The twelfth story in the Winter Prose Competition 2011 series.
It's been a while since I last wrote. Since then we have marched ahead and captured most of the city, but we know the worst is yet to come. We call this Rattekreig, the rat-war. The city is ruined beyond repair, a ghostly sight. Watching the ruins in the pale light of the setting sun sends shivers down my spine every single time.
When I look at this desolate rubble, I wonder why I joined this. I felt like had a purpose two years ago, but now it seems long and distant, an almost forgotten reason. I don't even know if I'm the same person I was when I left home. You had asked me to never forget who I was, to never become a monster. And I tried, I really did. But it is hard to do so in a world like this. There are no battle-lines drawn. We fight everywhere, in the ruins, the streets, the house, the basements, and even the sewers.
They defend their city with everything they got and our tanks are useless in the heaps of rubble. The skirmishes are certainly not the wars we believed in. They are only about survival. None of us have the option of running away or surrendering. It's either us or them. I have watched the crazed look on the face of cornered soldier, screaming in Russian, kicking and fighting even as we riddled his body with bullets.
But something else has happened, Mother. The artillery and machine guns kill, but they can never be as personal as the prolonged efforts of a persistent sniper. And it is moments like this that make me wonder about what is happening out here. This is not just a fight, this is hell.
When a sniper sits hidden, invisible, 500 meters away and aims at me, I just know that we have crossed over from a battlefield into Satan's own pit. We have become the worst of who we are. Life no longer has any meaning to any of us. We kill without even being face to face, and the rest of us live every moment in fear, paralyzed and numb. This is not life, and I cannot accept it.
I know he sits there, Mother, rifle in hand, waiting to kill me and end my pitiful existence. And I actually wish he would succeed. I stand in the open and wait. The bullet always arrives, but misses me. It has been a week now. Maybe God has other plans for me. But I still hope that for a moment I could escape from all this hate into a world of love...
Date: 21th July, 1942
This is a city of ruins. Burnt, broken and empty buildings surround us, a ghost town that no longer exists on the map. The people have long gone; either burnt dead or freezing alive in the countryside.
Months ago, a thousand airplanes dropped incendiary bombs. The fires that ensured killed over 40000 people. The rest ran for their lives, from the fires and the German troops. Only we remained. Brave, yet petrified.
When the Germans finally entered our city, all they found were the buildings and us. The rules of war have long been discarded. Now we fight street to street, brick to brick, hand-to-hand while living in the gutters and sewers like rodents. We survive, only to fight another day, using the ruins to hide.
Fighting in the city is desperate. We cannot retreat or run away, because there is nowhere to go. We would be killed if we did so, to betray our Mother Russia is cowardice. "Not a step back!" is the slogan. And so we fight. And for months now, we have kept the enemy at bay. My platoon is lucky to not have to resort to skirmish for a while now. In the past we have shot at Germans as they stood in the next building, like pirates across a sea of ruins. It was then that I found the rifle, a beautiful Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle lying in the ruins next to the corpse of a brother.
Now we see them stand there at the doorsteps but being afraid to walk in. In this world, I am the first line of defence. I sit here quietly with my rifle, eye on the scope, body at rest, hidden in the rubble for entire days, letting go only when the sun stops shining. Any enemy who enters my zone of a half kilometre has no idea that he has only a few seconds to live. Moment later he's down, a single shot through his head. Hundreds have died this way, and my brothers huddled in the basement below me sigh in relief.
Except that I haven't killed anyone in days now. I sit watching him on my scope, the handsome blond soldier who sits by his tank. He is within my range and I could take him out. But I'd rather not.
The first time I saw him, I couldn't get myself to pull the trigger. I shot at his tank, and he jumped back in alarm. And as he peered in my direction, I caught a look at his beautiful face. There was something about him, sensitivity unlike any I had ever seen. And I fell for it.
He knows I'm out here. Often I see him looking expectantly in my direction. Sometimes he stands in the sun, almost taunting me, as I watch his clear white skin and blonde hair glisten in the sun. I shoot, purposely missing him, to let him know that I am here. He looks straight at me and I see the sad look in his eyes, and I want to tell him that I am here for him. That I don't want things to be like this either.
This is torture. To watch a man you love, and to not be able to tell him so. This is hell.