Fragments from the story “The Pass of the Persecuted”. 15-27 October, 1993
The pass began much earlier, oh, God, before I put my foot on it. My child and I, my parent, near relations, those dearest to me, the living as well as the dead, and even those who will be born in the future, we all, together have been following the road along the pass for many centuries. We walk in silence. It is snowing and it is freezing…How weary is the body, and how utterly exhausted is the soul. Even the heart seems to have stopped beating. Nevertheless, we keep on walking stubbornly and faithfully.
But there is no end to the road… ‘Help all the persecuted, protect all those who are miserable, oh, great Lord, oh, faith’… This is roughly the way I was speaking with God on that terrible night of the second of October.
It was perhaps the most terrible night on the highest point of the Sakeni-Chuberi pass. It was during that night that I saw several people die in my arms like birds.
Exhaust gasses from cars, trucks, BMPs, ‘Shilkas’ (a kind of anti-aircraft weapon system), BTRs (the Russian abbreviation for ‘APC’) and tractors darken the route. We move forward slowly. Here and there the road is blocked by military equipment. Soldiers are carrying ‘Mukhas’ (a kind of anti-tank rocket launcher), grenade launchers and mortars. Various pieces of military equipment can be seen in the dense smoke. I don’t even know their names. People who see them are astonished. They can’t understand why the army, not very badly armed, and not so small in number, was defeated. In spite of the fact my father was a professional military man, and had served in the Soviet Army for twenty-five years, it is particularly now that I feel how I hate weapons. I hate ‘Kalashnikovs’ and ‘Makarovs’, ‘Semyonovs’7… I am sure weapons have never done any good. They only kept on bringing about an endless series of deaths and vengeance. What concealed sadism is rooted in the names given by the developers of the art of murder to their handiwork: the ‘Vasilyok’ automatic mortar (I hope you know that this is a kind of a wild flower, the cornflower, that dots a meadow beautifully), Nona’, a most beautiful woman’s name, the ninth step of the musical scale, a stanza of nine lines; ‘Edelweiss’ is also the name of a rocket launcher like ‘Nona’; ‘Acacia’ too, and the well known ‘Limonka’ (not a lemon, but a diminutive name for it). I have seen children, old men and women torn to pieces by ‘Vasilyoks’, ‘Aca-cias’, ‘Nonas’, ‘Edelweisses’ and ‘Limonkas’. And that is why I came to hate weapons, the more so as today they fall so easily into the hands of crazy and vicious people, those who prove by their deeds how far away ware from the civilized world, how far and pitifully rejected. Miserable is the country where a bullet is valued more than a kind word, where hatred means more than love. The traffic stops. The engine of the ‘Shilka’ ahead of me cut out, and the way is blocked. I stop the engine and get out of the car. A dispirited acquaintance comes up to me. ‘Do you know what I saw?’ he says in a trembling voice. ‘A woman was crossing a bridge over the river Kelasuri, just now, about two hours ago… she was carrying a heavy bag, muttering something to herself. I sensed she felt unwell. I asked if I could help her. She opened the bag and still muttering showed me the dead body of her child disfigured by ‘Grad’ shrapnel.
Helicopters flew over our heads several times. Each time they appear someone shouts, ‘Abkhaz paratroopers! Abkhaz paratroopers!’ People rush to the woods. The soldiers, walking nearby, aim rocket launchers and machine-guns at the helicopters. And the helicopters take the persecuted from Sakeni to Chuberi. At the beginning of October only a few helicopters are seen to fly. On the first or second of October, only one. The helicopter is chock-full of people and crashed into the mountain and exploded. The passengers and pilots were killed.
Having walked about two kilometers we hear a woman screaming somewhere below. The persecuted shudder. The heart of a man of thirty has failed. The poor man is buried on the spot.
‘Yesterday a woman gave birth to a dead child,’ says someone. ‘The woman died too. One more old woman was buried in the forest nearby.’ Nobody says, ‘I know you,’ or ‘I don’t know you,’ here. Everyone is an acquaintance of everyone here. More than that, a friend. A man comes up to you and says: ‘Give me some bread, please’. If you have it, you must give it to him. And if you have it, and you don’t give it to him, the mountains won’t forgive you – in this situation it is the greatest sin. But still there are quite a lot of people here who think about themselves in the first place. They walk and weep their lost property, they look at their dying friends, but still they keep on thinking about themselves. The war and the pass have taught them nothing. It is easy to notice such people in the endless stream of the persecuted.
Mountains are like great love. Great love makes a kind man kinder, and a wicked man more wicked, a niggardly man more niggardly, a greedy man greedier, a cowardly man more cowardly, and a naive man more naive…
Mountains are like war. They expose everybody like X-rays.
Mountains are like a cathedral. Those who believe in God and love human beings will be cleansed here, and this very faith and love will make their road easier. I walk and think that it is God who has brought me to the pass. My way could not have swerved elsewhere. It was not to be a comfortable way. I was not to leave my native town either by plane or by ship. The pass was and is my destiny, my death and my life, my despair and my hope.
A sturdy young woman has thrown away her shoes and has wrapped her bare swollen feet in a piece of cellophane. A middle-aged peasant is walking barefoot too. I ask him whether he is cold or not. A kind smile is his answer. A father is carrying his six- or seven-year-old crying daughter on his shoulders. One of the girl’s feet is wrapped in a scarf, the other – in a hanky. She must have hurt it on the road. A young father sits down near me. He has a baby wrapped in a thin blanket in his arms. His wife with a worn out face is following him. A wide-eyed woman with a suitcase in her hand is asking again and again, ‘Shall we get over the pass soon? Shall we reach Chuberi soon?’
‘Take the medicine, dear, take it, Lali!’ A mother begs her sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl, sitting on a hillock, with her head in her hands, sobbing bitterly.
A young, one-legged, beardless soldier walks briskly, leaning on his crutches; his father walks beside him, saying something to him. He must be warning him not to hurry. The appearance of the one-legged youth somehow cheers up the persecuted; they draw themselves up involuntarily, pointing out the young man to one another, as if saying, ‘Look, how bravely he is walking!’
The rector of the Subtropical Institute, Vakhtang Pruidze, is coming together with his wife. He walks leisurely. I see Tite Mosia, Karlo Izoria, Revaz Surmava, Leah Mikadze…Geno Kalandia with his white beard is here too. I can hardly recognize him.
I was told on the way that they had caught sight of Jano Janelidze in a truck.
They are coming and coming and there seems no end to the stream. Children and old men, men and women, professors and ministers, people of simple professions -peasants and fishermen, drivers and thieves, representatives of various political parties or societies, honest and dishonest people, kind and wicked people, the ones who are glad to see one other, and those who hate the sight of one another. I see upright fighters, I see marauders, corrupt, soulless military functionaries branded by the blood of war, a sunflower seed seller and a millionaire with a narrow forehead, who has already become a pauper; prostitutes are here, as well as timeservers. And it couldn’t have been otherwise, oh God… One can’t imagine either war or peace, or even persecution without them…
Priests are walking too. I recognize Father Anton, at some distance from me. He is a pleasant man, and if I may say so, a little too carried away by theatrical life… The most beautiful women of Sukhumi are coming too, gentle and delicate. Their eyes are like flowers. They are proud women, and though their faces are pale, and their knees tired, I don’t think that in the whole world there exist women more beautiful than them. Oh, how magnificent they are on this pass. I look at them and remember the time when they walked along the Sukhumi seashore on warm summer evenings, mysterious and refined, chatting leisurely. Where has that time gone, oh, God, has it remained in Sukhumi for good, has it died, never to come back?
The participants in this infernal parade are marching – residents of Sukhumi, and Sukhumi district, residents of Gulripshi, tortured and exhausted, coming, coming…
With bowed heads they stare at the ground, the earth, the only lawful inspector and master of this parade. For a whole year these people had experienced the atrocities of all the weapons used in Afghanistan. More than that, there was no sea in Afghanistan, and military boats and ships did not bomb the towns and villages. Sometimes it seems to me that all the faces are familiar, that I have seen all of them before. But sometimes it is vice versa, familiar faces seen to be strange to me. On several occasions I even saw the faces of the deceased. I saw Guli Chaladze who had died together with his son when the village of Abzhakva was bombed; my uncle who had been tortured by brigand sand killed in summer… What a lot of faces I see here, like autumn leaves – thousands and tens of thousands…
They are coming, but Moses is not leading them, or any other kind shepherd. There is no one whom they can regard as their leader, and they don’t have any faith left… they don’t even have any idea where they are heading. Their longing is beyond geography and the face of the clock, beyond any particular country and century. They, descended from the pages of the Bible, move about in the misty darkness, wander in the mazes of their own weeping souls, making their way to no-where! They are coming… I know it is difficult to say, still I must say it – they don’t even remember God. In any case, I don’t remember anyone mention God. Nobody can feed them with five loaves of bread, nobody can give them a drink of pure water running out of a rock by striking it with a rod. The crucified people, tortured by the heaviness of the cross, are coming.
They are coming… From time to time they raise their heads and look ahead. Their gaze is a question, ‘Who, who is leading us? Who is being tortured together with us on this road? Is there any such person, or are we all alone? This is like children watching the engine while traveling by train, hoping to catch sight of the engine-driver at the bend of the track. The pass looks like the railway along which trains without engines and engine-drivers move screaming. I have never seen so many sad eyes, and God forbid that I should ever see them again.
I want to tell all those who have lost dear people on the Sakeni-Chuberi road that their death was blissful. The deceased I came across on my way had serene faces, with no traces of suffering. You can believe the author of these lines who nearly shared their fate. Sleep seems so sweet to a man, especially when it is freezing. He sleeps like a child on New Year’s Eve whose mother carefully tucks in his blanket. I know my words won’t console you, but I think it is quite different when, after a terrible journey, you quietly return to your own house – eternity, where everyone is to go sooner or later.
I seem to have defeated the pass, slowly, step by step, but… it has stuck in all the three times. It has become a magic triptych of the past and the future and the present for me. It has settled in my soul and blood with its living men and the dead, with its ‘beings from another planet’, the amazed oxen, with old men tied to BMP muzzles, with moaning and groaning, and a deep feeling of regret… I know movement will never stop on it, because it is the Pass of the Persecuted, the only pass in the world that travels and travels all over the world, charged with the energy of the persecuted. It will go across the oceans, the seas, the continents and countries like great ships exhausted by cruel winds, cursed and great. It is a pass from death to life. It is an offspring of the bleeding, self-murdering Georgia, torturing her heart with her own nails. The crucified, crucified pass!
The Pass of the Persecuted is the highest pass in the world. It is the pass saturated with the sacred air of our fatherland. It is superior to all earthly trifles and worries, money and treachery, hatred and stupidity, greed and cowardice. The pass is Calvary, carrying the sins of the whole Georgia… And in the middle of it a young father is standing with his dying child pressed to his breast. He is cursing, cursing loudly, politicians and non-politicians, those that were yesterday, and those that are today, Georgians and non-Georgians, men and women… cursing us all with no exception! He is cursing everyone who, for whatever reason, has brought his share of clay and gravel, sins and disaster, who has created and built this pass, and aroused its rage. He is cursing me writing these lines now, and you too, my deeply respected readers, who are reading these words…
What are we to do? What path are we to take? How can we help the dying child, quiet in his father’s arms, still breathing, before whom we are all guilty, the whole world, the whole Georgia, each one of us is guilty!
English translation by
Elene Pagava and Ia Iashvili
Text edited by PJ Hillery
Fragments from the story “Nephew”. 1996
As if the cork had popped out of a full wine bottle – such was the noise of the grenade-launcher. Or rather a grenade which was assumed to have been fired from a grenade-launcher.
An invisible grenade, flowing through the apple trees, had struck the middle window of a two-story brick house.
It flashed…and an explosion was heard. A huge ball of fire rolled into the room, then exploded, changed its shape and dissipated, as if the space it was in was not enough. The noise of the explosion was repeated by its echo.
Fragments of broken glass crashed from the window as it happened. They glittered under the morning sun’s rays, and the house was sprinkled with their straggly, sparkling light.
At the same time a harrowing scream was heard, and a man with a rifle jumped from the corner window of the second floor of the house.
Almost simultaneously a burst of gunfire sounded. From time to time the glint of bullets was cast over the man and the house.
Valery thought that the evil strength of the bullets had stopped the fall of the man for a moment and the glass debris had stuck in the air. Time had frozen, the noise of the firing had faded away, all was quiet – but in a moment everything was back – the spiritless body of the man fell onto the ground, the glass lightning went off again.
Three days ago Vaso, who he called Vasiko, had been killed. They had met in battle several weeks before and become friends. This is war – you can make friends in two days. Vasiko was thirty years old, like him. He was taller and broad-shouldered. He was killed during the very first attack on the village… they were lying in the bushes resting. Vasiko had turned his head, trying to say something, when suddenly a noise had been heard. Vasiko winced, twitched and the fell silent. A sniper’s bullet had hit him.
“Vasiko, Vasiko…” For Valery it was difficult to believe.
Then he had heard another strange noise. Something cracked. A bullet had torn a half-dry branch from bush. That bullet had been meant for him. Not thinking much, he took the heavy body of Vasiko and three steps positioned himself under the plane tree. The snipers would not get him there – but for Vasiko this move made no sense anymore- he was staring up to the clouds. The bullet had entered his waist and run through his spine to the neck – it was found later that it had stuck in his head. Such a bullet was called by the soldiers a “roving bullet”.
Vasiko wore a black ribbon round his neck, bearing these words in golden letters: “Jesus Christ, Bless him!” These words were repeated several times: “Jesus Christ, Bless him!” When Valery kneeled to see whether he was breathing or not he thought we saw the golden letters flickering in the darkness of the sky, lifeless and joyless.
“Vasiko has been killed? Vasiko? Bastards…!” Someone was running towards him, screaming. Vasiko had come from Gagra, Valery from Gori. In Gagra, at the beginning of October Vasiko’s father, who had stayed in town, had been shot. He had only taken a gun after the death of his father to take his revenge. Someone had told him that his father’s head had been cut off.
That day the dead bodies were transported by an “Ural” (truck). They were covered with blankets from someone’s house. Only hair and boots could be seen poking out from beneath the white blankets. For Valery the color white was something different, signifying heaven.
Not taking the black ribbon off Vasiko’s head, he had put a blanket under his head as if protecting him from the wind. Saying goodbye, he had touched his shoulder and painfully felt his lifeless spirit. Mother and sister were waiting for Vasiko. Valery had jumped from the truck, looked at his friend once again and, seeing his new boots, couldn’t stand anymore and burst into tears.
The “Ural” had roared its way down the bumpy road, which was shaking the bodies, wrapped in those white blankets, and the body of the truck. The winter journey of the three fellows was ending, and it sounded like a prayer was being sent to heaven by a secret mailman, a repetition of the golden letters on the black ribbon on the head of one of them, “Jesus Christ, Bless him!”, “Jesus Christ, Bless him!” “Jesus Christ, Bless him!” It was as if the heart of the world was beating.
Valery crawled to the kitchen.
They were shooting from the nut trees.
The kitchen was burning. From time to time bullets sparkled.
The buffet table was also burning, as were the pillows on the sofa in the dining room. The rooms were full of smoke.
“We have to get out of here,” Valery called to Kio, “I think the upper floor is burning too!”
“Yes, but how? Where?”
Valery crawled into the bedroom, took some bullets from his pocket, started to load the chamber of his gun – and then heard something explode in the kitchen. It was a grenade.
The explosion reached the bedrooms. Debris flew around; hit the ceiling, then the walls, then the floor. Valery lay on his back and looked at the child. The baby was lying still as well – its eyes were wide open.
Suddenly there was silence everywhere.
No one answered.
Valery crawled back through the dust and smoke, through the broken dishes and furniture, but couldn’t find Kio straight away. Then a few minutes later he saw him. The grenade had turned his stomach inside out, he was lying in his own intestines. His mouth, forced open by pain, was bleeding, a slice of apple swimming in the blood.
Firing resumed from the nut trees.
There was a smell of gunpowder and blood in the room, and something horrible and strange. Valery felt the familiar breath of death.
Kio stopped shaking and grew quiet. No one could help him anymore.
“I’m sorry Kio,” Valery said, and then added, “sorry, Givi…”
Valery crawled back into the bedroom and opened the broken window.
The shots from the nut trees were hitting the kitchen, but not the bedroom, as it was hard to reach from that location.
The burning increased.
There was no time for thinking.
Putting his rifle on his shoulder, Valery wanted to jump out of the window but suddenly turned back – he had almost forgotten about the boy.
The child, white as death, was still looking at him with wide-open eyes. For a moment he doubted himself: was it all a dream – the house, battle, the boy?
The sound of a shot pulled him out of his stupor. He rushed over to the baby, grabbed him. He doesn’t remember today how he jumped from the window. He crossed the vineyard – through the dry tomatoes, through the feijoa (pineapple guava), and found himself in a garden of tangerines.
He thought bullets were tinkling under his feet but soon realized that he was wrong.
The rifle he had put on his shoulder now turned out to be on his hip, though he didn’t feel any pain. He was still pressing the child to his chest, protecting him from tangerine branches by pulling them away with his left hand.
Valery jumped over a wire fence, crossed a small pond full of duckweed and entered the cornfield. Dry leaves scratched his face and hands, wooden poles obstructed him, but he stumbled over the corn and magically remained on his feet. Still running, he unbuttoned his shirt and put the baby inside.
The boy was quiet, pressing his cheek against Valery’s chest. His woolen shirt was as tidy as he himself. He had the smell of a baby – the smell of milk, already forgotten…
How could a baby have been in that abandoned house, how? He couldn’t understand. Valery ran through the meadow and proceeded down the slope.
He left the village behind. No one was around. Still the noise of firing was heard, bur from far away.
“Adgur!” Givi pointed Adgur towards the vehicle.
Adgur opened the back door of the “Willys” and took two guns out.
“My family asked me to express our gratitude to you for saving the life of my nephew. We are not authorized to disarm such a man as you are. Here is your gun, but let’s change guns, I’ll give you mine and you give me yours. Let’s say goodbye to each other as brothers, although if we meet tomorrow in battle we won’t be able to do anything else, we’ll fight. Today an honorable enemy is very rare!”
Valery took the gun and looked at it in embarrassment.
“It’s in good condition,” Givi laughed, “it will not let you down.”
“Sorry that I…” Adgur started, “yesterday Uncle Taraskan didn’t let me come closer to the table, because… I didn’t know the situation, I thought…”
“I, I,…” Valery had become tongue-tied. “This is my… I cannot even speak… as if I have forgotten all words… everything will end and we’ll meet again and we’ll talk about everything then…”
“We’ll talk…”Adgur said.
They stood for a few minutes, then shook hands.
Valery turned sharply and ran dawn towards the forest, almost as if racing the river.
Suddenly he heard a noise like a sizzle, as if someone had pulled back the lock of a rifle. Valery turned his head. On the hill near the “Willys” two people were standing and shaking hands. Valery smiled at them – no, they would not shoot him in the back, no way. Maybe he had stepped on dry leaves.
Along the bushy field the road to the forest lay. The noise of a vehicle was heard. When he turned again, there were no Givi, Adgur or vehicle. The hill was far in the distance.
Valery stopped, took the gun off his shoulder and took the clip out. It was full.
For a moment he stood, frozen to the spot, then he sat near the river. He dropped the gun close by and put his head down. He was crying, and didn’t want to stop. He was crying like a man, not hiding, trembling. He was alone. The only person in the whole world. Only the river was there, whispering nearby, while the forest was roaring. It seemed to him that such loneliness would last his whole life. Whoever was next to him, he would always be alone. He sat in the grass and cried like a baby, tired of the war and the stupidity of people, of blood and cruelty, an exhausted, worn out traveler.
The world was devastated in his heart.
In a while he stood up, wiped his tears with his sleeve and went on. He didn’t walk, he flew. Suddenly he stopped, and his face started shining – for a moment it seemed to him that he had stepped into a country populated with brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, nephews and nieces… and unfamiliar friends. As if he had entered the country of one big family, a huge family in a world where one person does not kill another person and the power of love reigns.
But instantly his face turned to darkness – he remembered the rifle, went back, took it, put it on his shoulder and went on.