Our position consisted of a network of trenches and bunkers dug out of the muddy earth. It reminded me of all the old World War I footage I’d seen. Now I was right smack in the middle of no-man’s-land. One of the guys called my name, snapping me out of the trancelike state I’d lapsed into. “Come here, Abu, the others want to meet you,” he said. After three cold days on the front, the last thing the other shift had expected was an American volunteer, and they were all staring at me with a kind of amused expression. Following the warm greetings and the usual questions about where I was from and why I’d come there, I asked a question of my own.
“So,” I said as casually as I could in Russian, “what is the purpose of this position–just out of curiosity, do you know?”
Everyone, and I mean everyone, looked at me at the same time, paused for a moment, then in unison yelled enthusiatically, “Kamikaze!” When they saw the surprise on my face they all started to laugh.
“Just look over there, Abu,” one of them said. “Those Russians are going to come over that hill and down through that valley any time now. We only hope to slow them down long enough to give the other groups enough time to get here and avenge our deaths!”
One of the fun things about travelling, I found, is the different expectations and assumptions that people seem to have in different parts of the world. Collins is a Scottish-American Muslim convert, retelling his experience fighting to defend Chechen Muslims against the Russians. In the passage above, he has returned to Chechnya to fight a second time, and has been diverted to Grozny and has at this point joined a group of 23 men who hold the line at northwest Grozny from the 5,000 Russians waiting to advance. Even for a combat veteran who has lost a leg in battle, there are still intimidating experiences to be had.
I haven’t finished the book, but the fact that he managed to write it seems to imply that he survived this ordeal.
I’m also a fan of little details like an American Muslim with an Arabic nickname, thinking of European trench warfare, phrasing a question in Russian to his Chechen comrades, and receiving an enthusiatic answer in Japanese. Even in central Asia, it is still a pretty small world.