When the First Chechen War began in 1994 Mikail Eldin was a young arts journalist hunting for a story. By the time of the second Russian invasion five years later, he was a battle-scarred reporter who had survived firefights and brutal torture at the hands of Russian troops. In this extract from his memoir, The Sky Wept Fire, Mikail recounts a long march he and his comrades made in the depths of winter, fleeing the Russian troops and the besieged city of Grozny that was once their home.
The forest. The winter forest is extraordinarily beautiful. And sad. It is like an enchanted realm, punished with silence for the polyphonic frenzy of spring and summer’s feathered songsters. Only the whisper of the wind and the savage whistling of blizzards disturb the silence. On the long winter nights you can listen to the bewitching, majestic howl of the wolf – luring you on a reckless journey, as the Pied Piper’s flute lured the children of Hamelin – which immediately makes the piteous, cowardly yelp of the jackal break off. Amid the deep black of the treetops, the scarlet berries of the bitter guelder rose flash like the bright flames of a bonfire in the gloom of night. The guelder rose is a symbol of life. Such is the winter forest from afar. Once you find yourself within the forest, you understand the quiet is merely soundlessness. The winter forest lives a life that, though not as noisy as in spring and summer, is nevertheless intense. The life of the winter forest is the wisdom of an old man who has realized the vanity of bustle. Wisdom loves quiet and contemplation. The soundlessness of the winter forest is not silence; it is the hush of wisdom contemplating. That is how you remember your forest. The one you grew up close to, time and again returning to its mysterious world. You loved your magical forest. Loved its noise and soundlessness, the songs of its feathery residents and the howl of the wolf. It was truly beautiful. But this forest is not like that. It is terribly uncomfortable and gloomy. And scarlet fires of bitter guelder rose do not burn here.
This winter and this forest will leave you with a shiver in your heart, which will appear whenever you see a winter forest, even in pictures. You have already been in the forest for two days. The snow is waist deep. It is a mountain forest, which means that, besides the snow, you will have to tackle the ascent of many mountain passes. There is no food. A trek meant to last a day goes on for ever. Your guides have lost their way. You cannot sleep. Sleep means death. Those who fall asleep in this forest will never wake up. You can rest for no more than three minutes. The risk of falling asleep is great. You cannot light a fire. They serve as excellent targets for enemy gunners and pilots. You have to wade through countless rivers and streams. That’s why your feet are wet. It’s pointless drying them.
You have walked without rest for two nights and a day. The second night is ending. You are very tired. While you were idle in the encirclement, like all your comrades, you grew unused to long treks without rest. The brief nocturnal battle-march, fighting your way out of the city, over the past few days has not done much to return you to form. You are racked with hunger. But you are tormented still more by lack of sleep and rest. So far you have refrained from eating snow, realizing what dangers that brings, Opening your eyes, you see the face of your friend leaning over you. You try to get up. But your arms and legs do not obey you.but you’re not sure how much longer you can hold out. You have stopped to rest. Along with the commander of the Almaz unit and several other commanders, you seek out all the fighters who have fallen asleep in the forest and round them up. Here is a good place. It is a small hunting lodge. You lay down the wounded in it. You can also light fires briefly. In front of a fire your chances of not freezing rise sharply. At last your comrades set about lighting a fire and you go off to sit down and rest. For precisely two minutes. You cannot risk any longer. But you fall asleep almost at once. . . You come to your senses with somebody shaking you hard. Opening your eyes, you see the face of your friend leaning over you. You try to get up. But your arms and legs do not obey you. It’s as though they have gone. In their place is a heavy, unfeeling weight. You realize they are frozen, yet for some reason you accept this fact calmly. It seems fatigue has blunted your survival instinct – a dangerous symptom. But even with your survival instinct functioning, what can you do if your body has failed?
‘I think I’ve had it. You’ll have to walk on without me,’ you suggest to your comrade. ‘I can’t move my arms or legs. They’ve given up on me.’
‘I can’t leave without you! Up!’ he orders. Then he grabs you and puts you on your feet.
‘Everything’s all right now. . . In an upright position I won’t die of frostbite. . . I’ve got to move. . . Look, I have nine lives like a cat. . .’ you try to joke, making clumsy attempts at movement. With the help of your rescuer at last you start moving and for a long time you walk round the fire, until you are satisfied that the blood has started flowing to all your organs. You survive not because you are strong. You’ve simply decided not to fight your survival instinct. It is prompting you about what to do. There are times when the only correct At dawn, when the campfires have been smothered, you set out once more. answer is to surrender to the power of this mighty instinct, although for most of your life it has to be kept under control. And this is just such a situation. Then you manage to get half an hour’s sleep in front of the fire. At dawn, when the campfires have been smothered, you set out once more. Your camera batteries have almost run out, yet you manage to film a little of the trek. On the third night your resolve breaks and, along with the others, you start to eat snow. Many of the fighters have been having visions since the second night. Some see food, some see a freshly made bed, some see horrifying chimeras and wild beasts. Everyone who sees hallucinations reacts vividly to them, but happily there are always others on hand who do not see them at that moment, and they bring the raving back to their senses with shakes and slaps.
Time behaves oddly. Sometimes it freezes for several years, sometimes it rushes at the speed of light. . . A moment ago you were walking surrounded by beech forest up to your waist in snow. But now you are in a city! This city is astonishingly beautiful! You have never seen anything like it, not in pictures, not at the cinema. Nowhere, ever. The city has no people, no cars, no factory chimneys or advertising billboards in sight. It is empty, but so clean and beautiful that somewhere deep within your heart arises a dim unease and anguish. Your mind tries to answer the question of how you came to be in this warm spring city bathed in sunlight. Have I really been out of it for so long that I failed to notice how we got here? you ask yourself. Have we taken this city? But where’s it located? There isn’t any place like this anywhere, is there? You cannot find any answers. You would dearly love to stay in this city, but an unknown force is pushing you away from it. ‘What city are we in?’ you shout to your comrades.
‘We aren’t in a city, we’re in the forest. It’s a hallucination. Wake up!’ They shake you. While you saw the city, your eyes weren’t closed, you are absolutely sure of this. But now the city vanishes and in its place appears a winter forest. You are distressed at losing it, You will search subconsciously for a witness with whom you can talk about the city. You will search for a friend among the living and you will find none. but you have to keep moving so as not to be left here. The city will appear before you often, very often, enticing you again and again. And often you will ask about it. This heavenly city will never leave your memory. Later you will ask all those who survived the trek about their visions, hoping to find at least someone who saw your city. You will search subconsciously for a witness with whom you can talk about the city. You will search for a friend among the living and you will find none. You will turn out to be the only person who saw this strange and beautiful city.
The fourth, last and most trying day of the trek through the mountain forests. You are enfeebled not by hunger; war has taught you to endure hunger. You are enfeebled by lack of sleep. And you are still eating plenty of snow. This saps your energy more than the hunger and physical exhaustion. The bland, distilled snow water goes straight through your body, washing away any minerals that remain. As a result, you become dehydrated and lose energy more rapidly. But a weakened body is no reason to give up the struggle for life. And so you obstinately walk on ahead. Sometimes shots from grenade launchers and assault rifles are heard: these are the men firing at the enemy seen in their hallucinations. You are on the mountain pass. The nearest water is a fair way off. You see a fighter lying in the snow; he is raving.
‘Brothers, let me have a sip of water… I will make it, I’m alive. . .’ he murmurs. Some of his comrades are motionless nearby. You lean over him with your flask.
‘It won’t help – we’ve given him water. He’s frozen. He doesn’t need water. Well, he doesn’t need anything now,’ they say.
‘Do you know him? Can you inform his family?’ you ask.
‘Yes, if we survive ourselves. He’s from our unit. Thank you.’ The strangers show you gratitude, although it is unclear what for. And the fighter, a mere kid, dies before your eyes.
Your comrade, having spotted more passes beyond this one, has given up. He sits down in the snow and says, ‘That’s it! I can’t go any further. I’m staying here. I don’t have the energy to move – you go on ahead.’ You look at his face; it is as white as a corpse. From experience you know a face like that tells of extreme wasting of the body. You read in his eyes a strange remoteness. As though he is no longer here, but not yet there… On his face is the stamp of a person on the path to eternity. You cannot allow him to die so easily. He is your close and loyal friend, who time after time has rescued you from certain death. You look him in the eyes. You hold his gaze so that he cannot glance at eternity: ‘Look at my eyes! Can you see me and hear me?’ Receiving an affirmative answer, you continue: ‘You know I don’t have the strength to carry you. I’m on my last legs myself …’ He nods. ‘I cannot stay here and die with you. I am a warrior, not a suicide case.’ In vain you try to provoke a reaction with this taunt. ‘I won’t leave you to die here. I’ve left behind more than a lifetime’s worth of fatally wounded men. The only way I’m leaving is if I’m certain of your death. I will only leave here if I’m sure that I’m leaving behind my friend’s corpse, not a man who’s alive and will slowly die while watching me walk away. So if you cannot walk on right now by yourself, I’ll kill you and go. At least you’ll have fallen as a warrior. I won’t allow you to die like some starving dog. If I know that you’ve fallen as a warrior, even if by my own hands, I’ll leave at peace with myself. If you get up and walk on, have no doubt we’ll make it out of here alive, even if it is against your will. I give you my word I’ll keep one of these promises, whichever you decide on.’ With this you load a cartridge into the chamber and point the barrel of your assault rifle at him. He knows you would never say anything like this unless you meant it. You have known each other for too long. Looking you in the eye intently for several moments, he gets up silently and walks ahead. And you will not leave his side until you arrive, alive, at your destination.
The above is an excerpt from The Sky Wept Fire, Granta books.
Image courtesy of LoreBonosi