observe first the "green area" and then the wounded, were quietly discussing the event:
   "Why the hell did she crawl out there? Look, one "Mines!" warning sign is posted there, and out further is another..."
   "She must be 100 years old, if a day, and probably can't see a damned thing, the blind old fool."
   "Shit, those combat engineers are walking one very fine line! After all, who hasn't planted mines out there - the Chechens, our guys - yet there are no sketches or maps! The Devil himself couldn't figure things out!"
   "Still, you gotta try to rescue them. Look, the old woman is still moving, sort-of."
   "Fuck the old hag! But it looks like the youngster has had it. No, wait, she moved her hand! See how Daddy-Well-Done is rushing - she must still be alive!"
   The Doc rushed out to meet Vovka and carefully took hold of the girl.
   While Doc attended to her, Sanya arrived carrying the old woman. OMON troops, together with Chechen women who had run out from the house next-door, bandaged her.
   "Ask them where the little girl's parents are. And tell them to find 'em quickly," Chopin barked over his shoulder while assisting the doctor.
   "She only has her grandmother," replied a hefty OMON trooper of around forty with the classic look of a company first sergeant. His fingers trembled as he attempted to light a cigarette. "The women say her father was killed while fighting in the anti-Dudayev opposition. Dudayev's security forces killed her mother too. They hauled her off in broad daylight, raped and shot her! But the entire street teamed up to save the girl and the old woman, hiding them."
   "We need to get to the hospital, and fast! The little girl's trachea has been nicked. It's not too serious, but there may be pulmonary bleeding," Aibolit told the commander, as he finished bandaging the girl.
   Chopin nodded silently. The driver, who had been squatting by one of the wheels, darted headlong into the cab of the idling Ural while two OMON troopers, having thrown open the vehicle's rear gate earlier, jumped aboard and prepared to receive the old woman. But after an instant of hesitation, Chopin issued a staccato order:
   "Escorts - onto the Ural. Put the old woman on top of the BTR. Doc and the girl - get into it. The vibration is less."
   Aibolit nodded in agreement, carefully lifted the girl, and crawled in through the side hatch. Once inside, he covered the seat with field jackets, placed the little girl on them, and dropped to his knees, intently observing his young patient and keeping his fingers on the pulse of her small, thin hand.
   In his long years as a physician, Doc had seen a great deal of blood - particularly in the last few months. But on that day, he just felt agitated and knew that he was not alone. Aibolit noticed how unusually irritable and upset even these exceptionally experienced men around him were. And that their commander's lips were trembling - a commander who had clearly "been around" and routinely looked so bold and energetic.
   Chopin was sitting on the porch of a two-story field hospital. He had taken off his "sphere," which was black with sweat inside, and placed his automatic weapon on his knees. He fixed his eyes on something distant above the heads of his men, but without really seeing it. Squatting in a group by the BTR, his troops talked in hushed voices and passed around the last cigarette from a pack that they had crumpled and thrown away.
   A young, 25-year old nurse came out onto the porch and sat down next to him. She was astonishingly attractive but had a tired, sullen face.
   "The grandmother didn't make it. Heart failure. But the girl's all right, and she won't even have noticeable scars."
   "That's good - a little girl shouldn't have scars, especially on her chest. It doesn't really matter while she is small, but she could develop complexes when she grows up," said Chopin, nodding his head knowingly.
   Suddenly the nurse tensed up and turned her face away, straining to hide her tears. But they poured forth regardless, and she abruptly rose and ran back inside.
   Confused, Chopin turned to the young medic smoking beside him, who had heard the conversation: "What's wrong with her? Is she new? Hasn't she gotten used to things yet?"
   "Oh, damn, was that ever a direct hit!" he drawled out with a mixture of reproach and sympathy. "In January, she herself was wounded while pulling troops out from under a mortar barrage. Cut her stomach all apart. They sewed her up, all right, but what kind of plastic surgery can you do in a cellar by candlelight? So now she can't have children. Her husband found out and left her. But then Mikhalych, our chief doctor, got rid of him, saying: `I can find other physicians, but they should be human beings too.' And imagine, her husband served right here in this hospital," the outgoing informant explained, adding with gusto "the j-jerk!"
   Chopin got up and nearly raced after the nurse, who was standing by the window at the end of the corridor. She was no longer crying but quivered spasmodically from repressed sobs.
   Chopin clutched her to his breast and stroked her hair, saying, "I'm sorry, but I didn't know."
   "It's okay. Have you come for something?" She made an attempt to smile and wiped away what remained of her tears with the palm of her hand. "It's just that I'll never get used to the fact that I'm not really a woman anymore... just a sort-of gutted flounder. Something for temporary gratification."
   Chopin suddenly grew angry. "Don't be a fool! When was the last time that you looked at yourself in the mirror? Someday you'll meet someone - maybe even more than one "someone" - who will just kiss your feet! And if he's a real man, not some shit like your ex, he'll adore your scars. As for children, there is your Goddaughter - an orphan - along with half a town of kids just like her. Gather them together and give them love. They'll be more precious to you than even your own could be."
   Following on the heels of the standard expressions of consolation that she had come to despise, this unexpected dressing down affected the nurse in an equally unexpected way. Suddenly, she smiled naturally and openly at Chopin, placed her hands on his shoulders, and gazed into his eyes.
   "Do you really think I still look alright?"
   "You look lovely. And you're a real human being. The guys who survive this war will be searching for women just like you. They'll beat a path to your door with fire and signal flares - even in the daytime!"
   Aibolit went into the corridor, smiled knowingly, and squinted approvingly at the two, as if to say, "What a great guy the commander is - he certainly knows our personnel." But meeting Chopin's cold, restrained stare, he quickly pretended to be preoccupied and headed for the exit.
   "Well, it's time for me to go. Take care of yourself. And don't be such a bonehead!"
   "You take care of yourself too, my friend. There aren't that many real men around, either." She kissed him tenderly, as if he were a close relative whom she had known for a thousand years.
   Upon returning to the commandant's office, Chopin ordered his driver to take him to the limits of the surrounding guard posts. He spoke briefly with those in charge of the work details, then got onto the running board of the Ural and glanced around. The combat engineers had already stretched a wire obstacle along the edge of the minefield. The obstacle consisted of lengths of telephone cable and sections of critically scarce barbed wire, and it bore fresh warning signs in Russian and Chechen that fluttered in the wind. Daddy-Well-Done and his mates were digging in the field beyond the obstacle, emplacing the new mines that they had just received the day before.
   Chopin rubbed his temples with his hands and stood there briefly. Then he said, "Let's go!" and slammed the door.
   As if to answer him, mortars began to thump somewhere beyond Grozniy's air-port, filling the air with their deadly rustle and nauseating, heart-rending wail.
   x x x
   1 OZM - an antipersonnel fragmentation mine of the "bouncing Betty" type
   2 Nickname for Alexander
   3 A narcotic antishock medication that Russian forces carry in their individual first-aid pouches
   4 Nickname for Vladimir
   5 Character in a well-known Russian children's film
   6 Ural-4320 - a five-ton truck widely used by Russian military and paramilitary forces
   7 BTR-80 - an armored personnel carrier
   8 OMON - elite special purpose forces within the Russian police
   9 Dzhokhar Dudayev, the leader of the Chechen separatists until his death in 1996
   10 A round titanium helmet worn by Russian special purpose forces Chopin's colorful Russian epithet literally means "ruptured condom."

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