Read THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER Online
Authors: Gerald Seymour
B A N T A M PRESS:
LONDON • NEW YORK - TORONTO • SYDNEY • AUCKLAND
I had a life. It was not the best, not the worst, but it was a life. It was hard, a struggle, but I did not complain because it was the life that God had given me. I had happiness.'
The voice dripped. Sometimes it faded away, was lost under the noise of the combi-van's engine, sometimes it was little more than a whisper.
'I was blessed. My wife was Muna. Our son was three years old, our daughter was close to one year. They were fine children. The girl had good eyes that were the colour of the early-morning skies in summer, and she would have been beautiful. We lived in the village with my wife's parents, and four houses away were my parents. Her father had fields for goats and my father had an orchard for apples and peaches. Her father said, after our marriage, that he no longer wanted to drive the taxi, and he gave it to me. It was generous of him to give me the taxi and I thought that one day I would have enough money to buy a second vehicle and employ a driver. It was what I hoped. A man with two taxis is a man of substance.'
Caleb thought the driver talked to stay awake. The others slept.
The combi-van stank from the engine's fumes, and from the oil that thev used to clean the weapons. None of them had washed for more than a week. Caleb could not sleep because he was squashed tight against the driver and each time the driver twisted the wheel or reached down for the gear-stick, an elbow nudged into his ribcage and jolted him. Three of his friends had crammed into the rear seats with their rifles, the rocket-propelled grenade-launcher and the rucksack with the missiles; three more were immediately behind him, cradling the rusted old .5 calibre machine-gun taken eleven years earlier from a Russian paratroop platoon. His own body separated the Chechen from the driver, to whom only Caleb listened.
'We did not think the war would come to us. We thought the war was for the cities - for Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad. Once there had been a camp for the foreigners near to the village, but it had not been used for two years, and we did not think we would be a target. Why should we be? It was an early morning like any other. I had prayed in the dawn at the mosque and the
had spoken to us and then I had gone to bring wood for my father and for my wife's father, and I had drawn water from the well and had washed the taxi windows and its body, and I had measured the oil, and then I had told my wife when I would be home in the evening. We were worried for our son because he coughed, but I had said to my wife that I would try in the town, in the day, to get medicine. That day my father was going to select a goat for slaughter because we were close to my wife's birthday, and my wife's father was going to cut back dead wood from the trees in the orchards. It was like any other day and the war was far away. I said goodbye to my wife and I held my son while he coughed up on to my shoulder and I kissed my girl. God forgive me, but I spoke sharply to my wife because my son's phlegm stained my shirt and that would not be good when I went into the town to hope for passengers in my taxi. I left them. I drove past the mosque and past my father's fields where his goats were, and past my wife's father's orchards, and as I went down the hill, very slowly because the road is not tarmacadam but crushed stone, I saw the trails of the aeroplanes in the skies.'
To the Chechen, who had a patch of leather fastened with elastic over his right eye and whose left hand was replaced with a chrome-coated metal claw, Caleb was Abu Khaleb. He and the other men had fought in the north and on the plain south of Kabul and then north of Kandahar, had fought and fled when disaster was about to overwhelm them, then fought again and fled again. For a week they had not rested, had barely eaten. For each of them, pressed into the combi-van - the taxi - it was hard to accept defeat. They were now on a flat plain, featureless, without trees or hills, without cover, and their destination was the mountains where, if those were their orders, they would finally stand and fight from caves, ravines and high ground . . . if they reached the mountains.
'I was driving down the hill from the village, very carefully so that the holes would not damage underneath the vehicle, and the trails from three aeroplanes were coming towards me. They were very high and I could not see the planes themselves, only the trails they loft behind. In our village we knew little about the war. Everything we knew came from the
who had a radio set and who listened to the broadcasts of the leadership from Kabul, but we were far from Kabul. I remember I was angry with the dust that came up from the road because I had just washed the windows. I had no interest in the aeroplanes. It was a good morning and the sun shone . . . I thought I was blessed by God and I was thinking of the feast for my wife's birthday. I regretted that I had spoken sharply to her about my shirt.'
His head rocked, his chin drooped. Even if Caleb could have slept he would not have done. The elbow butted into his ribcage. But the taxi-driver, who used only the sidelights of the combi-van, had swerved twice on to the rough gravel beside the tarmacadam and each time Caleb had snatched the wheel, heaved it over and prevented them spewing off the road. In the Toyota pickup, with the
.5 calibre machine-gun mounted over the cab, they had been at the back end of a five-vehicle convoy fleeing for the mountains. It would have been chance, luck, that the first four pickups had twisted and negotiated a way through an old roadblock of concrete-filled oil drums and had missed the coil of loose barbed wire. Their pickup had caught it. They had driven on, hearing the scraping of the tangle of wire and had thought they would lose it. They had not. The front left tyre had gone first, then the rear right. Within a kilometre the two tyres were shredded, and they were detached from the convoy, with the cold til the evening gathering round them. There had been an argument. In a babble of voices, Caleb had said they should stay by the road, and the Chechen had backed him. He was the Chechen's favourite.
Four hours later, the taxi van had come down the road. Another argument when it was halted at gunpoint. They were outside the part of Afghanistan they knew, they were strangers there. Caleb had said they should use the driver and, again, the Chechen had backed him. Three hours later, and Caleb smiled ruefully at the thought of it, he knew the driver, the driver's immediate family, the driver's distant family and the driver's village. In the heat of the vehicle, he had shrugged out of his camouflage tunic - the floppy hanging trousers, the long-tailed shirt and the wool cap without a peak made warmth enough.
'I saw my friend, Omar. He had gone down the road from the village to see if there was grazing lower on the hill. He is a good man.
We used to talk and take coffee together when I was not in the town with the taxi. I was slowing when it seemed as if the world exploded.
The taxi was lifted up from the road. If I had not seen Omar and braked to talk to him, the taxi would have gone off the road. I would have been killed, better if I had been killed - but that was not God's will. I was two kilometres from the village, or perhaps a little more, and the noise was like thunder, but greater than anything I had ever heard before. I braked, I ran from the vehicle and lay in a ditch with Omar, my face in the water. I thought the thunder would break my ears . . . Then it was gone. When I dared to look up I saw the trails of the aeroplanes going away. But I could not see our village. There was a great cloud over it, a cloud of dust. The cloud was from the camp that had not been used for two years, right to my village and past it.
The old camp and the village were underneath the cloud. And there was quiet. You would like to see a photograph of my family?'
Caleb nodded. He knew how the story would end. A wallet was passed to him and he opened it. He saw the identification card behind brittle plastic. Fawzi al-Ateh. He saw the date of birth. The driver was twenty-five years old, four months older than himself.
There was the photograph of the driver - faded, in black and white, probably taken on his wedding day - but with a straggling beard and a wispy moustache. The driver's finger jabbed at the picture beside the identification card. In it, Fawzi al-Ateh stood tall beside a slight woman who wore the dark
robe. Caleb could not see her face. The driver held their son against his shoulder and the wife held their daughter against her hip. He held the wallet down by his knees so that the dashboard lights lit it.
'They were all dead. My wife, my son and my daughter were dead.
My parents were dead and my wife's parents. The
The family of Omar were dead. A helicopter flew over in the afternoon, but did not land. We buried all of the dead that we could find, but there were still some that we had not reached but who we could smell. I think God was kind to me because we buried my wife, my son and my daughter, and my wife's parents, but we did not find my father and my mother. It was six days before help came, foreigners in soldiers' uniforms. They were Americans, and they gave money to Omar and myself. I kept my money, God forgive me, but Omar threw their money back at their feet and they beat him, then took him away in their trucks. I was left. There was me and some dogs and the goats that had been in the fields. I took my taxi down to the town. I. . .'
The spotlight blazed in front of him, its beam bouncing in the dust encrusted on the windscreen.
He saw the shape of a man, shadow thrown grotesquely forward, rifle at the hip, an arm raised high above the symmetric shape of a helmet.
Maybe the driver panicked. Maybe terror locked his foot down on the accelerator. Maybe he had never been confronted by the half-lit silhouette of an American soldier.
The combi-van surged past the soldier. For a moment it was clear of him and free.
Locked in Caleb's hand, the wallet was unseen, unfelt. There were cries, shouts of awakened confusion behind him and a claw dug into his arm as the Chechen tried to steady himself. As the van swung in the road, the sidelights caught the prone figures of men in camouflage uniforms beside the tarmacadam. Caleb heard the shouts, then the first shots hit the van.
He glimpsed the wide-eyed terror on the driver's face then -
seconds later - felt the warmth as the man's blood spattered on his cheeks and in his beard.
The van, out of control, slewed off the road, rolled once from side to roof to side, then came to rest. A door careered open and Caleb was hurled across the driver's torso and head, his breath squeezed from his lungs. The gunfire went on. Bullets hammered the carcass of the van. Shouts burst in his ears. 'Watch the motherfuckers - don't go fucking close - careful, guys, careful - hit the fuckers.' Another endless rattle of firing, on automatic, raked the van. Caleb hugged the ground between the rocks that had broken his fall from the door. It was more than two years since he had heard words in that language.
It was from his past, from a rejected culture. A moment of silence, then a low moan from inside the van. A final rattle of gunfire killed the moan.
He lay on the ground, his teeth chattering, his mouth filled with dry earth. The spotlight played over the van. He had seen men when they were about to die, the haunted faces of men in the trenches as the helicopters went over, men being led across the football pitch to the crossbar of the goal where a noose hung, men who followed the Northern Alliance and had used all their ammunition, all their grenades, and now faced captors who were without mercy. The spotlight's beam roved off the van and edged towards him, seemed to nestle against him, then held him. If he was to be shot, this was the moment. Did they want a prisoner? Or another corpse?
He heard the young voice, shrill with excitement: 'Sergeant, there's one alive. Over here, one of the fuckers is alive.'
He awaited the shot. The only part of his life flickering across his mind was the last two years - because the older past was forgotten.
He heard the answering shout, more distant and anxious. 'Watch him, kid, watch him close. He moves his hands, shoot him. I'm coming. Go careful, take no chances.'
Caleb was his past, and erased. He was Abu Khaleb, and that was his present. In his hand was the opened wallet with the photograph of a taxi-driver, his wife and children, the identification card of Fawzi al-Ateh. His brain, at flywheel speed, worked for his future, and his survival, and his lifeline was the photograph that almost matched his face.
The aircraft banked on its final circuit, then its nose went down and it started the descent.
Above him, the voice was loud, shouted over the increased pitch of the engine noise. T tell you, this has been a journey from hell.'
A voice barked back, 'You want to do it every week, sir, then you get kind of used to hell.'
It's the shit bucket, isn't it? That's the smell I can't get rid of.'
I'd say, sir, that having to wipe their arses for them is worse than the smell.'
He was ignored, might not have existed. He was as much a piece of cargo as the crates loaded with them on to the transport aircraft after he and the four others had been secured on the steel floor. It might have been four days, or five, since the journey had started. He didn't know. They had landed three times, or four, for refuelling.