This is a short story, in 910 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Mary Smith.
There was not much future for a boy without the academic or sporting skills to stand out. Oleg decided that the army was his best choice, and his parents agreed. Natasha was different of course. Older, confident, and good at science, she would definitely be chosen for better things. Her destiny was to go to the Institute in Kiev, admired and loved by their parents. The same parents who thought their young son would be better off in uniform, being told what to do.
His departure was an anticlimax. Poppa was at work, and Mummy was in a rush to get to a party meeting. As he waited for the train, Oleg felt a little empty, sure that they were only too pleased to be rid of their awkward boy, with his dull manner.
Training was a nightmare. The sergeant not only bullied them, he stole their money, beat them for the slightest infringement, and worked them with pointless chores until they could hardly stand. Oleg wondered how this was supposed to inspire fighting spirit in the country’s troops. But he said nothing. He took it all, ate the terrible food, and suddenly began to realise that he was harder, stronger, and tougher than he had ever been. By the time he was nineteen, he started to understand why it had all been so bad up to then.
War would be a holiday, compared to this, and he was ready for anything he could imagine.
Before his posting came through, the camp was filling up with conscripts. There was talk that the regiment would go to Chechnya, and the horror stories were abundant. Fighting those bandits was considered to be the worst thing possible, and the life expectancy in that region was getting to be pitiful for new recruits. They promoted him to corporal, and he got to boss the new entrants around. Not that he was that harsh, as he still remembered how shitty they had been to him.
When the Captain came to address the company he smiled, as if it was good news. “Boys, great news! We are going to Afghanistan to help the government there. We are going to kick some Mujaheddin arse! Urrah! The responding ‘Urrah’ sounded like water draining down a plughole. They knew little or nothing about Afghanistan, save that most came home from there in a tin coffin.
The journey was so tiring. Days and days on a train, packed tightly into smelly sleeper compartments. Filthy toilets at each end of the corridor, and a scramble for soup and bread twice a day. The long train seemed to be standing still more often than it was moving, and when he tried to stretch his legs by walking along the carriages, they were crammed with soldiers leaning out of the windows to smoke.
When it finally stopped and they were ordered out, he gazed at the surrounding mountains, surprised that it felt so cold there. He had imagined it to be like India. Hot, sultry, and overcrowded. But other than his comrades, the place was empty. They gathered for a briefing, close to a village that looked like something from Biblical Times. Mud walls, dry fields, and the ever present halo of mountain peaks. The men were separated into groups, then given the news of their destination. Oleg was going to Camp Kalinin, five hours north. At least they were travelling in armoured personnel carriers, and not having to walk.
The men destined to march as infantry shook their heads, and shouted warnings. “Iron death traps for you, boys!” “Watch out for the land mines, fools!”.
The journey took more like ten hours than five. Half the vehicles broke down, and had to be repaired at the roadside. Then they had to stop to refuel, from cans carried on the top. Everyone had to deploy when that happened, scanning the horizon for the enemy, but seeing nothing but goats and sheep, accompanied by little boys. It was after dark when they arrived to relieve the garrison. Boys who looked like old men, dark circles under their eyes, and a stare that sent chills through Oleg.
They almost snatched the vehicles from them, as the fresh troops moved into their inadequate dugout, and started to live in the stink. Flares illuminated the ground ahead, but showed nothing except stones and rocks. If the mujaheddin were out there, Oleg certainly couldn’t see them.
Three days went by, and three nervous nights. He was beginning to wonder if the enemy existed at all, when the first rocket hit the camp. Chugunkin was gone in an instant, and Bebrov was clutching his torn-open belly, screaming for his mother. The Captain fired a flare into the night sky, and Oleg finally saw the enemy. Lots of them.
After a journey lasting over nine hours, the weary recruits eventually arrived at Camp Kalinin. One young wag grinned. “Well, they could have tidied up before they left”. He surveyed the scene before him, little more than a deep scrape in the ground of the hilltop, perhaps sixty feet across, and forty deep. Littered with shell cases, spent cartridge cases, and rubbish of all kinds, it overlooked the large Afghan village in the valley below. He shook his head. “What a tip! Sergeant, what happened to the guys who were here before?” The Siberian screwed up his face, and turned to the cocky youngster.
“Gone, boy. All gone.”