IGOR THE CHANGELING
By Titus Green “The future has no other reality than as present hope, and the past is no more than present memory.” (Jorge Luis Borges)
A hostile stranger ten yards in front of him demands to know his name, and so he speaks his current name, in his surrogate language.
“Abdul Sarbanri you are charged with the attempted murder of US military personnel at Camp Leyza, Khost province Afghanistan, and of conspiring to commit multiple acts of terror against them on July 7th, 2007. How do you plead?”
He listens to the drawl of this seated magistrate draped in black, with the American flag beside him and the image of the omnipotent eagle above and evaluates the props of this kangaroo court wearily. He has not been addressed in English for many years but comprehends the gist of the message. The interpreter they have appointed for him spits out the charge in artless, clumsy Pashto filtered through American English phonology and Abdul recognizes bitterly both the ineptitude and cunning of this bearded boy they have chosen to be his mouthpiece. He is a phoney. Another pretender. Probably a college student who’s studied Afghani from a coursebook and talked his way into court interpreting to make money.
It’s clear he has never set foot in Afghanistan and doesn’t know a damn thing about the nuances of its language. Along with this pompous ass in front of him manufacturing justice, here is yet another human smokescreen wafting in front of him within the vast mist of his enemy’s deceptions. But then he is aware of his own giant deception that he has been growing for the past twenty-five years until it reached the size of a huge oak tree, and he smiles wryly at his hypocrisy.
“Plead? Multiple acts of terror?” Abdul grunts the sentence with derisive laughter at the po-faced judge. Considering the action he took on that day mentioned by this man in front of him, the words are massively absurd. Considering the real terror he has seen, lived and created in his dramatic and improbable life, what took place that day was heroic and not malign.
“You are more stupid than a dead donkey!” growls Abdul in frustration, and the flaky interpreter makes a perplexed facial expression before addressing the judge. Abdul hears four distinct English words that he knows could not possibly convey his Pashto insult, and is satisfied by his excellent capacity to identify traitors.
In his sterile cell he longs for home, for the humbling solitude of the mountains and the rituals of prayer but his reverie is interrupted by the entrance of two individuals he knows are CIA, or worse, along with the joke interpreter. What now, he wonders. More American hospitality? More electricity to the genitals, or deprivation of sleep with that Satanic noise he had heard was called gangster rap? Another barrage of loaded questions and asinine innuendos from these unfunny, sadistic clowns as in the detention centres at Khost, and Kabul?
Which mulla was orchestrating the attacks on the opium fields? Which warlord was he loyal to? How did they get their intel? He tries to improve his interpreter’s shoddy work and approximates the translation himself. He is sick and tired of these mind-attacks. He withstood their psychological sodomy in Afghanistan and grimaced at the gnawing hunger during the freezing eleven-hour journey on the plane to America, hunching into the foetal position for warmth as the pain from the shackles intensified. He recalled odd details about that flight, such as the baffling logos on the tail-fin of the aircraft, which were not military and did not display the American flag as the US air-transports did. The insignia was corporate and confirmed bitterly his understanding of exactly why the valiant knights of peace and justice from the western world had levelled so much of his adopted homeland with their bombs.
He is questioned again about ‘destroying American assets’ and grows wearier with the tedious buffoonery of these soulless minions mindlessly defending the interests of their faceless, anonymous masters. However, it has become clear to him since arriving in The Land of the Free that their interest in him has become more personal. Where had he acquired his combat training and killing prowess? Someone more astute than the gormless parrot committing crimes against interpretation next to him has detected the faintest trace of an accent in his Pashto. They are onto him at last. The inevitable dramatic unmasking was always coming sooner or later, so to hell with this idiotic charade he thinks. He motions a request for a pen and paper, which are handed to him by a frowning agent. He pauses, seeking to recall a once familiar script that conveyed the distant ideals of his youth and he is suddenly flattened by a tsunami of nostalgia gushing from the ocean of his past. With some effort, and tears welling, he gets the two-sentence message in Cyrillic characters onto the Post-it note and pushes it across the table.
“My real name is Corporal Igor Chalov, Alpha Battalion, Special Operations Forces of the Soviet Army, born in Leningrad April 5th, 1956”, reads the CIA officer, before reading the last part of the message.
“Get rid of this buffoon next to me and find a Russian interpreter”, he reads, indifferent to the hurt look on the translator’s face.
And so, he was obliged to talk and make his multiple lives credible to his listeners. His interpreter is now a stout, conscientious Belarusian lady who he believes will do the odyssey justice. He talks of his Soviet childhood, of music and literature lessons in School 184 in Leningrad in the seventies, of how he and his best friend Sergei played hide-and-seek in the woods in the suburbs of the city, and of how he climbed the trees with ease and learned how never to be found. He was a Young Pioneer, wearing his uniform with fondness and learning to swear obedience to the state from the cradle. His excellence in sports and gymnastics was noted, and at one point it was suggested he could box for Russia, perhaps in the 1980 Olympics at home. However, in 1978 he was conscripted and a year later transferred to Special Operations Forces because of his physical prowess, intelligence and marksmanship. “No soldiers in the Soviet army will have a closer relationship to danger as you”, the instructor at the training camp had said. “Death will be behind you, constantly.”
Two years later, the instructor’s words moved from the safety of the abstract, to the horrifying concrete. On his family’s television in the autumn of 1979, he watched General Secretary Brezhnev, with his coiffured hair and monstrous eyebrows, tell the nation that the military was being mobilized to ‘help our brothers in Afghanistan safeguard socialism’. He knew little about Afghanistan, other that since time began it had been renowned for warlords and banditry. He struggled to understand Russia’s interest in such a place. Was it a new phase of the Warsaw Pact, or related to the treaty of friendship between the countries? The common Russian was forever insulated from facts and shielded from the fine print of such arrangements. However, Igor was zealous and willing to dispatch his military obligations for the Soviet Union. His imagined duelling with swarthy horsemen in turbans in the Khyber Pass.
However, there was nothing romantic or filmic in this conflict. He was deployed in 1980, and found himself immersed in a filthy, deafening nightmare in which each day he killed without thought and tiptoed ever closer to that inevitable violent end the Spetsnaz instructor had talked about. This was a land whose medieval soul was sewn from the fabric of defiance and of lethal disobedience towards the prodding bayonets of foreign invaders. Beneath the sandy soil of this landscape the dirty skeletons of the British Empire’s 19th century soldiers could not rise from their resting places and give Igor’s comrades a ghoulish warning of their country’s folly. Turn back. Go home. These mountain people will break you the signs in their bony hands would read.
Murderous chaos ruled. The KGB, so they said, had assassinated the country’s president and replaced him with another who would do as he was told. It was a strategy called regime change, and Igor had heard the Americans and British were masters of this dark craft in South America and the Middle East. It was as though they had smashed a hornet’s nest when killing the president, and thousands of vengeful insects were about to descend on them in a furious, frenzied swarm. The vengeful swarm assumed a name. Its title would haunt the psyche of Soviet soldiers for decades: mujahideen or the holy warriors.
Igor’s unit was charged with hunting these martial shadows who melted into the amorphous mass of Afghan humanity as soon as they had killed a comrade. The assassin suddenly became the sagacious, wizened old man or avuncular market trader surely incapable of pulling the trigger or wielding the knife that had begot the widening crimson lake in the sand of a dead comrade’s blood. Killing with disarming smiles: Hassan-i-Sabbah’s students indeed. They were well supplied and trained with small-arms too. Foreign benefactors landed in helicopters and motivated them with money, weapons, heroin and speeches.
Within a year, Igor from Leningrad was gone. This identity was erased by the consciousness of war. He was now a factotum of death in a green uniform who thought nothing of killing the innocent, poisoning entire villages, pumping nerve gas into mosques and executing prisoners. All his emotions were nullified, and cruelty was justified by orders. He became indifferent to the obliterated bodies of children blown apart by the ‘toy bombs’ dropped from helicopters—‘demoralization tactics’ the KGB called it—and thought nothing of watching his enemy take hours to die. The howls of pain and pleading for a mercy bullet educated him in his own mortality.
The firefights became more frequent and savage. Sometimes he killed at close quarters, gouging out eyes or crushing Adam’s Apples with his hands. Mujahideen ambushes became fiercer, crueller and more ingenious: their captured comrades were skinned, castrated and left rigged with explosives. Traps became more brutal each day, and every time Igor looked up into the golden-brown sun-sets he saw a clenched fist wielding a scimitar soaked in Russian blood. Between the blade he saw a vast pair of oriental eyes concentrating century upon century of loathing upon him.
He cannot recall the time, day or month that he became separated from his comrades. Following Gregorian time out there had become useless and irrelevant. The days passed in gunfire and screams, not hours. Killing was their chronology, and time was constantly referred to in clauses of death, such as ‘when we shot the guerrillas in the ravine’, or ‘when we blasted those bearded bastards on the hilltop with our mortar assault’. The dead invited themselves into the fragmented dreams of Igor’s fitful sleep, their faces pale, cadaverous and accusatory.
It was an accidental firefight: the Soviet commandos and Afghan mountain warriors ran into each other by chance by the entrance of a craggy ravine. Igor’s unit was outnumbered and attempted a tactical retreat. They moved back in groups, giving covering fire as they had been trained to. Igor recalled the rounds hissing past him and the sickening thuds of bullets tearing through his comrades’ bodies. They fell to the ground, some instantly dead and some clutching their wounds with either whimpers or obscene curses as their jackets turned beetroot red. Igor ran, oblivious to the predicaments of his dying compatriots. He ran as desperately as he had alongside Sergei in those Russian forests when they had believed wolves were chasing them. He ran down the slope of a hill, not daring to look back and out across an open stretch of ground where he knew his enemy’s sharp eyes could not fail to see him scurrying away like a pitiful insect. He ran, with terror and despair propelling his legs until the side cramps under his ribs became so intense that he believed his lungs would explode. After hours of exertion, he stumbled along an ancient path with slopes on either side and discovered the mouth of a cave formed of dark, igneous rock. In the diminishing light its black recesses seemed to be calling him, and he lurched, on his hands and knees, through its entrance.
In the cave, he cocooned himself in dark silence. He did not dare to light a fire for hours, but just sat back against the smoothest surface he could locate and contemplated his isolation. Later, as the chill of evening began to caress him, he took out the hexamine tablets from his field kit and lit a small fire. As the slight, dim flame partially illuminated the recesses of the cave he began to process his predicament. He was on the run, and his hunters weren’t famous for their sense of mercy. He had no weapon, limited rations and only a compass for guidance. He was thousands of miles from Leningrad and the innocent sanctuary of his past. He thought of his comrades and winced imagining the screams of the captured who did or did not cooperate. That diabolical death was seeking him, as his training instructor had told the recruits that day. It was surely galloping across this soil saturated in centuries of blood and cruelty and fertilized by the bones of murdered chivalry. It was charging across the terrain like an apocalyptic horseman’s steed and his scent was in its nostrils. Any moment it would come charging through the mouth of the cave.
However, Igor’s foreboding gradually transformed into a deep sense of liberation. Ironically, in this parlous condition, hundreds of miles from salvation and with death creeping up on him, he had never felt freer. He was finally a sovereign human being again. In this strange, ancient and lonely place he heard eerie noises from the depths of the cavern but felt no fear. He was his own man. No dictates to follow, no orders to observe. No KGB heavies could find him here, and no politburo bastards could storm into this secret space and demand that he sacrifice himself for their agenda. In the darkness, Brezhnev’s face appeared in front of him, gruesome and distorted. Igor spat at it. At least I shall die a free man, he thought. Moscow’s ownership of my soul dissolves in these remote mountains.
Days passed, during which he ventured from the cave only a couple of times in the daylight to scan the surrounding terrain for enemies or friends, of which there were none. He did not use his flare to try and attract attention, because the desert was beginning to comfort and seduce him. Trust me. I will hide and protect you, he thought he heard it say as he became more delirious and dehydrated. The pangs of hunger were becoming greater, and soon he found himself too weak and slow to catch the scorpions scuttling between the rocks. He wondered how they would taste topped with caviar and laughed. He realised that the numb serenity overcoming him, accompanied by a supreme indifference to further hardships, was a prelude to death and he permitted the gateway of mortality to be opened. His parched throat and aching limbs no longer pained him. So, this was the demise imposed on him by the nameless autocrats of Soviet Russia who had controlled his life from birth and written it off as nonchalantly as if it had been a tool that was no longer effective. In the twilight, prostrate and too weak to move, he started to hallucinate. The giant face of a sultan of antiquity peered at him from the sky with disapproving eyes, and then he saw tiny dark figures silhouetted traversing a nearby hilltop. The little bodies vanished, and then reappeared as they went over the peak of a rock near to him. The tops of their heads seemed abnormally flat, until the figures emerged in their baggy brown clothing and he identified the familiar Pashteen hat. They floated through the dim light, silent as phantoms or ‘dhuki’ as the commandos called them. The twelve mujahideen warriors looked at his stricken form with wary eyes.
He awoke next day in a small clay hut surprised initially to be alive, but not happy: he had seen, with sickened senses, the terrible handiwork of the warlords on Soviet prisoners. He also recalled the parable mentioned by Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov of the Russian soldier captured by Muslim soldiers in battle and flayed alive for refusing to convert to Islam and he gulped at the prospect of experiencing this atrocity. He smelled spices and saw a pot boiling over a fireplace.
Two Afghans, who looked like mountain tribesman, entered and seeing that Igor was awake they beckoned him to follow them. Wearily, Igor traipsed out of the hut and into the bright sunlight of early morning where there was a swarthy, impressive looking man sitting on the ground with men seated behind him dressed in dirty clothes and draped in bandoliers and webbing that Igor recognised as Russian. The men sat upright, and their hirsute faces were taut with tension that contrasted with the smiling serenity expressed in the features of the man seated ahead of them picking away delicately at a piece of bread. He had a long, oblong face which was broadened deceptively in the lower half by a thick, luscious beard that reached down to the lower half of his neck. His nose was a firm column that ended between his close-set eyes which seemed capable of communicating an infinite spectrum of nuances, both malignant and malign. At that moment, they expressed something close to amusement. There was something both noble and menacing about him.
The man spoke, but Igor did not recognize the language. In the special forces training camps in the Urals, they had learned only Dari, which Igor had used in a perfunctory manner to control prisoners. However, a few seconds later one of the tall men who had beckoned him from the hut relayed the utterance in comprehensible and grammatical Russian.
“Don’t you see that nobody wants to be a Communist in Afghanistan?”
The sitting man grinned when he saw the question conveyed, and to Igor the expression was both smug, and yet strangely warm and welcoming. Igor cleared his parched throat and spoke. He was desperate for water.
“Communist, capitalist. These words mean nothing to me. I am just a simple soldier following orders.”
Igor listened with surprise to his words, illegal and punishable just a few hundred miles to the north. Was this a liberated mind exercising its rights?
The sitting man spoke again, and the interpreter listened intently with anxiety, as if a slip in his craft could bring serious consequences.
“Well, your orders are void now my friend. Soon you will have a new mission, and a new purpose. But you are tired, and hungry yes? We will bring you food.”
When the interpreter had finished speaking, the man with commanding presence clicked his fingers. A follower stood up, and knowing what he was expected to do, went away to fetch something with which to feed the famished Russian.
Igor muttered thanks and gripped his throat to convey his thirst, and the lordly character beckoned the subordinate back and expressed the additional need. Igor was grateful for the hospitality, but also unnerved by the charm of his host and not convinced that this amiability might be nothing more than a cruel deception and a preliminary to torture. Was he destined to become that fictional martyr of Dostoevsky’s novel, with his skinned body haunting the minds of his distant compatriots as the vultures descended? The leader smiled and spoke again, and his translator reacted.
“My name is Babrak Amin, and your country murdered my cousin, who was the president of Afghanistan. It is Allah’s will that I avenge him and drive the imperial atheists from our land. Do not be afraid, for although you wear the uniform of our enemy you have my word that while you are a prisoner, you are also a guest and guests deserve hospitality. Come, we will have dinner together.”
Igor was kept in the clay hut for weeks, and his journeys outside it were carefully controlled by his captors. It seemed that he was in a small, well-concealed mujahideen hilltop base-camp that doubled as an observation post because of the panoramic views it enjoyed over the flatlands below. Close to the hut, under a well-camouflaged lean-to was a weapons and provisions cache.
He was summoned to Babrak each day, and they talked in the seclusion of a nearby cave. The warlord’s inquisitiveness exhausted the interpreter. At first, Babrak’s routine interrogation questions concerned Igor’s unit, their mission, troop strength and troop movements. Igor was evasive at first; recalling his special forces interrogation training and clutching the remaining fragments of loyalty to the motherland, he gave vague answers.
Babrak was patient, and gradually the topics of their conversations shifted to the personal. Babrak had never been to Russia, or anywhere outside South Central Asia, and was fascinated by Igor’s country and culture, even though he was an adversary. He wanted to know about Igor’s childhood, his family and his religion. He even shared information about himself: he spoke some English, had seven children and had owned a textile factory before the unrest in the country began.
They talked more, and sipped tea in the warm afternoons. They even took strolls in the mountains accompanied by Babrak’s bodyguards and the translator, ducking for cover when the MiGs shrieked through the sky, and when the ominous air-chopping sound of Hind gunships could be heard in the distance. They learned that they had a shared passion for poetry, and Igor happily recited Pushkin on request as the translator worked overtime. Soon they were visiting villages under Babrak’s guardianship, where he was welcomed cordially as the guest of Babrak, who was their guest of honour. It was at one of these feasts, where Igor tasted chicken korma and koftas for the first time, that he noticed a beautiful woman whose head and shoulders were covered by a colourful chador. Their eyes met.
After a while, Babrak told Igor that he no longer considered him a prisoner, but a guest.
“Does that mean I am free to go?” asked Igor, in Pashtun. Eighteen months of immersion in the camp and using some crude self-study materials had given him foundation level proficiency and literacy in the language.
Babrak chuckled and took a puff from his opium pipe. The pungent, fragrant aroma wafted over to Igor’s nostrils.
“And where would you go, my dear Afghansty?”
Igor considered the question and thought of his parents already notified that their son’s name had been added to Leningrad’s memorial plaque of fallen military heroes who had given their all for the cause. The thought of their despair filled him with hopelessness.
Where indeed? He was too far gone now. How could he become again part of the monstrous Soviet war machine? He now wore a Pashtun smock and hat and had a bristling beard. His cultural osmosis had gone too far, and neutrality was an impossibility. He had sensed that Babrak had been planning a dramatic development for Igor. An existential transformation. A death and rebirth. His host had become his friend and protector, but it was obvious that there was now a certain rite Igor was expected to perform to make the script that Babrak intended for him possible to write.
“You know, you could help us. Join your brothers here and help correct Afghanistan’s injustice. You know your place is here.”
Igor had been anticipating the words that followed for some time.
“But there is something you must do, and someone you need to believe in.”
And so, one afternoon, in the presence of an imam, he recited the Shahada and promised his allegiance to a foreign god and his prophet. Igor Chalov was cancelled: his experiences, character and beliefs were removed by the same abstract power that united these men and his new identity was forged inside the furnace of belief. Igor was now Abdullah.
His treason was passive, initially. He merely accompanied his new brothers in reconnaissance tasks, watching his former comrades in their olive-green uniforms through binoculars. He helped translate captured Soviet maps and documents and listened in to radio intercepts between Russian soldiers. Abdullah’s Soviet soldier identity had lacked meaning, he believed. However, now he was galvanised by a strange and powerful purpose.
Gradually, he became more active and was trusted with more responsibility. He was allowed to wield a Kalashnikov and became adept in all the Pashtun generational tribal skills of harnessing the terrain for concealment and sustenance. He could glide in and out of enemy-occupied territory effortlessly. He had become a ghost.
Soon he was a full participant, aiming his weapon as doomed mechanized patrols approached the narrow mountain passes that trapped them. He fired at and killed his ex-comrades, guiltlessly watching the bullets pierce them. His new name, and beliefs, had corrected his faulty moral vision. He now saw evildoers with the same clarity that he sensed the spirit jinns in the mountains.
In the evenings, Babrak and he passed the time in the houses of tribal elders seated in a circle as tea was passed around. Babrak gave homilies on the obligations of jihad and observed Abdullah’s passion and commitment with satisfaction. One day Abdullah was summoned to Babrak and when he arrived he saw the beautiful woman from the feast. She looked at him and one corner of her mouth curled into a smile.
“This is your wife”, said Babrak.
“She is my niece and dead cousin’s daughter. You two will marry tomorrow and god willing produce many valiant sons.”
Her name was Zareena, and she bore Abdullah a son and a daughter.
The war against the Slavonic communists continued, with each skirmish giving birth to another twenty kilometres away with the same futile, pyrrhic outcome: clusters of dead Russians and Afghans bloodied and contorted. Abdullah wondered when the stubborn, bushy-eyebrowed buffoon who ran his former country would see sense, and after his fifth double-vodka, make the call and end this carnage. As the conflict escalated in the mid-nineteen eighties it dragged Abdullah across the breadth of the country. He came into contact with the foreign brokers and agents of insurgency: the foreign zealots ‘answering the jihad call’, the Pakistani intelligence officers moonlighting as commission-grasping arms dealers and treacherous Uzbek warlords whose allegiances could be bought with suit-cases full of cash. He watched the shifty British and American men in suits descending from helicopters brandishing attache cases who whispered furtively into each other’s ears and held secretive meetings with the warlords. One day he saw a tall Arab dressed in a robe leaving one of these meetings. He was accompanied by bodyguards and carried himself with a tangible arrogance, responding to Abdullah’s greeting with a dismissive wave of the hand. A hushed, circulated whisper informed Abdullah that the man was to be treated deferentially because he was financing much of the resistance and that his name was Bin Laden.
Then, in February 1989, they learned from their foreign backers that the Great Russian Bear had finally decided enough was enough and was moving its army in one massive convoy of despondency over Friendship Bridge spanning the Oxus river. The infidel invaders were gone, there were celebrations in the villages, and Abdullah thought back to his time as Igor, and imagined his former identity forlornly taking part in this shameful retreat.
There was a brief, sweet peace and in this period Abdullah watched his children grow up. No longer a soldier, he managed one of the textile factories Babrak had reopened.
Then, bloody turmoil afflicted the country again as the competing, opportunist warlords he’d encountered during the great war, funded by their foreign sponsors, vied for control of the country. Reluctantly, he took up arms again and was shocked at who had become the enemy.
Before long, both Babrak and he were obliged to identify as ‘Taliban’ and a new era began.
He was summoned urgently to Babrak’s home one day and found himself in front of the television, fed by the black-market satellite dish. All eyes stared aghast at the montage of burning towers in New York City, and at the loops of planes slamming into them and creating fireballs of such catastrophe he had never seen. To their amazement, the bearded enigma from Saudi who’d snubbed his handshake and met with the sinister foreigners in the eighties was framed in the top right corner of the screen as the culprit.
“It cannot be!” spluttered Abdullah. He had a presentiment of suffering, misery and devastation so strong he almost fainted.
Not long after, the fiery, vengeful fists of the western gods came crashing down on Afghanistan. Babrak was killed by Northern Alliance forces who betrayed him and Zareena and his children died when their village was strafed by fighters. Driven by rage, he became mujahideen once more and strove to find his past sense of purpose as the country burned again as the latest foreign ‘liberators’ landed.
Igor is told to stand as the magistrate prepares to deliver his verdict in this foreign courtroom so distant from home. People he has been told are journalists watch from the side pointing gadgets at him. He is told he is guilty, and that for defending his homeland he is going to die incarcerated. Igor feels too old and broken to take on yet another identity but braces himself for the martyr’s journey ahead. About the Author:Titus Green lives in the UK, and his short fiction has been published in a number of online and print literary magazines, including Empty Sink Publishing, Beyond Imagination, Fear of Monkeys, Sediments Literary Arts, Literally Stories, Ramingo’s Porch, Stag Hill Literary Journal, HORLA and Coffin Bell (forthcoming).