Every evening, when I came in, he would be there at the corner table of the little cafe, hunched over so far that his nose was almost in his cup of coffee.
I don’t know why he caught my attention. Perhaps it was because of his utter stillness – he seemed never to move, in all the time I was there, never raised his head or scratched at his cheek or did any of the other little things people do even when they are sitting still. Perhaps it was because he was the only constant thing in the cafe, and to a stranger in town like me he was rapidly becoming one of the few familiar things.
I did not like the town. Though it had been many years since the war had smashed these buildings and turned these streets to shell-cratered ruins, the people still seemed to have an air of looking over their shoulder at all times, and when they looked at me, I felt that I could almost see sullen hatred in their eyes.
I’d been here two weeks now, and the next evening I’d be leaving, my work done. At first I’d planned to stay back in my hotel room and rest as much as I could, before the long train journey north. But the room was cold and cheerless, and after a while I had left for the cafe at the corner, like every other evening before.
The cafe felt better, like familiar territory. People came and went, music played, a TV set in the corner with the sound off showed some brightly coloured game show nobody watched. In the cafe I felt safe, because nobody was interested in anything except my money there.
But there he was in the corner, every evening, peering down into his coffee. He never talked to anybody and no one ever talked to him. He would be there when I arrived, and still there when I left. Over the two weeks I’d been there, he’d grown fascinating to me, sitting there, never moving, never talking.
Once, I’d asked the waitress about him. She’d glanced at him over her shoulder. “What about him? Why do you ask?”
I didn’t have an answer ready, so just shrugged. “I just thought it was a bit, um, strange, that he sits like that every day. Is he all right?”
“Who’s got the time for worrying about that?” she shot back. She was a pretty thing, quite young, and probably thought I was trying to hit on her in a roundabout way. “Do you want to order anything? If not, I’ve got to go.”
The older waitress, the one with the grey in her hair, had been listening, and later in the evening, when I was about to leave, she came over. “That’s Alikhan,” she said. “You don’t want to mess with him.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Is he dangerous?”
She shrugged, this woman who looked like a young grandmother and probably was. “A touch crazy, everyone thinks, from the war. He never talks to anybody, just sits there. We leave him alone.”
“From the war?” I raised my eyebrows.”What happened to him in the war?”
“The same thing that happened to everyone else, I suppose,” she said. “You don’t know what happened in the war?” There was something in her eyes that warned me not to ask anything further, and so I took the chance to leave.
So on this last evening in the cafe, I sat and looked around the cafe, sipping at a glass of beer. A group of young men in their teens argued around a table in their language, a couple of pretty girls sat peering at a laptop, and the man called Alikhan sat hunched in the corner and listlessly studied his coffee. Outside, it had begun to rain, a steady drizzle that blew in whenever anyone opened the door, and made me even happier that I would be leaving tomorrow. The last thing I wanted to do was to leave the warm cafe and walk back to the hotel, but I decided that if I was to get a bit of rest I’d better get a move on.
The beer had made me want to visit the toilet, and as I left it afterwards I passed the table in the corner. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my wrist. I looked down.
The man called Alikhan had hold of my arm and was peering up into my face. He jerked his chin at the chair opposite. “Sit.”
There was such total authority in his voice that I sat without a word.
“I’ve seen you here these last weeks,” he said, staring at me over his coffee. “Where are you from, Moscow?”
“Yes,” I admitted. This was the first time I’d seen Alikhan from close up, and he seemed even stranger than at first sight. His nose was a beak sticking out of the centre of his face, and his hair fell to his shoulders, covering the sides of his head. There were deep creases running from the corners of his eyes, like grooves cut by tears, but his dark eyes looked as though they hadn’t cried in years, and never would again. And there was something else that seemed strange about him, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
“I thought so. I pride myself I can always tell a Muscovite when I see one.” His hand raised the coffee cup a little and put it down again. “You’ve been watching me, and asking questions.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. I felt my cheeks growing hot with embarrassment.
“Why?” he asked after a pause that seemed to last forever.
I shrugged. “Idle curiosity. I didn’t mean anything by it. Do you mind?”
“Curiosity isn’t a nice thing, young man,” he told me. “Not everywhere and not always. It can get you into trouble.” He seemed to lose interest in me and went back to staring into his cup.
“Well, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.” I began to get up. “Well, I’ve got to be getting back to my hotel, and...”
“No,” he said in that same commanding tone of voice. “Stay in that chair.”
I had a sudden burst of irritation. “Why? I said I was sorry.”
“Because they are waiting for you to leave,” he said, moving his head slightly in the direction of the teenagers arguing around the table.
“They’re planning to attack you outside and take whatever you have,” he said, slowly and distinctly. “And then they plan to have some fun with you. They don’t like Russians much here, not at all.”
I glanced at the young men, just in time to catch one looking in my direction. He turned hurriedly away, much faster than any innocent person ought to have done. For the first time, I noticed that they were all big, with thick necks and biceps bulging the sleeves of their shirts.
“How do you mean, ‘have fun’? Do they mean to kill me?”
“Maybe. Or they might just beat you senseless. Depends on how drunk and angry they are.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “How does it matter to you if they kill me?”
Alikhan stared across the table at me so long that I began to fidget uneasily in my chair. “I once had a Russian friend,” he said at last, “long ago. His name was Misha. He died, though, a long time ago.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was killed in Afghanistan.”
“But you must have known a lot of Russians since. The waitress said you’d been in the war, you might have even fought us then.”
“Albika? She talks too much, should know better at her age. Yes, I fought in the war, and I was a unit commander, too. I’ve killed many Russians. But...”
I waited, feeling that he was about to say something important, something that would unlock the mystery about him.
“I’m going to tell you something,” he said at last. “It’s not a pretty story, though. I don’t know whether you’ll want to hear it.”
“Tell me,” I said.
It was during the latter stage of the fighting in town (Alikhan said). I suppose you know what happened earlier, when the Russians sent in their armoured columns piecemeal into the city and we cut off and massacred them? The streets were filled with Russian armour, though it was January we joked that we didn’t need heating, the flames of the burning tanks and carriers were enough to keep us warm.
At that time I was a unit commander under Nursultan Akhmedov. You’ve probably heard of him. It’s not true what they say of him now, that he was a cruel bandit. Some of his officers were, yes, as I’ll talk about in a minute. But not Nursultan himself; he was a very intelligent man, cultured and really too compassionate to be a good military commander. It wasn’t a surprise when he got himself killed later after being drawn into a trap; he was always too trusting for his own good. But about the time I’m telling you about, we never saw Nursultan himself. I reported to his subordinate, Khunkarpasha.
This Khunkarpasha was a hard man. Before the war, we heard, he had been a career criminal, specialising in smuggling drugs through Turkey. Then he had got religion and become a defender of the faith, which meant if you were under his command you’d better be religious, too, and in religious in the sense he wanted. After a couple of our men had disappeared we all learned to pretend, at least.
In those early days, we were too busy to think about religion or anything at all. We were on the move constantly, never more than three or four of us together in one team, crawling through sewers or holes blown in the walls between rooms. Our primary weapon was the rocket propelled grenade. We used it for everything, even firing it into the air over buildings to drop on a target in the next street.
We picked our battlefields with care, back then. We’d stay in basements or the top floors of houses, shooting at the Russian armour from overhead or at ground level, too high and too low for their main guns to be trained on us. The idea would be to knock out the first and last tanks in a column, after which they’d be stuck in the street and ripe for the massacre.
We’d stick to the Russians as close as we could, in order to make it impossible for their air cover and artillery to interfere. We stuck so close that sometimes we’d hear them begging for their lives inside their knocked out personnel carriers. Most of them were raw conscripts. Many of them didn’t even know how to fire their rifles. It made me almost feel ashamed fighting them – it was like fighting children. But we blew up their carriers, and they burned and screamed and died.
By the middle of the month, though, they’d learned. Now they didn’t come in as before, in columns to be cut off and annihilated. Now they hit us with massive artillery bombardments, so intense that the ground shook like an earthquake and men went mad from the concussion. When the barrage lifted, they’d make infantry assaults, fighting us house to house, room to room, with the armour providing support from a distance. Nobody could fight against that, and step by step we left the streets and buildings we had fought so hard for, abandoned the city bit by bit. By February my unit had been forced out of the town altogether and was fighting in the south western suburbs.
One day, we passed through a village. It was a pretty little village, not the usual drab mud-spattered huddle of hovels which most of the villages were like. The people were still there, and I saw some of them watching us through the windows as we passed. One of them was a pretty girl, and I wondered if she had a boyfriend and if so where he was and what he was doing. But the villagers didn’t come out to greet us. Their expressions weren’t friendly, and this wasn’t the first time we’d seen people like that. A lot of civilians blamed us for bringing war on the land. We were in too much of a hurry to bother them, though, and we moved on quickly.
Minutes after we left, the village was hit by an air strike. You’ve never been under an air strike, I’ll bet, and I hope to heaven you never have that experience. The air seems to be ripped apart suddenly by the jets, and before you can even see them the bombs are already falling. If you’re lucky they don’t fall on you.
That day we were lucky. The strike had been meant for us, I’m sure, but it had been too late – a typical example of the Russian lack of coordination at that time of the war. We could see the planes flying overhead, and could feel the explosion of their bombs through the soles of our boots. Once the Sukhois had gone we returned to the village to see what had happened.
It was a ruin. We’d known it would be, but we hadn’t expected it to be this bad. Not a single one of the pretty little houses was standing. The big concrete barn behind the village was a shattered jumble of iron rods and masonry, and the wreck of a tractor was lying on its side blocking the main street. A few of the survivors were wandering around the ruins. The pretty girl I’d noticed wasn’t among them.
The first one to see us was an old woman. She was very old, with a deeply wrinkled face and toothless jaws, but she came stumbling towards me, her hands raised as though to claw my eyes out, yelling abuse. One of my men raised his gun at her, but I pushed him away. She was only an old woman, driven half out of her mind with grief and rage.
We did what we could in that village. Some of the people blamed us. Some just cried. Then a message arrived from Khunkarpasha wanting to know where we were and ordering us out at once, so we had to leave them.
Our orders were to join the main group to back up an ambush of a Russian supply column. We were supposed to blow up a culvert behind the last vehicle and then attack the column from the rear while Khunkarpasha’s men hit it from both sides ahead. But we were already late after the air strike.
When we arrived at the culvert, heavy firing had already begun up ahead and we didn’t know where it was coming from. It was mid-morning then, but highly overcast and dark like dusk, and it was difficult to see anything in the murk. I left my men at the culvert and went ahead alone to find out what was going on.
Right away I knew it wasn’t the convoy. There were no trucks, and up ahead I could hear the noise of caterpillar tracks and the rapid fire of an automatic cannon. Then I heard the report of a tank gun and I knew the ambush was in trouble.
By the time I reached the main body, the fighting was over. A single BMP burned in the middle of the road, its rear doors hanging open. The rest of the armour had gone, blasted through the ambush and disappeared. Several corpses littered the side of the road, but as I came closer I found they were all ours.
I found Khunkarpasha standing by the side of the wrecked personnel carrier, almost beside himself with rage. A huge man, built like a bear, he looked angry at the best of times, but on this occasion he was almost crazy. He saw me coming and began yelling even before I reached him.
“Why the hell weren’t your lot in place?” he shouted. “I ordered you to cut them off from the back!”
“It wouldn’t have done any good, commandant,” I pointed out. “They didn’t try to retreat. And we couldn’t have done much against the armour in these conditions, in open country.”
I thought he was about to strike me. His eyes went blank and he began to raise his hand. I don’t know what I’d have done if he’d actually hit me – shot him, perhaps. I’d seen Khunkarpasha beat men to death. But just then there was an interruption.
One of the Russian soldiers in the carrier hadn’t managed to escape. He’d been hiding in the undergrowth by the road, and had been found there by a team of our men. They dragged him in just then, and threw him down into the mud at Khunkarpasha’s feet.
I saw the smile appear on the commandant’s face, and that smile was more frightening than the blank look had been. “Well,” he said. “What do we have here?” He prodded the prisoner with the toe of his boot. “What do we have here?” he asked, more loudly.
The prisoner looked up. He was a very young kid, maybe not even eighteen, and so thin that his eyes bulged in his face. He looked terrified. There was blood on his cheek.
“What’s your name, animal?” Khunkarpasha shouted. The prisoner’s lips moved slightly, but what he said, none of us could make out. This delighted Khunkarpasha.
“Will you speak up, please?” he asked, cupping his hand behind his ear. “I believe our guest here is a little shy!”
I could already tell that whatever he was planning for the prisoner was much worse than what normally happened to those we took captive. If we didn’t kill them on the spot, we would hold them for exchange against our own men, and I’d heard that those of them who weren’t ransomed or exchanged would be sold off as slave labour in the farms, though I hadn’t seen any of that myself at that stage.
But whatever Khunkarpasha planned for the kid was much worse, whatever it was. I knew enough to understand that with total clarity. And, standing there in the mud beside the wrecked BMP and the cowering prisoner, my mind went back to a day in Afghanistan, years ago...
That day, Misha and I had been sitting on the hull of an armoured personnel carrier ourselves, clinging on as it hurtled along a mountain path. We’d been conscripted together, and had volunteered to serve in Afghanistan. At the time we were young and stupid, we’d thought we were going into glory. We hardly knew that we’d be heading into combat – they didn’t talk about such things in the media at the time, they said we’d be going to build bridges and provide security, as though it was a guard detail. Only when we got there did we find out what it was really like.
So this time we were clinging to the hull of the carrier, flinching as Mujahideen heavy machine guns in the hills fired at us, bullets clashing off the metal. We’d been separated from the rest of our column, and were trying to make our way back to it when the ambush had struck. Then something happened – I must have been flung off the carrier as it turned a bend, maybe. I saw the world rush past me, and I hit the ground and everything went black.
When I regained consciousness, I was being kicked in the side rhythmically. I opened my eyes to see three Mujahideen gathered round me. These weren’t the relatively civilised ones, those up north with Masood. They were local tribal levies, and I knew how they treated prisoners. Sometimes they skinned them alive.
The one who had been kicking me laughed when he saw me open my eyes. “Harasho,” he said. “Good, Alyosha, you awake. You feel fine, Alyosha?”
“I’m all right,” I managed to say, though I didn’t feel fine. In fact I felt awful, especially when I saw that they had bayonets in their hands and they were swinging them back and forth meaningfully.
“That good, you feel fine, Alyosha.” He bent over me and held the bayonet before my eyes. “How many people you kill, Alyosha, they feel fine too?”
“I didn’t kill anyone. I’m a minesweeper.”
He laughed and glanced at the others, saying something in his language. The other two both gathered closer, and one grabbed me by the shoulder and began dragging me to my feet.
“You want find out how people you kill feel fine, Alyosha?” the first one asked. “You want talk to them yourself?”
I don’t know what I might have said, or whether I’d have wet myself or what, but I saw the blood spurt out of his chest before I even heard the sound of the burst. One of the other two fell, as well, while the third threw down his bayonet and ran as fast as he could. There was a second burst of fire and he rolled over, yelling.
I looked up from their bodies to see Misha running towards me. He wrapped an arm round my shoulders and began pulling me along. “Can you walk?” he shouted in my ear. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll try,” I said. I could barely put one foot in front of another, and at every step my head rang like a bell, but I stumbled along at his side. “Where are the others?”
“They’re waiting...the lieutenant sent me back for you.” He didn’t say anything else. The enemy began firing at us from the hilltops, bullets smacking into the rocks beside us, fragments bouncing in the air. Misha hunched his shoulders, fired back blindly a couple of times, and hurried me on.
I have no idea how long we stumbled on like that. It can’t have been longer than twenty or twenty-five minutes, I suppose, but at the time it felt like hours. By the end of it he was almost carrying me. I could barely walk. Then suddenly we turned a bend in the road and there was the carrier, the soldiers deployed around it. They almost shot us before they recognised us.
“What the hell were you doing?” the lieutenant raged at us. “One falling off, the other jumping off all without a word. Are you all bloody crazy?”
That was the first I heard that Misha had jumped off by himself to get me, instead of being ordered back by the lieutenant. I turned to look at him. “Misha?”
He didn’t reply. Just smiled – I can see that smile right now – and his hand slipped off my shoulder as he fell to the ground.
I don’t know when they had shot him. It can’t have been too long ago, or he couldn’t have carried me all the way back. But the effort had been too much for him. He was dead before we got him into the carrier, and all he gave me by way of goodbye was the smile.
I remembered all this at that moment, while I stood beside Khunkarpasha watching him torment the conscript in the dirt. “Commandant,” I said, my mouth talking before my brain caught up. “Commandant, don’t do this.”
Khunkarpasha looked at me with such blank amazement that I believe he had forgotten my existence. “What?”
“He’s just a kid,” I said. “Look at him, you can tell he can’t even fire a gun. Let him go. This isn’t worth it.”
“Who the hell are you to give me orders?” Khunkarpasha grabbed me by the lapels of my jacket and thrust me against the hull of the wrecked BMP. “How dare you tell me what to do?”
“I’m not giving you orders, sir. I’m just saying it isn’t worth it – it won’t change the war in any way –“
“I’ll bloody do as I want to,” he said. “Nobody can stop me.”
I raised the barrel of my AK 74 and put it under his chin.
“I can,” I said.
“Your friends have gone,” Alikhan observed, glancing over my shoulder. “They’ve got tired of waiting. Give it ten minutes and you should be able to get back to your hotel all right.”
“But you can’t just leave it like that,” I protested. “What happened with you and Khunkarpasha, and the prisoner?”
“Yeah, strangely enough, he turned out to be called Misha too,” Alikhan said. “He was from Moscow, just like you. My men and I escorted him back to where he could be picked up by his own side. I don’t know what happened to him afterwards, but I hope he’s all right. He was pathetically grateful, kept sobbing and crying all the way back.” He shrugged. “Well, as I said, he was just a kid. Whatever happened to him is a damn sight better than what Khunkarpasha was planning for him.”
“And what about Khunkarpasha?”
“Oh, him. He’s long dead. A week after this he was shot by a Spetsnaz sniper. Of course, by then I was no longer under his command.”
“You continued fighting in the war?”
“Off and on, for a few months. But my heart wasn’t in it any longer, and my men began to drift away. I don’t blame them, either – nobody wants to fight under a commander who’s lost interest. One day I found myself alone, so I just threw my gun away and went home.”
“And that was all to it?”
“Afterwards I had some tough times, and tougher times yet when the second war came. But now I have a job – it isn’t much, but I have nobody to take care of, and it keeps me in food, clothes and shelter. Talking of shelter, you’d better be going before your friends return to see if you’re perhaps still here.” He rose. “I’ll see you safe to the hotel. Don’t come back here again, is my advice.”
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow,” I informed him, as we collected our coats from the rack by the door. “Thanks for your help.”
“It’s all right.” Outside, the rain had stopped, but the streets were deserted and freezing. We squelched through puddles of water for a while. “I wonder where that kid, Misha, is,” he said. “It bothers me sometimes that I never tried to find out anything about him, not even his full name. He’s just Misha from Moscow.”
“I’ll try and ask around,” I said. “But with just that I don’t think I’ll find him. There are hundreds of thousands of Mishas.”
“Yes.” We had reached the street opposite my hotel. “Well, then, good night, young man, and a safe journey home to you.”
“Wait,” I said. “What happened after you held Khunkarpasha at gunpoint? He just let the prisoner go?”
Alikhan grunted. “He didn’t have much of a choice, but of course he demanded something in return. Something it was in my power to give him, and I did.” He smiled, and slapped me on the shoulder. “Go, and if you find Misha, drop me a letter, care of the cafe.”
“I’ll do that,” I promised. When I’d crossed the street I looked over my shoulder one last time at him. He was still standing under the lamp post where we’d been talking, and as I watched he raised his hands and smoothed back the long hair which framed his face. As he did so, I saw something which sent me hurrying into the hotel and to my room, where I threw myself on to the bed and tried to make myself believe I had seen what my eyes had insisted I’d seen.
As Alikhan had pushed back his hair past his narrow, haunted face, I had understood at last what had seemed so strange about him when I’d been talking to him earlier.
The lamp light wasn’t bright, but the yellow glow was enough to show me clearly that he did not have any ears.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014