By coincidence, I happened to be reading Boys in Zinc during the days in which war engulfed Ukraine. So titled because of the Soviet practice of sending dead soldiers home from Afghanistan in sealed zinc coffins, the book is a vast collection of records of oral interviews Svetlana Alexievich conducted with soldiers, wives, mothers, doctors and nurses about their experiences of war. Its poignancy is made almost aching at the thought of what the families of soldiers on both sides are experiencing as we speak.
From an interview with 'a wife':
There's a big photograph of him hanging on the wall. "Get papa down for me," my daughter asks. "I'm going to play with papa." She surrounds the photograph with her toys and talks to him. I'm putting her to bed at night and she asks: "Which part of papa did they shoot at? Why did they choose our papa?" I take her to kindergarten. In the evening, when I have to take her home, she bawls, "I won't leave until papa comes to get me. Where's my papa?" I don't know how to answer her. How can I explain? I'm only twenty-one myself.
By 'a mother':
They brought him back ten days later. For all those ten days I'd dreamed that I'd lost something and I couldn't find it. For all those ten days the kettle wailed in the kitchen. I put it on to make tea and it sang in different voices. I like houseplants: I have lots of them on the windowsills, on the wardrobe, on the bookshelves. Every morning when I watered them, I dropped the pots. They slid out of my hands and broke. The air was filled with the smell of damp earth.
Three cars stopped in front of the building: two army jeeps and an ambulance. I guessed immediately that they were coming to us, to our home. I went to the door myself and opened it. "Don't tell me! Don't tell me anything! I hate you! Just give me my son's body. I'll bury him my way. Alone..."
On 4 March I had a dream. A big field, with white flashes all over it. Something exploded, and there were long white streamers of smoke. My Sasha was running, running like mad, tearing along...He had nowhere to hide. A flash on one side, then on the other. I was running after him, trying to catch up with him. I wanted to be in the front, with him behind me. Once, when he was little, we got caught in a thunderstorm out in the country. I covered him with by body and he scrambled about underneath me, like a little mouse: "Mama, save me!" But now I couldn't catch up with him. He was so tall and his strides were so very, very long. I was running as hard as I could. I thought my heart would burst. But I couldn't catch up with him...
The front door banged and my husband came in. My daughter and I were sitting on the sofa. He walked straight across the room to us in his shoes and coat and hat. He'd never done that before. He was always so particular, because he'd been in the army all his life. He had to have discipline in everything. He walked over and went down on his knees in front of us. "Girls, something terrible has happened."
Then I noticed there were other people in the hallway. A nurse came in, and a military commissar, teachers from my school, friends of my husband.
"Sashenka! My little boy!"
It was three years ago. And we still can't open the suitcase with Sasha's things in it. They brought it with the coffin. I think they smell of Sasha.
From a doctor:
The way a man dies isn't anything like in the movies. A man doesn't die like a Stalinist hero - a bullet hits him in the head, he throws up his arms and falls. In reality what happens is this: a bullet hits him in he head, his brains go flying out, and he runs after them - he can run half a kilometre, trying to catch them. It's crazy, way over the top. He runs until physiological death sets in. It would be easier to shoot him that to watch him lying there and listen to him sobbing or begging for death as a release. That's if he has any strength left. Another man can be lying there, and the fear creeps up on him. His heart falters. He shouts and calls for you. You check him and calm him down...But his brain is just waiting for the moment when the man relaxes...Before you can even leave the bed the boy's gone. And he was there just a moment ago.
From a soldier:
What did I learn there? That good never wins. There's always just as much evil in the world. Man is terrifying. But nature is beautiful.
And, finally, from another:
What is love? I was there at the birth when my wife had our daughter. At moments like that you need the person you're closest to beside you to hold your hand. Now I'd force every male bastard to stand beside a woman's head when she's giving birth, when her legs are splayed out and she's covered in blood and shit. Take a look, you sons of bitches, at the way a child comes into the world. Yet you kill so simply. Killing is easy....A woman isn't like a door you can just walk in and out of.... I've seen. I know now that children are born bright and radiant. They're angels.