The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter by Mikail Eldin, trans by Anna Gunin - book review

Rebel with a cause powerfully portrays the horrors of war

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Mikhail Eldin was an arts journalist in Chechnya before he became a freedom fighter. This memoir on his conversion from a witness of war into a participant poses a difficult central question: can a journalist reporting a war stay emotionally neutral and politically unbiased to the barbarity witnessed?

Eldin, for his part, consciously gives up on the ambition for journalistic objectivity. Rushing onto the streets as the tanks roll in, he is stunned by the first rumblings of war in 1994("This was not yet my war, and I still hadn't taken sides. I was trying to remain an impartial observer") before he becomes a keen, critical war reporter, and then a freedom fighter who never quite puts away his reporter's notepad.

In fact, the writing of this powerful, lyrical and disturbing memoir became part of his freedom fighter's quest to record the unaccounted deaths of his comrades, as well as the torture and imprisonment that he and others endured.

The book, which resulted in his exile from Chechnya and received the English PEN Writers in Translation award, follows the first war of 1994 (after Chechnya gained de facto independence) and the later war of Dagestan, in 1999. At its heart is an unflinching account of torture. Eldin pulls no punches in recounting his ordeal at the torture centre in Khakala, and it is a wonder he survived at all, after being shot in the foot, beaten, given electric shocks, and having his ear partly sliced, after which he spent time in a concentration camp. As a fighter, he famed other kinds of intense hardships, not least eating raw horse out of hunger.

The descriptions of seeing the first surreal signs of war are as detailed, acute, and horrifying: "When you see human bodies ripped apart, corpses mashed by the treads of tanks, when you see dogs and cats feeding on the remains of people who only yesterday were just as alive as you… then it becomes horribly hard, almost impossible to remain a human being…"

Despite the grit, or rather, alongside it, runs a poetry of introspection. Regarding himself in second-person narration, he speaks of a split self: the self before war, and the self that remains irretrievably altered afterwards: "What you so bombastically refer to as your past is in fact the life of some other guy, someone you thought of as yourself. But he is not you. You and he are two different people; as unalike as a crystal and a stone."

Eldin's greatest challenge is to remain human in a dehumanising environment and in the end, it is also his greatest achievement.