Private Rechemkov stood casually outside his regimental camp just inside Belarus. He had watched the regiment’s battalion tactical groups rumble south and remembered feeling somehow left out. He had learned to thank whatever power had spared him since then. Just like everyone else in the regiment, he had heard the calls coming in pleading for fuel, ammunition and artillery support. The artillery they got – rockets blazed through the Belarusian sky while the distant thunder of the regiment’s 152mm artillery brigade hadn’t stopped since the regiment’s tanks had first rolled off the line. The rest, they all knew there wasn’t much to be done about. they had heard the rumors of some Belarusian rail workers interfering with the arterial flow of supplies and equipment the regiment needed to keep its BTGs in the fight. True or not, the trains didn’t come as often as they needed nor with as much as they needed. What was the saying? No general ever told his superiors he had enough men, ammunition and equipment. He always needed more.

His only enemy now was boredom, So Private Rechemkov welcomed the buzz and soft chirp of his smartphone. He glanced around, making sure nobody saw that he had one. It was an unspoken rule in the regiment – enlisted troops were not supposed to have a phone. But if nobody saw one, nobody asked about it, either.

He was delighted to see his friend from one of the first BTGs to leave for Ukraine had sent him something. It meant he was alive. Again, Private Rechemkov imagined what the days after the swift capitulation of Kiev would be like. He hoped to meet his friend then and toast their victory. Private Rechemkov didn’t understand the political machinations behind the special military operation, but he knew that winning was better than losing. And it was only Ukraine, after all. How hard could they fight?

He thumbed the play icon on his phone and was taken aback by the chaotic scene he saw flickering on the screen. The air was dank and he immediately felt the pall of despair that came from the blackened blast marks on buildings and their bullet-riddled concrete walls. Dead bodies were randomly strewn along the street. Smoke slowly boiled into the sky from a fire some distance away. Seeing all this is why Private Rechemkov was puzzled when he heard the laughter and hoots as the holder of the phone taking the video walked down cracked cement steps and into a basement.

As his friend entered the basement, Private Rechemkov saw men from the regiment drinking, laughing, yelling and boasting. He felt a twinge of excitement when the camera revealed the girls in their midst. And they were girls, not one of them old enough to have graduated from high school.

Private Rechemkov’s excitement was snuffed out when he heard the agonizing scream of one of those girls. Then he saw her face, twisted in desperate agony as she begged for them to stop. He wanted to turn it off, but he knew he was witnessing something important. Even as his stomach ached and his mouth tasted sour, he forced himself to keep watching.

When it was over, Private Rechemkov stood staring at the stilled last frame of the video, too shocked to move or turn it off. He didn’t know what to think or feel. He felt assaulted somehow at seeing something that he would never have agreed to watch if he had known what it was. Through it all, he kept wondering: How could a man, a good man, a Russian man, do this? His blood ran cold when the obvious answer came to him. War turns a man into something he has never been before. Again, he thanked whatever power had led to his being left behind to tend to Colonel Zukhov and his modest headquarters over a company of Spetsnaz.

“Right!” he said out loud. “Right right right.” He spun around, looking for somebody to relieve his post. He looked at his watch. He had another hour. “Right,” he said again. It didn’t matter. This was too important. The Colonel would understand. His job was to report potential dangerous activity against the regiment. Private Rechemkov could not think of anything, not even a direct surprise attack on their sleepy encampment, that would bring more harm to his regiment than what he had just seen on the phone.

And so, Private Rechemkov, a gentle patriot whose soul war had yet to condemn with cruelty beyond description, ran as fast as he could to Colonel Zukhov’s tent.

©2022 Michael J Lawrence

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