Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Furnace

All day the soldiers had fought the rebels, beating them back street by street, working our way towards the centre of the town. By evening, we had come far enough so that the battalion commander had decided to halt for the night and consolidate our gains, and to prevent the rebels from trying to ambush our troops in the darkness. So the sun was just going down when we entered the house the platoon leader had chosen to be our base for the night.
It had once been a handsome, well-built house, and was still relatively intact, though the walls were pockmarked with bullets and the glass in the windows like jagged teeth. There was a large scorch mark on one wall, but overall it was still in quite good shape, especially when compared to the other houses in the street, most of which were burnt-out ruins without roofs or walls, the charred interiors open to view.
The rebels had been here, recently – so recently that the air still smelled of them, of the perfumed oil which so many of them anointed themselves with to better prepare for their journey to Paradise. On the wall above the TV set, the screen of which had been smashed in, someone had painted in blood red letters a promise to tear the heart out of every captive they took. It wasn’t an idle boast, either – what the rebels did to any of our men they took prisoner didn’t bear thinking about. Next to the threat, a smashed crucifix still hung askew, the head of the Jesus figure hacked off. The original owners had been Christian, and I wondered what had happened to them, if they’d managed to escape before the rebels came.
“Looking at that?” one of the soldiers asked, sitting down next to me. He cocked his head, studying the lettering. “It’s sloppy,” he decided. “They did it in a hurry. I’ve seen much better ones.”
“Does it bother you?” I asked in return.
He shrugged. “Anybody can make threats. If we were to pay attention to threats we’d never get anything done.”
“They aren’t that far off,” I said, listening to the rattle of a machine gun in the distance.
“Two streets away,” the soldier said. He was quite young, in his early twenties, but had a hard-bitten face with eyes that belonged to someone nearer fifty. “Don’t worry, they won’t be back.”
Before I could reply, something exploded so close to us the walls trembled and flakes of plaster fell from the ceiling. It was instantly followed by another explosion, and another. The blasts merged into a constant wall of sound, so intense that I could make out nothing else. Instinctively, I crouched on the floor, rolling into a foetal position with my arms wrapped round my middle.
At last the sound eased, the walls stopped shaking, and I opened my eyes. The soldier was bending over me, shaking my shoulder. It was some time before I could make out what he was saying. “It’s all right,” he told me. “That was our artillery, hitting the other side. The shells weren’t even close.”
“They weren’t?” My mouth and throat were so dry the words hardly came out. I worked my lips and tongue. “What is it like when it’s closer?” I asked when I could speak again.
The soldier shook his head. “You don’t really need to know that,” he said. He rubbed his jaw, his fingers scraping over the stubble. “I hope we get a bit of rest tonight. Let’s go and find you a place to sleep.”
“I’ll be all right,” I protested. “You’re the one who’ll be fighting – you’re the one who needs sleep.”
“I don’t sleep much.” He grinned, but the smile was bitter. “I haven’t really slept in months, and I don’t think I will again until we’ve won this war – if I live that long.”
I peered at him curiously. I’d only been attached to the unit since the previous morning and hadn’t got to know any of the men on a personal basis. I glanced at his chest, but he wasn’t wearing a name tag. None of the soldiers did, for excellent reasons. “What’s your name?”
“Murad.” He looked at me. “Al Nasseri. You’re not to mention that if you write about me, of course.”
“Naturally not.” I’d been briefed that the soldiers’ names were not to be divulged under any circumstances, because a lot of their families were in the territory the rebels still held. “But there are a lot of people called Murad al Nasseri.”
“Doesn’t matter. Don’t mention it.”
“I won’t, don’t worry. Where are you from?”
He shrugged. “My family is in Hima. They’re in the old part of the town, the part that was under the enemy’s control. But we got it back, just like we’ll get everything back.”
“You’re very confident.” We’d walked through the house to the kitchen. Another soldier, an older man with a sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve, sprawled in a chair, his head thrown back, sleeping. We stepped carefully over his legs and lowered our voices, but he didn’t stir in any case. It was probably the first rest he’d had since the start of the offensive. Murad filled a kettle from a bucket of water and put it on the stove. Amazingly, the gas was still on. “You’re sure we’ll win? Speaking off the record, of course.”
“We’ll win.” Murad’s voice was filled with some emotion I couldn’t identify, something which made me look at him sharply. It wasn’t confidence, or bravado, but something else. “We’ll do anything it takes, but we’ll win.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
I didn’t say anything for the moment, watching him as he boiled some tea. There were only two surviving cups in the kitchen, and one of them had a broken handle. Murad handed me the other without comment and we went back to the living room. Someone had been inside in the meantime and put on an emergency lamp; in its blue-white light the room looked like something out of an old black-and-white movie. Murad settled back down on the chair and took off his helmet. Without it, he suddenly looked even younger, and the scar that crossed his forehead seemed even more shocking than it might have otherwise been. It looked as though somebody had tried to hack his head in two with a knife.
“How did you get that?” I asked. A lot of the soldiers were scarred – they wore the scars proudly, like badges of honour more precious than medals – but this one was especially awful.
He touched the scar. “It’s a long story.” He glanced at me. “You were asking how I was so certain we’ll do whatever it takes to win.” And in his voice I heard that emotion again, and I thought I could recognise it – a blend of steely determination and an anger which went far beyond words, an anger that ate through to the core of this boy’s being. “You’re sure you want to hear this?”
I waited for a heavy burst of firing to die down. Silence fell at last, broken only by an occasional shot.
“I have nothing else to do anyway,” I told him.
I told you my family is from Hima (Murad said). We weren’t rich, but we had a nice enough life, before all this started. My father had a business selling construction materials, and my mother was a teacher. I had one younger brother, Salim, who was in school.
I wasn’t your typical obedient son, growing up. I got into more than my share of trouble, and I never did get into books and studying. It never seemed to make sense to me to spend the growing years of my life cooped up with things which didn’t interest me while I could be out and about. So you might say I was a bit of a wild child, but I never did anything actually criminal.
Now, of course, Hima is in ruins, but it was a nice enough town then, with tree-lined streets and open-air cafes. My father had wanted me to get involved in the family business, but a life spent selling cement and iron rods wasn’t for me, and I told him so. He wasn’t too happy about it, of course, but then I never had much of a head for figures, and Salim was more compliant than me, anyway.
But there weren’t much in the way of jobs available otherwise, not for someone who’d got through school with difficulty, so I joined the army. That wasn’t anything that made either of my parents happy, either, but there it was. Besides, I liked the army; it gave me the kind of life I was probably yearning for without even being aware of it. I thought it would be my career for life.
And then the rebellion started.
There’s no point talking about the early fighting, and how we were rushed around from one place to another, fighting to defend strategic points from the rebels. Several of my own friends deserted to the other side – there’s no point talking about that either. As far as we’re concerned, once they left, they weren’t our friends any longer. They were simply traitors and terrorists, allied to the foreign jihadists who are trying to destroy our country and our way of life.
So we were rushed around, and finally we managed to stem the rebel advance, and then we began to fight back. And so it was that early this year I found myself at the point of one of the lead battalions fighting to retake my old hometown from the terrorists.
Later, the magazines and the TV channels put out a lot of nonsense about the battle of Hima, that we had routed the terrorists and chased them out of their holes with their tails between their legs. Your paper, too, said things like that. I don’t blame the media, really; they needed morale-boosting news, and they didn’t have journalists embedded with the frontline soldiers, not like now. No, I don’t blame them – but it didn’t happen that way at all. It wasn’t a glorious charge, it was slow, slogging city fighting, the kind we hadn’t seen before.
Have you ever been to Hima? No? Well, while the new part of the city is modern, the old part – where the terrorists were – is a maze of narrow lanes, lined with old buildings with thick brick walls which were right up against each other. The terrorists had blocked the lanes with rubble, forming a series of barricades, so that we couldn’t use the streets, and our armour was useless. And because the enemy had stopped the people of the old town from fleeing – my parents and brother were still in there, along with everyone else – we couldn’t simply pulverise a target area with artillery and move in to mop up what was left, like we’d have done elsewhere; like we’ve done in this town, for instance.
Instead, we had to fight our way house by house, often room by room, and having to be careful to spare the civilians as much as we could. After all, a lot of them were our own relatives. Even when we took a house, it wasn’t enough, because the terrorists had made holes in the walls between buildings so they could run back and forth without showing themselves in the street. Sometimes we would take an entire street and then we’d find the terrorists swarming back and attacking us from the rear. And of course they’d booby-trap houses they were about to abandon, so we would have to first clear those out. I’m telling you – it wasn’t the kind of thing glorious victories are made of.
That battle taught us to hate the enemy. You can’t help it, in a situation like that. We were constantly tense because of the fear of a terrorist counterattack, unable to take the time out for a proper meal, sleeping leaning in a corner of a room for half an hour while a comrade stood guard to make sure some terrorist bastard didn’t come and cut your throat. We grew to be like wild animals, filled with aggression born of fear. It was a furnace, you see – and we were like pieces of metal thrust into the centre of it, and shaped by the heat into something we’d never be otherwise.
We almost never saw the terrorists. We could hear them sometimes, often right in the next house, moving around and talking among themselves, and of course we could hear their shooting and the explosions of their grenades. Sometimes they’d yell “Allahu Akbar” and we knew that either they’d hit one of us, or that one of them had been killed. And, of course, sometimes we’d hear their shrieks of agony, and that brought us great satisfaction. But we almost never saw them, except sometimes through a telescopic sight, or, very, very rarely, when we met them in hand-to-hand fighting.
It was during these rare moments that all that pent-up aggression would erupt. We’d forget our training, and turn into beasts intent on destruction, stabbing and clubbing and fighting with everything from our guns to chunks of rubble we’d use as bludgeons. And of course Allah help any of those terrorist bastards who fell alive into our hands. I’ve myself done things, and seen things done, during those times – well, I’ll spare you. I don’t enjoy thinking about them, but I don’t imagine I’ll ever stop. And of course the war’s still going on, and I don’t know how much more I’ll see before it’s through.
Once we captured a terrorist headquarters. I’d been in the lead squad which had stormed it, under the cover of a storm of heavy machine gun fire. We were just too late – the enemy had run, though they had left several of their dead behind and some wounded who saw us and begged for mercy. Yes, then they begged for mercy, when they found themselves in our hands. We didn’t have any mercy for them, I can tell you, even if we’d had any to begin with; not when we saw what they’d done to three men they’d imprisoned in one of the rooms on suspicion of being our supporters. And then the next day the terrorists counterattacked and took the building back again.
That sort of thing happened so often we lost count.
Still, we advanced, street by street, through the sprawl of the old town. Sometimes I’d stand looking up at the sky – but making sure to stay well under cover, you understand, because of the terrorist snipers – and I’d see the plumes of smoke from burning buildings in the distance. I’d have a fair idea, of course, where those buildings were, and I’d wonder how much longer it would take to reach my family’s home, and in what shape I’d find them. Of course I couldn’t telephone them, because the lines were all down and because the cell phones had been jammed to hinder terrorist communications. I hoped they were all right. I hoped they had something to eat.
Then, one evening, the platoon officer called us together and asked for volunteers to carry out a reconnaissance patrol. We had reached a street which gave on to a crossroads, which the terrorists should have turned into a strongpoint. I was familiar with the area, so of course I volunteered. There was no other option, really. I owed it to the others, and to my family.
There were three of us who were sent out – more would’ve been too many to be stealthy. The two others with me –Bashir and Hassan – were both from Hima, too, and excellent soldiers, but they didn’t know the locality. We left soon after dark, climbing out of a window into a dingy backyard, and stooping down a back lane.
It was dark, of course, with no electricity, and we had no luxuries like night vision equipment. We moved in a crouch, keeping our heads as low as possible, hugging the walls of the houses. We heard people talking more than once – whether terrorists, or possibly civilians, we couldn’t tell.
I knew a narrow back lane which gave on to the crossroads. When I was a teenager, a girl I had a crush on lived nearby, and she and I had often sneaked away along this lane to avoid her mother’s eagle eye. Fatima was long gone, moved away years ago, and there had been other girls afterwards, many of them – but I still remembered the lane, every twist and turn of it; and, as I’d expected, the enemy hadn’t thought it worth barricading. Though it took us a long time, we finally reached the point where it met the crossroads.
It was a moonless night, but there were enough stars visible to cast some light. The buildings around the crossroads were silhouetted against the sky, their windows patches of absolute darkness. We’d have to get in closer.
In all the things I’ve gone through in this war, the crawl through that crossroads must be the most nerve-wracking. All around us, the high buildings towered into the air, full of menace. We were only three men, and at each step we felt as though a thousand eyes were watching us. We moved on our bellies, crawling like snakes along the bottom of the walls, trying to make no noise whatever.
And we did manage to check out the crossroads thoroughly. We marked the position of a sandbagged barrier they’d built to one side, and a rough bunker made of slabs of concrete on another. I remember lying on the ground right under a window through which a terrorist was leaning, smoking a cigarette – his hot ash fell on the back of my hand. Someone inside was talking to him, in a language I couldn’t understand – he must have been one of the foreign jihadists the Gulf monarchies had pushed in. After some time he moved back from the window, and I could breathe again.
After about an hour we’d managed to work our way around the crossroads, and get a fairly good idea of the terrorist defences. Finally reaching the lane again, we got stiffly to our feet and prepared to get back to our platoon.
I suppose we’d let our guard down at that moment, thinking we were over the worst, because it was then that the terrorist patrol found us.
No, they didn’t catch us completely by surprise – we’d been stupid, but not that stupid. The terrorists and we caught sight of each other at almost exactly the same moment. There weren’t many of them either – four or five. One of them gave a shout, and then we were all shooting at them, and they were shooting at us. I remember one of them was so close to me that my muzzle flashes lit up his chest and I could see his clothes ripping from my bullets. Then suddenly the shooting was over, and I found myself alone.
I could hear the terrorists coming, though, yelling at each other as they swarmed out of their positions at the crossroads. I knew they’d be on me in moments if I tried to run for the lane. And if they captured me, death would seem a blessing.
Without consciously thinking about it, I ran for the nearest building, on my right. It was at the entrance of the lane, and before the fighting started had evidently been under construction. We’d noticed sacks of cement and piles of bricks still stacked around the entrance. I dodged behind one of these stacks and into the cover of the shadow cast by the upper floors.  There were stairs leading up, and I climbed them as quickly as I could. One of the hardest things to do was to keep from gasping for breath – I was terrified and winded – and I held a handkerchief over my mouth and nose to muffle the sound as much as I could. Outside, there was still a lot of shooting, but I had no idea who was firing, or at whom.
I climbed two storeys before I had to stop to rest. My legs refused to support me any longer, and I lay down on the rough concrete, gasping, feeling as though the pounding of my heart could be heard across town. After a long time, the shouting and shooting outside died down, and a little after that I felt able to get up again.
I was extremely thirsty, and I discovered that at some point in the evening I’d lost my water bottle. At first I tried to tolerate the thirst, but it soon grew to be a monster tearing at the inside of my throat. Finally, I began hunting around for water. It had rained in the morning, and I hoped that I’d be able to find a puddle where the wind had blown it in.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’d had to drink from a puddle.
I was still looking for the water when I heard a sound behind me, and someone grabbed me by the shoulder...
I was extremely fortunate that at that time I was in the far corner of the half-finished building, where the shadow was thickest. The terrorist hadn’t been able to identify who I was – one of his comrades or a soldier. It made him slow, and unsure enough to catch hold of me instead of killing me instantly. I twisted in his grip, throwing myself down, and an instant later he was on me.
He was small, but immensely tough, and fast. Neither of us could use our guns in that situation, rolling on the floor, and for a moment I thought I was getting the upper hand. Then he threw a punch that knocked my helmet off my head, and I saw a faint glitter of starlight on steel as he swung a bayonet at my face...
It didn’t hurt. I felt the blade slam into my forehead, and the skin part like paper, but it didn’t hurt, not then. Nor did the spurt of blood falling over my eyes slow me down. At that point I was reacting entirely by instinct, and as he raised the bayonet again I slammed a knee into his belly, caught his knife arm, and twisted as hard as I could. I don’t remember exactly what happened the next few seconds, but a little bit later I was lying on my back on the concrete, feeling dizzy, while next to me I could hear something flopping around and groaning. After a while the moaning stopped, and I either lost consciousness or went to sleep.
It must have been several hours later that I woke. It was cold, and at first I couldn’t see. Touching my face, I found my eyelids were stuck together with drying blood, and after a little rubbing I managed to open my eyes.
The first light of dawn had just lightened the sky, and looking around I found I could see a great deal more than during the night. My helmet lay beside me, and beside it, my gun. And on my other side was a crumpled form, its face turned away from me, the haft of the bayonet sticking out of its throat. It was the dead terrorist of course.
I don’t know to this day what prompted me to reach out and turn the corpse over. I had seen many dead terrorists, and the most I’d done to them afterwards was smash their bearded faces with my boot. But this was a different kind of fight, one on one, him against me. I suppose I wanted to see just what kind of man I’d killed.
At first I didn’t understand why he looked familiar. I thought that it was maybe a trick of the light. I rubbed my eyes again, and peered close, and only then did I admit it to myself. Under the beard covering his cheeks and jaw, I saw the face of Salim. The dead terrorist was my brother.
Two hours later,” Murad said, “our men attacked and flushed the terrorists from the crossroads. As I found later, Bashir and Hassan had both got back to the platoon and told them where the defences were – and reported that I’d been killed. When they found me, I looked as though I wasn’t too far from death, they told me later. But I didn’t feel anything. I only felt numb.
“The platoon commander sent me back to the field dressing station, and the doctors there wanted to hospitalise me. But I refused point blank – I demanded that they patch me up and send me back to the platoon. They thought it was heroism, but it wasn’t. I just needed to know what had happened.
“I found out three days later, when we finally captured my parents’ home street. The terrorists had finally broken, and were streaming out of the town, leaving only small suicidal rear-guards in an attempt to stall our advance. We gave them no quarter.
“My parents were still at the house, which was almost intact. I don’t want to describe the way they reacted when I showed up at their door. I asked them about Salim, where he was.”
“You didn’t tell them he was dead?” I asked.
“Of course not. I still haven’t told them – I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know if I ever will be able to. But this is what they said –
“When the terrorists had taken over the old city, some of their local members had turned up at my parents’ door. They knew I was in the army, and they demanded that my parents send me a message ordering me to desert. When my father refused, they held a gun to my mother’s head and threatened to shoot her first, and then him. Then Salim said he’d go with them instead – to save our parents’ lives.
“I can still feel us fighting,” he continued. “I can feel the bayonet scraping on my skull. And I wonder – I wonder every night – what I’d have done if I’d recognised him then. Would I still have fought him? Or would I have let him kill me? I keep wondering, but I can’t think of an answer.”
Murad fell silent, looking at his hands. I waited, watching him, not daring to intrude.
“I told you,” he said finally, “that this war’s a furnace, didn’t I? It’s tempered us, hardened us, and made us what we’d never have been otherwise. It turned my brother into a reluctant terrorist. It turned me into an unknowing fratricide. And all of us – we’ve all lost something in this war, friends or relatives or our innocence. All we have left is the thirst for revenge. It drives us on, and it won’t be quenched until the last terrorist is driven from the land.”
Heavy shelling began in the distance, making the walls rattle. Murad looked up at me and smiled suddenly.
“Tomorrow’s fighting will soon begin,” he said, putting on his helmet and hiding the scar. “Shall we go and get some more tea?”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013


  1. riveting. gruesome. and I would guess true beyond what we "civilized types" would want it to be.

  2. A story to break one's heart.

  3. "The first casualty of war is innocence."

    Great writing Bill. As always.


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