Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait

 

In 1986 I had decided not to write about war again. For a long time after I finished my book War’s Unwomanly Face I couldn’t bear to see a child with a bleeding nose. I suppose each of us has a measure of protection against pain; mine had been exhausted.

Two events changed my mind.

I was driving out to a village and I gave a lift to a schoolgirl. She had been shopping in Minsk, and carried a bag with chickens’ heads sticking out. In the village we were met by her mother, who was standing crying at the garden gate. The girl ran to her.

The mother had received a letter from her son Andrey. The letter was sent from Afghanistan. They’ll bring him back like they brought Fyodorina’s Ivan,’ she said, ‘and dig a grave to put him in. Look what he writes. “Mum, isn’t it great! I’m a paratrooper… ”’

And then there was another incident. An army officer with a suitcase was sitting in the half-empty waiting-room of the bus station in town. Next to him a thin boy with a crew-cut was digging in the pot of a rubber plant with a table fork. Two country women sat down beside the men and asked who they were. The officer said he was escorting home a private soldier who had gone mad. ‘He’s been digging all the way from Kabul with whatever he can get his hands on, a spade, a fork, a stick, a fountain pen.’ The boy looked up. His pupils were so dilated they seemed to take up the whole of his eyes.

And at that time people continued to talk and write about our internationalist duty, the interests of state, our southern borders. The censors saw to it that reports of the war did not mention our fatalities. There were only rumours of notifications of death arriving at rural huts and of regulation zinc coffins delivered to prefabricated flats. I had not meant to write about war again, but I found myself in the middle of one.

For the next three years I spoke to many people at home and in Afghanistan. Every confession was like a portrait. They are not documents; they are images. I was trying to present a history of feelings, not the history of the war itself. What were people thinking? What made them happy? What were their fears? What stayed in their memory?

The war in Afghanistan lasted twice as long as the Second World War, but we know only so much as it is safe for us to know. It is no longer a secret that every year for ten years, 100,000 Soviet troops went to fight in Afghanistan. Officially, 50,000 men were killed or wounded. You can believe that figure if you will. Everybody knows what we are like at sums. We haven’t yet finished counting and burying all those who died in the Second World War.

In what follows, I haven’t given people’s real names. Some asked for the confidentiality of the confessional, others I don’t feel I can expose to a witch-hunt. We are still so close to the war that there is nowhere for anyone to hide.

One night I was asleep when my telephone rang.

‘Listen,’ he began, without identifying himself, ‘I’ve read your garbage. If you so much as print another word… ’

‘Who are you?’

‘One of the guys you’re writing about. God, I hate pacifists! Have you ever been up a mountain in full marching kit? Been in an armoured personnel carrier when the temperature’s seventy centigrade? Like hell you have. Fuck off! It’s ours! It’s got sod all to do with you.’

I asked him again who he was.

‘Leave it out, will you! My best friend–like a brother he was–and I brought him back from a raid in a cellophane bag. He’d been flayed, his head had been severed, his arms, his legs, his dick all cut off … He could have written about it, but you can’t. The truth was in that cellophane sack. Fuck the lot of you!’ He hung up; the sound in the receiver was like an explosion.

He might have been my most important witness.

A Wife

‘Don’t worry if you don’t get any letters,’ he wrote. ‘Carry on writing to the old address.’ Then nothing for two months. I never dreamed he was in Afghanistan. I was getting suitcases ready to go to see him at his new posting.

He didn’t write about being in a war. Said he was getting a sun-tan and going fishing. He sent a photo of himself sitting on a donkey with his knees on the sand. It wasn’t until he came home on leave that I knew he was in a war. He never used to spoil our daughter, never showed any fatherly feelings, perhaps because she was small. Now he came back and sat for hours looking at her, and his eyes were so sad it was frightening. In the mornings he’d get up and take her to the kindergarten; he liked carrying her on his shoulders. He’d collect her in the evening. Occasionally we went to the theatre or the cinema, but all he really wanted to do was to stay at home.

He couldn’t get enough loving. I’d be getting ready to go to work or getting his dinner in the kitchen, and he even grudged that time. ‘Sit over here with me. Forget cutlets today. Ask for a holiday while I’m home.’ When it was time for him to get the plane he missed it deliberately so we would have an extra two days. The last night he was so good I was in tears. I was crying, and he was saying nothing, just looking and looking at me. Then he said, ‘Tamara, if you ever have another man, don’t forget this.’

I said, ‘Don’t talk soft! They’ll never kill you. I love you too much for them to be able to.’

He laughed. ‘Forget it. I’m a big lad.’

We talked of having more children, but he said he didn’t want any more now. ‘When I come back you can have another. How would you manage with them on your own?’

When he was away I got used to the waiting, but if I saw a funeral car in town I’d feel ill, I’d want to scream and cry. I’d run home, the icon would be hanging there, and I’d get down on my knees and pray, ‘Save him for me, God! Don’t let him die.’

I went to the cinema the day it happened. I sat there looking at the screen and seeing nothing. I was really jumpy. It was as if I was keeping someone waiting or there was somewhere I had to go. I barely stuck it out to the end of the programme. Looking back, I think that it must have been during the battle.

It was a week before I heard anything. All of that week I’d start reading a book and put it down. I even got two letters from him. Usually I’d have been really pleased–I’d have kissed them–but this time they just made me wonder how much longer I was going to have to wait for him.

The ninth day after he was killed a telegram arrived at five in the morning. They just shoved it under the door. It was from his parents: ‘Come over. Petya dead.’ I screamed so much that it woke the baby. I had no idea what I should do or where I should go. I hadn’t got any money. I wrapped our daughter in a red blanket and went out to the road. It was too early for the buses, but a taxi stopped.

‘I need to go to the airport,’ I told the taxi-driver.

He told me he was going off duty and shut the car door.

‘My husband has been killed in Afghanistan.’

He got out without saying anything, and helped me in. We drove to the house of a friend of mine and she lent me some money. At the airport they said there were no tickets for Moscow, and I was scared to take the telegram out of my bag to show them. Perhaps it was all a mistake. I kept telling myself if I could just carry on thinking he was alive, he would be. I was crying and everybody was looking at me. They put me on a freight plane taking a cargo of sweetcorn to Moscow, from there I got a connection to Minsk. I was still 150 kilometres from Starye Dorogi where Petya’s parents lived. None of the taxi drivers wanted to drive there even though I begged and begged. I finally got to Starye Dorogi at two o’clock in the morning.

‘Perhaps it isn’t true?’

‘It’s true, Tamara, it’s true.’

In the morning we went to the Military Commissariat. They were very formal. ‘You will be notified when it arrives.’ We waited for two more days before we rang the Provincial Military Commissariat at Minsk. They told us that it would be best if we came to collect my husband’s body ourselves. When we got to Minsk, the official told us that the coffin had been sent on to Baranovichi by mistake. Baranovichi was another 100 kilometres and when we got to the airport there it was after working hours and there was nobody about, except for a night watchman in his hut.

‘We’ve come to collect… ’

‘Over there,’ he pointed over to a far corner. ‘See if that box is yours. If it is, you can take it.’

There was a filthy box standing outside with ‘Senior Lieutenant Dovnar’ scrawled on it in chalk. I tore a board away from where the window should be in a coffin. His face was in one piece, but he was lying in there unshaven, and nobody had washed him. The coffin was too small and there was a bad smell. I couldn’t lean down to kiss him. That’s how they gave my husband back to me. I got down on my knees before what had once been the dearest thing in the world to me.

His was the first coffin to come back to my home town, Yazyl. I still remember the horror in people’s eyes. When we buried him, before they could draw up the bands with which they had been lowering him, there was a terrible crash of thunder. I remember the hail crunching under foot like white gravel.

I didn’t talk much to his father and mother. I thought his mother hated me because I was alive, and he was dead. She thought I would remarry. Now, she says, ‘Tamara, you ought to get married again,’ but then I was afraid to meet her eye. Petya’s father almost went out of his mind. ‘The bastards! To put a boy like that in his grave! They murdered him!’ My mother-in-law and I tried to tell him they’d given Petya a medal, that we needed Afghanistan to defend our southern borders, but he didn’t want to hear. The bastards! They murdered him!’

The worst part was later, when I had to get used to the thought that there was nothing, no one for me to wait for any more. I would wake up terrified, drenched with sweat, thinking Petya would come back, and not know where his wife and child live now. All I had left were memories of good times.

The day we met, we danced together. The second day we went for a stroll in the park, and the next day he proposed. I was already engaged and I told him the application was lying in the registry office. He went away and wrote to me in huge letters which took up the whole page: ‘Aaaaargh!’

We got married in the winter, in my village. It was funny and rushed. At Epiphany, when people guess their fortunes, I’d had a dream which I told my mother about in the morning. ‘Mum, I saw this really good-looking boy. He was standing on a bridge, calling me. He was wearing a soldier’s uniform, but when I came towards him he began to go away until he disappeared completely.’

‘Don’t marry a soldier. You’ll be left on your own,’ my mother told me.

Petya had two days’ leave. ‘Let’s go to the Registry Office,’ he said, even before he’d come in the door.

They took one look at us in the Village Soviet and said, ‘Why wait two months. Go and get the brandy. We’ll do the paperwork.’ An hour later we were husband and wife. There was a snowstorm raging outside.

‘Where’s the taxi for your new wife, bridegroom?’

‘Hang on!’ He went out and stopped a Belarus tractor for me.

For years I dreamed of us getting on that tractor, driving along in the snow.

The last time Petya came home on leave the flat was locked. He hadn’t sent a telegram to warn me that he was coming, and I had gone to my friend’s flat to celebrate her birthday. When he arrived at the door and heard the music and saw everyone happy and laughing, he sat down on a stool and cried. Every day of his leave he came to work to meet me. He told me, ‘When I’m coming to see you at work my knees shake as if we had a date.’ I remember we went swimming together one day. We sat on the bank and built a fire. He looked at me and said, ‘You can’t imagine how much I don’t want to die for someone else’s country.’

I was twenty-four when he died. In those first months I would have married any man who wanted me. I didn’t know what to do. Life was going on all around me the same as before. One person was building a dacha, one was buying a car; someone had got a new flat and needed a carpet or a hotplate for the kitchen. In the last war everybody was grief stricken, the whole country. Everybody had lost someone, and they knew what they had lost them for. All the women cried together. There are a hundred people in the catering college where I work and I am the only one who lost her husband in a war the rest of them have only read about in the newspapers. When I first heard them saying on television that the war in Afghanistan had been a national disgrace, I wanted to break the screen. I lost my husband for a second time that day.

A Private Soldier

The only training we got before we took the oath was that twice they took us down the firing-range. The first time we went there they issued us with nine rounds; the second time we all got to throw a grenade.

They lined us up on the square and read out the order: ‘You’re going to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to do your internationalist duty. Anyone who doesn’t want to go, take two paces forward.’ Three lads did. The unit commander shoved them back in line with a knee up the backside. ‘Just checking morale.’ They gave us two days’ rations and a leather belt, and we were off. Nobody said a word. The flight seemed to take an age. I saw mountains through the plane window. Beautiful! They were the first mountains any of us had ever seen, we were all from round Pskov, where there are only woodlands and clearings. We got out in Shin Dand. I remembered the date: 19 December 1980.

They took a look at me. ‘One metre eighty: reconnaissance company. They can use lads your size.’

We went to Herat to build a firing-range. We were digging, hauling stones for a foundation. I tiled a roof and did some joinery. Some of us hadn’t fired a single shot before the first battle. We were hungry the whole time. There were two fifty-litre vats in the kitchen: one for soup, the other for mash or barley porridge. We had one can of mackerel between four, and the label said, ‘Date of manufacture, 1956; shelf-life eighteen months.’ In a year and a half, the only time I wasn’t hungry was when I was wounded. Otherwise you were always thinking of ways to get something to eat. We were so desperate for fruit that we’d slip over into the Afghans’ orchards knowing that they’d shoot at us. We asked our parents to send citric acid in their letters so that we could dissolve it in water and drink it. It was so sour that it burned your stomach.

Before our first battle they played the Soviet national anthem. The deputy political commander gave us a talk. I remember he said we’d only beaten the Americans here by one hour, and everybody was waiting to welcome us back home as heroes.

I had no idea how to kill. Before the army I was a racing cyclist. I’d never so much as seen a real knife fight, and here I was, driving along on the back of an armoured personnel carrier. I hadn’t felt like this before: powerful, strong and secure. The hills suddenly looked low, the irrigation ditches small, the trees few and far between. After half an hour I was so relaxed I felt like a tourist, taking a look at a foreign country.

We drove over a ditch on a little clay bridge: I remember being amazed it could take the weight of several tons of metal. Suddenly there was an explosion and the APC in front had got a direct hit from a grenade launcher. Men I knew were already being carried away, like stuffed animals with their arms dangling. I couldn’t make sense of this new, frightening world. We sent all our mortars into where the firing had come from, several mortars to every homestead. After the battle we scraped our own guys off the armour plate with spoons. There weren’t any identification discs for fatalities; I suppose they thought they might fall into the wrong hands. It was like in the song: We don’t live in a house on a street, Our address is the USSR. So we just spread a tarpaulin over the bodies, a ‘communal grave’. War hadn’t even been declared; we were fighting a war that did not exist.

A Mother

I sat by Sasha’s coffin saying, ‘Who is it? Is that you, son?’ I just kept repeating over and over, ‘Is that you?’ They decided I was out of my mind. Later on, I wanted to know how my son had died. I went to the Military Commissariat and the commissar started shouting at me, telling me it was a state secret that my son had died, that I shouldn’t run around telling everyone.

My son was in the Vitebsk parachute division. When I went to see him take his oath of allegiance, I didn’t recognize him; he stood so tall.

‘Hey, how come I’ve got such a small mum?’

‘Because I miss you and I’ve stopped growing.’

He bent down and kissed me, and somebody took a photograph. It’s the only photograph of him as a soldier that I’ve got.

After the oath he had a few hours free time. We went to the park and sat down on the grass. He took his boots off because his feet were all blistered and bleeding. The previous day his unit had been on a fifty kilometre forced march and there hadn’t been any size forty-six boots, so they had given him forty-fours.

‘We had to run with rucksacks filled with sand. What do you reckon? Where did I come?’

‘Last, probably, with those boots.’

‘Wrong, mum. I was first. I took the boots off and ran. And I didn’t tip sand out like some of the others.’

That night, they let the parents sleep inside the unit on mats laid out in the sports hall, but we didn’t lie down until far into the night, instead we wandered round the barracks where our sons were asleep. I hoped I would get to see him when they went to do their morning gymnastics but they were all running in identical striped vests and I missed him, didn’t catch a last glimpse of him. They all went to the toilet in a line, in a line to do their gymnastics, in a line to the canteen. They didn’t let them do anything on their own because, when the boys had heard they were being sent to Afghanistan, one hanged himself in the toilet and two others slashed their wrists. They were under guard.

His second letter began, ‘Greetings from Kabul… ‘ I screamed so loudly that the neighbours ran in. It was the first time since Sasha was born that I was sorry I had not got married and had no one to look after me.

Sasha used to tease me. ‘Why don’t you get married, Mum?’

‘Because you’d be jealous.’

He’d laugh and say nothing. We were going to live together for a long, long time to come.

I got a few more letters and then there was silence, such a long silence I wrote to the commander of his unit. Straight away Sasha wrote back to me, ‘Mum, please don’t write to the commander again. I couldn’t write to you. I got my hand stung by a wasp. I didn’t want to ask someone else to write, because you’d have been worried by the different handwriting.’ I knew immediately that he had been wounded, and now if even a day went by without a letter from him my legs would give way under me. One of his letters was very cheerful. ‘Hurray, hurray! We escorted a column back to the Union. We went with them as far as the frontier. They wouldn’t let us go any further, but at least we got a distant look at our homeland. It’s the best country in the world.’ In his last letter he wrote, ‘If I last the summer, I’ll be back.’

On 29 August I decided summer was over. I bought Sasha a new suit and a pair of shoes, which are still in the wardrobe now. The next day, before I went to work I took off my ear-rings and my ring. For some reason I couldn’t bear to wear them. That was the day on which he was killed.

When they brought the zinc coffin into the room, I lay on top of it and measured it again and again. One metre, two metres. He was two metres tall. I measured with my hands to make sure the coffin was the right size for him. The coffin was sealed, so I couldn’t kiss him one last time, or touch him, I didn’t even know what he was wearing, I just talked to the coffin like a madwoman.

I said I wanted to choose the place in the cemetery for him myself. They gave me two injections, and I went there with my brother. There were ‘Afghan’ graves on the main avenue.

‘Lay my son here too. He’ll be happier among his friends.’

I can’t remember who was there with us. Some official. He shook his head. ‘We are not permitted to bury them together. They have to be dispersed throughout the cemetery.’

They say there was a case where they brought a coffin back to a mother, and she buried it, and a year later her son came back alive. He’d only been wounded. I never saw my son’s body, or kissed him goodbye. I’m still waiting.

A Nurse

Every day I was there I told myself I was a fool to come. Especially at night, when I had no work to do. All I thought during the day was ‘How can I help them all?’ I couldn’t believe anybody would make the bullets they were using. Whose idea were they? The point of entry was small, but inside, their intestines, their liver, their spleen were all ripped and torn apart. As if it wasn’t enough to kill or wound them, they had to be put through that kind of agony as well. They always cried for their mothers when they were in pain, or frightened. I never heard them call for anyone else.

They told us it was a just war. We were helping the Afghan people to put an end to feudalism and build a socialist society. Somehow they didn’t get round to mentioning that our men were being killed. For the whole of the first month I was there they just dumped the amputated arms and legs of our soldiers and officers, even their bodies, right next to the tents. It was something I would hardly have believed if I had seen it in films about the Civil War. There were no zinc coffins then: they hadn’t got round to manufacturing them.

Twice a week we had political indoctrination. They went on about our sacred duty, and how the border must be inviolable. Our superior ordered us to inform on every wounded soldier, every patient. It was called monitoring the state of morale: the army must be healthy! We weren’t to feel compassion. But we did feel compassion: it was the only thing that held everything together.

A Regimental Press Officer

I will begin at the point where everything fell apart.

We were advancing on Jalalabad and a little girl of about seven years old was standing by the roadside. Her arm had been smashed and was held on only by a thread, as if she were a torn rag doll. She had dark eyes like olives, and they were fixed on me. I jumped down from the vehicle to take her in my arms and carry her to our nurses, but she sprang back terrified and screaming like a small animal. Still screaming she ran away, her little arm dangling and looking as though it would come off completely. I ran after her shouting, caught up with her and pressed her to me, stroking her. She was biting and scratching, trembling all over, as if some wild animal had seized her. It was only then that the thought struck me like a thunderbolt: she didn’t believe I wanted to help her; she thought I wanted to kill her. The way she ran away, the way she shuddered, how afraid she was of me are things I’ll never forget.

I had set out for Afghanistan with idealism blazing in my eyes. I had been told that the Afghans needed me, and I believed it. While I was there I never dreamed about the war, but now every night I am back running after that little girl with her olive eyes, and her little arm dangling as if it’s going to fall off any moment.

Out there you felt quite differently about your country. ‘The Union’, we called it. It seemed there was something great and powerful behind us, something which would always stand up for us. I remember, though, the evening after one battle–there had been losses, men killed and men seriously injured–we plugged in the television to forget about it, to see what was going on in the Union. A mammoth new factory had been built in Siberia; the Queen of England had given a banquet in honour of some VIP; youths in Voronezh had raped two schoolgirls for the hell of it; a prince had been killed in Africa. The country was going about its business and we felt completely useless. Someone had to turn the television off, before we shot it to pieces.

It was a mothers’ war. They were in the thick of it. The people at large didn’t suffer, they didn’t know what was going on. They were told we were fighting bandits. In nine years a regular army of 100,000 troops couldn’t beat some ragged bandits? An army with the latest technology. (God help anyone who got in the way of an artillery bombardment with our Hail or Hurricane rocket launchers: the telegraph poles flew like matchsticks.) The ‘bandits’ had only old Maxim machine-guns we had seen in films, the Stingers and Japanese machine guns came later. We’d bring in prisoners, emaciated people with big, peasant hands. They were no bandits. They were the people of Afghanistan.

The war had its own ghastly rules: if you were photographed or if you shaved before a battle, you were dead. It was always the blue-eyed heroes who were the first to be killed: you’d meet one of those types and before you knew it, he was dead. People mostly got killed either in their first months when they were too curious, or towards the end when they’d lost their sense of caution and become stupid. At night you’d forget where you were, who you were, what you were doing there. No one could sleep during the last six or eight weeks before they went home.

Here in the Union we are like brothers. A young guy going down the street on crutches with a shiny medal can only be one of us. You might only sit down on a bench and smoke a cigarette together, but you feel as if you’ve been talking to each other the whole day.

The authorities want to use us to clamp down on organized crime. If there is any trouble to be broken up, the police send for ‘the Afghans’. As far as they are concerned we are guys with big fists and small brains who nobody likes. But surely if your hand hurts you don’t put it in the fire, you look after it until it gets better.

A Mother

I skip along to the cemetery as if I’m on my way to meet someone. I feel I’m going to visit my son. Those first days I stayed there all night. It wasn’t frightening. I’m waiting for the spring, for a little flower to burst through to me out of the ground. I planted snowdrops, so I would have a greeting from my son as early as possible. They come to me from down there, from him.

I’ll sit with him until evening and far on into the night. Sometimes I don’t realize I’ve started wailing until I scare the birds, a whole squall of crows, circling and flapping above me until I come to my senses and stop. I’ve gone there every day for four years, in the evening if not in the morning. I missed eleven days when I was in hospital, then I ran away in the hospital gown to see my son.

He called me ‘Mother mine’, and ‘Angel mother mine’.

‘Well, angel mother mine, your son has been accepted by the Smolensk Military Academy. I trust you are pleased.’

He sat down at the piano and sang.

Gentlemen officers, princes indeed!
If I’m not first among them,
I’m one of their breed.

My father was a regular officer who died in the defence of Leningrad. My grandfather was an officer too. My son was made to be a military man–he had the bearing, so tall and strong. He should have been a hussar with white gloves, playing cards.

Everybody wanted to be like him. Even I, his own mother, would imitate him. I would sit down at the piano the way he did, and sometimes start walking the way he did, especially after he was killed. I so much want him always to be present in me.

When he first went to Afghanistan, he didn’t write for ages. I waited and waited for him to come home on leave. Then one day the telephone rang at work.

‘Angel mother mine, I am home.’

I went to meet him off the bus. His hair had gone grey. He didn’t admit he wasn’t on leave, that he’d asked to be let out of hospital for a couple of days to see his mother. He’d got hepatitis, malaria and everything else rolled into one but he warned his sister not to tell me. I went into his room again before I went off to work, to see him sleeping. He opened his eyes. I asked him why he was not asleep, it was so early. He said he’d had a bad dream.

We went with him as far as Moscow. It was lovely, sunny May weather, and the trees were in bloom. I asked him what it was like over there.

‘Mother mine, Afghanistan is something we have no business to be doing.’ He looked only at me, not at anyone else. ‘I don’t want to go back into that hole. I really do not.’ He walked away, but turned round, ‘It’s as simple as that, Mum.’ He never said ‘Mum’. The woman at the airport desk was in tears watching us.

When I woke up on 7 July I hadn’t been crying. I stared glassily at the ceiling. He had woken me, as if he had come to say goodbye. It was eight o’clock. I had to get ready to go to work. I was wandering with my dress from the bathroom to the sitting-room, from one room to another. For some reason I couldn’t bear to put that light-coloured dress on. I felt dizzy, and couldn’t see people properly. Everything was blurred. I grew calmer towards lunch-time, towards midday.

The seventh day of July. He had seven cigarettes in his pocket, seven matches. He had taken seven pictures with his camera. He had written seven letters to me, and seven to his girlfriend. The book on his bedside table was open at page seven. It was Kobo Abe’s Containers of Death.

He had three or four seconds in which he could have saved himself. They were hurtling over a precipice in a vehicle. He couldn’t be the first to jump out. He never could.

From Deputy Regimental Commander for Political Affairs, Major S. R. Sinelnikov. In fulfilment of my duty as a soldier, I have to inform you that Senior Lieutenant Valerii Gennadievich Volovich was killed today at 1045 hours.

The whole city already knew all about it. In the Officers’ Club they’d put up black crêpe and his photograph. The plane bringing his coffin was due at any minute, but nobody had told me a thing. They couldn’t bring themselves to speak. At work everybody’s faces were tear-stained. I asked, ‘What has happened?’

They tried to distract me in various ways. A friend came round, then finally a doctor in a white coat arrived. I told him he was crazy, that boys like my son did not get killed. I started hammering the table. I ran over to the window and started beating the glass. They gave me an injection. I kept on shouting. They gave me another injection, but that had no effect, either; I was screaming, ‘I want to see him, take me to my son.’ Eventually they had to take me.

There was a long coffin. The wood was unplaned, and written on it in large letters in yellow paint was ‘Volovich’. I had to find him a place in the cemetery, somewhere dry, somewhere nice and dry. If that meant a fifty rouble bribe, fine. Here, take it, only make sure it’s a good place, nice and dry. Inside I knew how disgusting that was, but I just wanted a nice dry place for him. Those first nights I didn’t leave him. I stayed there. They would take me off home, but I would come back.

When I go to see him I bow, and when I leave I bow again. I never get cold even in freezing temperatures; I write my letters there; I am only ever at home when I have visitors. When I walk back to my house at night the streetlamps are lit, the cars have their headlamps on. I feel so strong that I am not afraid of anything.

Only now am I waking from my sorrow which is like waking from sleep. I want to know whose fault this was. Why doesn’t anybody say anything? Why aren’t we being told who did it? Why aren’t they being put on trial?

I greet every flower on his grave, every little root and stem. ‘Have you come from there? Do you come from him? You have come from my son.’

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