Journalist-turned-freedom-fighter Mikail Eldin writes for PEN Atlas on his experience of the Chechen wars, and how writing a memoir is a way to honour fallen friends, who risked their lives to ensure he might live to tell their story
Translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin
When I began working on my book The Sky Wept Fire, my friends would often ask if it was wise to write about all this so candidly. I agreed with them, it wasn’t wise, but added that it was something I had to do. It wasn’t wise in terms of my own safety, but I had to do it. It was a duty of honour. While I was undergoing that never-ending hell of war, I filmed and photographed everything I could, yet remained aware that all the footage and photos could go missing. And that is just what happened. I was left with nothing but my memories. And it wasn’t a hankering after fame that motivated me to write a memoir. Writing about myself simply seemed more honest, more truthful, because you didn’t need to rely on other people’s sources. And what’s more, writing in this form allowed me to loosen ever so little the red-hot chains of the memories of that hell. To survive a war doesn’t mean you know how to live an ordinary civilian life. You become painfully, profoundly aware of an abyss between you and the world. People don’t understand you, and you have difficulty understanding them. And this abyss cannot be bridged, neither by you nor by them. That’s why it was so important to tell people that we are the same as them. Or we were, at any rate, before our souls were chewed up by the war… We shared the same joys and dreams, the same hopes for love and domestic warmth. We were defending not just our principles, our right to our dreams, but also the right of all people everywhere to have them, and we paid with our dreams, with our messed up fates. This isn’t an attempt to reproach peaceful civilians in their peaceful lives. It’s an attempt to offer a hand to the world across the abyss of alienation. We didn’t choose the war. But the war chose us, chose our generation. And so our generation had to dive into its fiery crater at the turn of the century.Steering clear of the politics, I tried to focus on the war itself. Or rather on the transformation undergone by a peaceful and apolitical person. Looking deep within yourself helps you see that metamorphosis better, understand it more clearly. In war, a person is forever poised between the human and the diabolical, between cruelty and mercy. And your choice, your ability not to lose your humanity is what determines your duty for the rest of your life. Your knowledge of your own self. When you write about war, it is so very hard to be objective. At moments like that it’s important to remember you’re no longer a warrior, you’re a journalist now; an impartial chronicler and witness. And then you have to remember that even in the hell of the concentration camp, you came across humans, true human beings. But it’s simply impossible to be impartial in the proper sense of the word.Here in exile you cannot get used to living simply for life’s sake, to a life without the usual circle of friends, without your beloved albeit dangerous work. It’s hard to adjust to being merely one among thousands of immigrants. Without any name, experience or education, without a motherland; with a dark and suspicious past and a shaky, nebulous future. It doesn’t matter if in reality you are experienced and educated … The initial intoxication of freedom passes. Then you sober up. And you find yourself drowning in a swamp of depression. Yearning for everything that you can never get back. For your motherland, who rejected you merely because you had principles that you were willing to defend. And then you involuntarily return to that life where you meant something to yourself and to the world. Where you did something needed by the people and the motherland. Something we believed in.So what is this duty of honour? It is the chief, perhaps the only reason why I took up writing – the duty I owed to my fallen brothers-in-arms. We were idealists; our only aim was freedom. We learnt to believe in God during this war. To believe genuinely. For belief helped keep insanity at bay. This writing was what my comrades had wanted me to do more than anything. And it was why they tried their hardest to help me survive. Often risking their own lives. This was their dying wish. It was important for me to get through to people: None of us sought war for war’s sake or for the sake of glory. War cripples the souls and breaks the fates of everyone, including those doing the fighting. This should never happen again, not in any land. We will only be able to call ourselves rational beings when we learn to understand one another. And so my writing is an attempt to talk candidly about that hell, to help people understand us. It is not just my own story, but that of all those who will never be able to tell theirs.About the authorMikail Eldin worked as a journalist, before taking up arms himself in the conflict with Russia. He eventually left Chechnya in fear for his life and secured political asylum in Norway, where he now lives. His most recent book is The Sky Wept Fire. About the translatorAnna Gunin is a Russian literary translator. Along with poetry, film and theatre translation, she has translated authors such as German Sadulaev, Denis Gutsko and Pavel Bazhov. Her most recent translation is The Sky Wept Fire by the Chechen poet and journalist Mikail Eldin. Additional informationMikail will be appearing at the ‘Writing in Conflict’ event at Woolfson & Tay, on 26 November, from 7pm. For more information and how to book, please see here.