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Gorban Valery
The Taste Of War

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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
   Oh war, war...
   Up ahead a crowd is droning. The square is congested, and groups on its approaches are casting burning, rancorous glances at us as well.
   Another protest meeting.
   Well, they can go to Allah. Only a fool would run that gauntlet - they would either put a bullet into you on the sly or climb onto the vehicle and try to cause some sort of trouble. Of course, they might be apprehensive about OMON troops. Our guys are a desperate bunch, and if it comes to a fight, they'll clear the way with grenades. But why assume that liability for no good reason - there are women everywhere.
   Normal heroes always avoid trouble. Too bad, of course, that the side streets are unfamiliar. True, we have less chance of stumbling into an ambush here, since the Chechen fighters generally wait for us on our permanent patrol routes. But then, we might encounter all kinds of other, unanticipated situations. There are even districts where Chechen fighters wander around in the open, with impunity.
   Actually, we would like to get back to home base as quickly as possible. A melon - a huge, long one - is lying on the commander's seat in the cab of our Ural. We made a special trip to the market to buy it. In heat like this, you just can't look at such a marvelous piece of fruit without craving it.
   "Don't worry, melon, we'll get to you shortly. Right, Winnie?"
   The driver, a good-natured, strapping type who could easily pass for Winnie-the-Pooh's brother, nods his head in agreement and involuntarily swallows his saliva. He has spent the entire day behind the wheel, even missing his midday meal. While the others were eating in the GUOSh mess hall, Winnie was off somewhere loading up supplies for the detachment.
   "Snake, look!"
   I put on my "sphere", open the door partway, and take cover behind it. My body armor is hanging on the door; it had better not fall out when Winnie brakes.
   Pooh is just great - it seems as if he never takes his eyes off the road, yet he immediately detected that muddled commotion on our route up ahead.
   On the left, at the edge of a large vacant lot, is a small market. Stalls and simple counters - some laden with spare parts, others with vegetables and various kinds of canned goods - stand on the narrow square. But the people are not trading or milling around the counters. Rather, they are squatting down behind the stalls and hiding beneath the counters. Several are lying on the ground - some motionless, with their hands covering their heads, while others try to crawl on their sides behind mounds of rubbish. Things are even more interesting to the right, where a Uazik is standing, and behind it - two men in camouflage with automatic weapons. They have spotted us but are in no hurry to disappear. In fact, just the opposite is the case - they are waving their hands to stop us. One of them is even pointing towards the market-place as if to say, "Take a look over there!"
   Well, friend, rest assured that we'll look everywhere. Failure to do so here can mean death. What's more, this is an adverse location - it's too open. There are only some toppled concrete panels lying on the right, and to the front - a narrow track with private homes. But we still need to reach them - that is, unless someone begins shooting from there.
   "Prepare to engage - left and right!"
   My boys are wide-awake - they are already in position along the sides of the truck and immediately drop down onto one knee with their weapons at the ready. The vehicle has iron sides and wooden benches - not great protection but at least it will shield you from shrapnel. Our helmets and body armor are not exactly made of paperboard, either. But beyond that, it's everyone to his own fate.
   For my part, I am the commander.
   Without fully knowing the situation, I need to make a decision on how to react within a precious few seconds. It could be that all this is just a show, a diversion to lure us into an ambush. If so, we need to move out to the rear ASAP, before it's too late, covering our retreat with fire. It could even be that friendlies have gotten into trouble and need our help. But the price of an error is a "load 200", or maybe more than one...
   There's the answer!
   Flashes come from the roof of a burnt-out building on the left, beyond the vacant lot, and from the dark recesses that once were its windows.
   Rat-ta-ta-ta-ta - rounds impact like beads against the steel frame of our Ural.
   The chatter of automatic weapons fire reaches us only later.
   "Dismount! Take cover by the vehicle!"
   What's wrong with you studs, couldn't you hear me above the noise? Or did your brains disconnect at the sound of a standard order?
   "Jump, for crying out fucking loud!"
   And another thing! Babadya, who weighs a hundred kilograms in full battle dress (including twenty-five kilos of metal) and carries a machine-gun with two boxes of cartridges, soars like a bird over the side of the truck and hits the ground with a force of five on the Richter scale. At least he didn't break his leg! The rest of the troops also flash through the air like spotted ghosts and melt away at the same spot. It takes only a second or two, and no one is left onboard. Only wary barrels peer out from behind the concrete panels by the curb, pointing toward that treacherous building. But not all of them: Two of my automatic riflemen train their weapons on the unidentified individuals in camouflage, who have hunkered down behind their Uazik and placed their automatic weapons on the ground.
   "We're friendlies, and one of us is wounded!"
   The moment my guys dismount, Winnie steps on the gas and moves our Ural into cover by a private home. The Ural hugs the wall, awaiting my orders.
   Sergeant Chavycha, a combat sniper by specialty and an individual of rare composure, glues himself to the sight of his rifle.
   "Range - three hundred, Commander."
   "Student" is also on the alert, though he is young soldier on his first tour of duty here.
   "On the five-story building, at the rear!"
   There he is! A hunched, black figure flashes along the edge of the roof and takes cover behind its rim.
   Good job, Student!
   "Target: The roof of an industrial building, range - three hundred meters! Grenade launchers - fire! Fifth story, third window on the left, an automatic rifleman, Chavycha - zap him! At the rear, on the roof of the right-hand five-story building. Babadya - take him out!"
   The accuracy of the first volley from the grenade launchers varies. One round falls short, but two burst right on target. No one can explain how each individual determines his own hit with volley fire, yet splashes of black smoke from the second volley envelop the entire roof.
   Chavycha's sniper rifle cracks twice, and the roar of Babadya's machine-gun follows it. Then there is silence. My troops sit behind cover, and all of them comb the sector to the front with their cold, professional eyes. Gone are the days when, out of fear or passion, they would lash out at the whole area in response to a single shot, exhausting their ammunition. The Chechen fighters also keep quiet. Evidently, they understand whom they are dealing with. Maybe they have withdrawn, but maybe they are just waiting for us to let our guard down and cluster in a group by the vehicle...
   While there is a break in the action, we need to inform the detachment that we have run into trouble.
   "Base, this is Snake."
   "Base is up."
   "We are taking fire in the area near the car market, on...some street."
   Who the fuck knows what street! There is a private housing area in front of us, but I can't make out the street signs behind the trees. And severely damaged, blackened five-story buildings.
   "I can't determine my exact position. About a kilometer from you in the direction of the former Blockpost 20. When you approach, we'll mark our position with signal flares."
   "Hold on, brothers! We'll be right there!"
   OK, now we'll attend to our voluntary prisoners.
   Those two have their identification documents in order, but we don't trust paper here. Something else is more important - the left side of their Uazik is riddled with bullet-holes. And two more individuals are in the vehicle. One has a bandaged chest, and the scarlet blot on his dressing is expanding before our eyes. The other is supporting him and ripping open a new bandage pack with his teeth. This is no charade - clearly, they are friendlies. When everyone around speaks fluent Russian, you learn to identify each other "by scent." There are thousands of nuances to use in doing so, not all of which are explainable. But you can tell that these guys are novices from a mile away.
   To judge from the results, the Chechen fighters' sense of smell is working properly too. These guys got off easily; it could have been worse. Now we need to evacuate them on the double.
   "Did you administer promedol? He won't go into shock, will he?"
   "We've done all that! Now he needs to get to the hospital, and fast!"
   "Get behind the wheel! We'll cover you!"
   "Pooh, this is Snake!"
   "I'm up. Go ahead!"
   "Back up and shield the Uazik with the side of your vehicle! Chavycha, keep your eyes peeled, Winnie will be a sitting duck!"
   The Ural begins to roar in the tense silence, lurches out from its cover, and slams on its brakes directly to the left of the UAZ. Well, what are you waiting for! The Uazik joins up, and together they dash off. As Winnie drives, he literally shields these Chechens - now his brothers - with his own body, since he is sitting on the left. His body armor hanging on the door will protect his side, but where can he stick his head - beneath the dashboard? He still has to watch the road, and his eyes are mounted in his head, not on channels that he can raise like a periscope. The helmet on his head? Well, it will deflect the small stuff, like shrapnel fragments and ricochets. But if a sniper should pull the trigger right now, in a fraction of a second his helmet will fly off like a pot full of holes - a pot filled with red and yellow porridge. And the "spirits" have RPGs too, which they employ masterfully. God help Winnie, if we see a "star with a tail" flying out to meet him...
   OK, now they have passed us and reached the cover of the houses!
   The Uazik keeps its speed up and races further. Best of luck, my friend! Have a good life!
   Now Winnie will return to extract our guys.
   "Listen up, we are going to withdraw under cover of the Ural."
   Again, this huge iron beast accelerates in reverse, as if performing in a motor show. For an instant, Winnie's eyes flash in the right-hand mirror. He doesn't look to the left, where death is hovering, but at the troops - so as not to hit anyone rushing toward the vehicle.
   There, they've materialized! Everyone grabs onto of the side of the Ural with his left hand and holds his weapon in his right, as he has been taught. The Ural starts off, covering our people with its side. The troops move out smartly, scarcely touching the ground. In this maneuver, the truck sets the speed, and it's your job to move your legs, stay in step, and not fall under your buddy.
   Finally, we exit this shooting gallery. Now - into the vehicle and away!
   Winnie tosses off his helmet; streams of perspiration are running down his face. You could work up a sweat doing this job!
   I leap onto the running board and take a final look into the rear of the truck. Head count - all here? Move out!
   But then a plaintive cry comes from behind.
   What's that? Why have they all begun waving? Two individuals are kneeling and gesturing for to us to come over - and they are right in the "center ring!" If this whole square were a shooting range, their location would be the bull's-eye on the center target! Yeah, right! If you need us that badly, make your way over here yourselves.
   "Help, we have a wounded man here!"
   True, a third man is lying behind them. His pose had bothered me from the beginning of this whole mess, and now I see why. One of his legs is broken at the shin and sticking out at an unbelievable angle, so that his heel is almost touching his knee. And a dark puddle of blood is creeping out from beneath his leg. This guy has taken a serious hit, and if we don't help him, he'll die within five minutes from pain-induced shock and blood loss. But how to help him?
   "Bring him over here!"
   "We can't - his leg will rip off!"
   What a bloody story! Well, fuck him, why stick out our necks for his sake! Get out of the vehicle, and you'll take a bullet instantly! If the Chechen fighters are still there, they are hawking this guy, waiting for us to take the bait. Yet how can we leave him? He's a human being and still alive - at least, for now.
   Oh, Mom and all my guardian angels, see me through this one!
   "Cover me!"
   I take a deep breath and make the icy plunge...
   Now I know what a surgeon sees and how he feels during a high-risk operation. My procedures are not as complex, but in this predicament... Some Chechens crawl over to help, while others fire a burst over my head, but too high. Why, to scare off their own?
   Our Sniper Rifle responds, and a Kalashnikov adds a short repartee. That is McDuck's work - he has an automatic rifle with an optical sight.
   The wounded man whispers, "Just go away and leave me here."
   "Shut up and breathe evenly."
   A Chechen near me loses his temper and springs to his feet, waving his fist and shouting something in his own language. The air is quiet, his voice is loud, and it can probably be heard a long way off.
   Well, I won't be distracted now. The whole world has contracted into a small spot, as if illuminated by a searchlight beam at night. I keep the leg of the poor devil before my eyes - the leg with the broken shin held on by twisted, torn muscles and stretched skin. Pink bone is jutting out some five centimeters beyond the flesh, and clotted marrow is hanging down. I'll need to straighten everything out and put things together. That means one hell of a lot of pain...
   First step - apply a tourniquet below the knee. Blood gushes from the wound as if it were a syringe. It's a good thing that my sleeves are rolled up; washing them would be pure torture.
   Now - promedol. Twist in the cap on the syringe and perforate the membrane. Then right through his pants and into the muscle. Damn, I botched it! His thigh is in spasm; it's as hard as a rock. I inject half a tube of the drug, and the needle breaks.
   "Give me more promedol!"
   A hand with a small white tube appears at my side. A second injection.
   A second tourniquet surfaces before my eyes. It goes above the knee.
   "Now, hold on!"
   Straighten out the leg, put the bone into flesh, and set the ends together. No, you can't use an ordinary bandage to hold it.
   "I could use a splint!"
   I hear a crack next to me, and strips of wood from a case of beer come into view by my hand. Great! Now, apply sterile bandages to both sides - it's a lacerated wound that extends all the way through. The splints go on top, then more bandages. Yes, we have them!
   The heel of his other leg is shattered. The tendons are sticking out, and the bone is growing pink. Once more - only this time without promedol! The drug has taken effect, and this guy is limp.
   But brawny! He looks to be 40-45 and as hard as nails. Anyone else would either have passed out or screamed his head off as he faded, yet his guy is only gritting his teeth and stammering:
   "Why have they maimed me? I'm not fighting in this war - I just came to buy a carburetor, and they opened up on me with an automatic weapon!"
   As we work, one of my assistants recounts the story to me: "The Uazik came under fire from a house. They didn't understand, just jumped out, then someone shouted: `Drop!' So everyone did, but Umar took too long, and they shot him in the legs. He hadn't done a thing! They just shot him from the roof!"
   It was a familiar story, and you can't blame those guys. It takes a lot of crawling around under fire before you learn not to lash out like a fool in response to every shot, but to work a specific target. Still, sometimes even the most experienced professionals suffer a breakdown. They are on edge. Here in Chechnya, if you want to live, you had better shoot first - you can see the results later. And all sorts of things happen. There are times when, amidst the confusion, you even fire on your own troops. Nearly everyone here has experienced it. This is a place where you take fire from everywhere - from "green areas," houses, and ruins. And gunmen concealed in a market crowd have shot and killed more than one federal trooper. In this case too, someone just gave the signal to the ambush and aimed in on the Uazik... Yet our rulers and purist legislators, having initiated a full-scale war, didn't even declared a state of emergency! They could hardly care less. They're making money, while we here wreck our nerves and spill our blood - ours and that of the other side. So, my friend, don't blame those who pull the trigger. Rather, condemn those who unleashed this carnage.
   Done. His second leg is wrapped. Now I can take a deep breath and raise my eyes. I have long felt that someone was covering me on the left, where the bullets were whizzing, but there was no time to look.
   What I see now touches and warms my heart.
   My brothers!
   No, you won't hear words of affection or gratitude from me, the venomous Snake, perpetually dissatisfied with everything. Waxing lyrical is not something that we do in OMON. But I'll remember your condemned, concentrated faces as long as I live. You deployed on that dusty square and, with weapons bristling, shielded your commander and the wounded Chechen like a living fence in body armor. How much anguish did you have to endure in those minutes?
   Winnie is back again. Having covered our backs from the five-story buildings with his Ural, he is sitting in a wheel well, holding my body armor ready for me.
   Now it really is all over.
   The local police pull up. The crowd grows bold, stands up, and surrounds us, babbling in Russian and Chechen. The wounded man gets put into the patrol car. A young Chechen shakes my hand, hiding his eyes:
   "Thank you."
   "Don't mention it. And don't forget to tell the doctors about the promedol, that we administered a tube and a half. And the time when we applied the tourniquet. That's very important: a tube and a half and the tourniquet."
   "I understand, I won't forget...."
   Umar also raises his head:
   "Thank you."
   "Don't mention it. Good luck and a have a good life. Forgive us, if you can."
   A column from the commandant's office races out to meet us with its weapons bristling. The trucks brake to a stop, and our troops spill out of them, followed by our Siberian brethren and soldiers from the Urals. They slap us on the back and inundate us with questions. Their commander Dushman, a tough, bearded character, grumbles:
   "Real fine! You call for help, but where should we go - to the `trash heap by the road intersection!'"
   Don't gripe, my friend, I can see right though you. I see how glad you are that your friends managed by themselves. And how proud you are that, all as one, your young studs rushed to their aid.
   And again, I experience this heart-warming feeling.
   Listen to me, people: There are still real men in Russia. Not all have sold out for greenbacks, nor have they corrupted their souls.
   Listen to me, Russia: You do still have someone to defend you!
   Both my arms are bloodstained up to elbows, my skin is covered with a scab-like crimson crust, and everything itches beneath it. But the washroom is as dry as the Sahara - no water at all.
   Oh, will I ever give it to that orderly!
   And there he is, gawking at the melon and salivating.
   "Commander, when can we line up for it?"
   "Once I wash my hands. But your entire detail can count on pulling a second 24-hour period of duty! You guys managed to spot the melon right away, but the fact that the wash stands are empty - that you don't fucking notice!"
   "But the water just ran out, Snake! The patrols have been going to chow, and the tank is empty."
   "Well, pretty boy, you've found a real fine excuse! Now, take the neighbors' bucket and tell the first sergeant that you two will be running at full steam as a bucket brigade until you haul enough water here for the whole detachment! Got it? Now, make like a fly!"
   The orderly dashes off, and the commandant hurriedly bounds down the stairs in the opposite direction. He's not coming for us, is he?
   "Snake, the neighbors have problems at their blockpost! Allegedly, some civilians have been shot and killed. The city commandant has issued an order to take about twenty men and sort things out on the scene before personnel from the prosecutor's office and the local police arrive."
   "What, with a whole battalion the neighbors can't respond themselves?! It's their blockpost, let them handle it. Besides, they have all the equipment."
   "We've been ordered to send police to handle it - to ensure objectivity. And to guard the scene of the incident until the prosecutor's personnel arrive."
   "Oh, how I hate getting involved in this shit... Can't someone else be sent? You can count all of the people I have on base on the fingers of one hand."
   "Equipment and personnel are available. Take a BTR, and our neighbor will provide a second one. I want you and your men to go, and you take charge of this composite group! The prosecutor's `inquisition' is a secondary matter. First, you need to rescue those guys at the blockpost. A crowd has shown up from who-knows-where. Now go, get a move on!"
   Well, screw it! The pleasure has vanished anyway.
   "Cat, take the melon to officers' spaces. But warn anyone who returns before me that if he eats it, I'll cut him to pieces rather than the melon!"
   There, I frightened them! Naturally, they'll leave a slice for their commander. But for Winnie and the other men who did back flips together with me today? If not, those guys will be angry.
   I see the same doubt reflected in the eyes of Pioneer, the platoon leader.
   "Snake, let's finish off the melon while the group loads up."
   And in fact, who the hell knows how this mission will turn out? This could be the last melon we'll ever get to enjoy in this life. And there it is, glistening like amber. Its cool smell makes your mouth water.
   "Come and get it, guys!" Someone sticks a knife into its side.
   Someone passes the top half up to those seated on the BTR, and the bottom half gets slashed to pieces immediately.
   The troops from the reserve group bound out of their doors. Each one grabs a slice on the move - the way he does his automatic weapon during an alert - and clambers onto the BTR. As for the automatic weapons themselves, the troops have long been clutching them. They even sleep in the embrace of their Kalashnikovs.
   "It's a great melon, Snake!"
   "You had better hurry and chow down - when we dismount, you'll be eating dust!"
   It really is a good one, soft and aromatic. The sweet juice runs down my arms, washing pink stripes in the bloody crust. Damn it, we bounce over a pothole, and the piece of melon in my hand knocks against my other, bloodstained arm. The edge of the fruit turns watermelon red. But you can't let it go to waste, can you - I just hope my Chechen "blood brother" doesn't have AIDS.
   The melon has a salty aftertaste...
   Hey, Snake, do you remember that incident?
   Yes, way back then, in the yard. How old were you - thirteen or fourteen?
   Do you remember how, for no reason at all, that tall, lanky moron nicknamed Fascist whacked a passing cat with a stone, then grabbed her by the rear paws and smashed her head against a tree? Do you remember how repulsive it was that a sticky drop of cat's blood hit your cheek and spread out in a caustic swath! And how, after scrubbing all the skin off your cheek in a vain attempt to wash away that nauseating blot, you retched for days on end, just recalling what had happened...
   Oh, war, war!
   I just wonder what's happening out there at Blockpost 9.
   x x x
   OMON - elite special purpose forces within the Russian police
   Ural-4320 - a five-ton truck widely used by Russian military and paramilitary forces
   GUOSh - the Main Directorate of the Operational Staff
   A round titanium helmet worn by Russian special purpose forces
   UAZ-469 - a Russian jeep
   Russian codename for a KIA (killed in action)
   The GP-25 "Kostyor" (Campfire) 40-mm underbarrel grenade launcher attaches to the underside of Kalashnikov automatic rifles and can fire fragmentation rounds (grenades) out to a range of 400 meters.
   A narcotic antishock medication that Russian forces carry in their individual first-aid pouches
   "Spirits" - one of various Russian nicknames for the Chechen fighters. A holdover from the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the term initially referred to the mujahideen guerrillas in that conflict.
   RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, multipurpose weapons extensively used in Chechnya (and earlier, in Afghanistan) against a variety of targets, including vehicles, structures, personnel, and even helicopters.
   In 1995-1996, during the first Chechen campaign, no state of emergency was declared in Chechnya. Thus, personnel in the group of federal forces were formally required to operate as if they were performing routine patrols in Moscow, Ryazan' or other's peaceful city's. Author's note.
   15 Dushman - Russian military slang for a mujahideen.
   The Russian term actually used here, razborki, is criminal slang for a showdown between gangs, indicating the animosity that exists between the prosecutor's office and the federal forces in Chechnya.

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