They were horribly wretched things.
My days usually begin and end with seeing them. The Dokhodyaga, or the “Goners”, were located on the other side of the barbed wire as I walk by. Almost all of these people had large sores on their bodies, missing teeth, glossy eyes, and a strange and inhuman appearance to their faces. They all stank worse than the normal prisoner, as they had no control over their own bowels and bladders, their rotted clothes were drenched with excrement. Some of them were raving and wailing incoherently, while others were dazed and night blind, arms stretched out as they continually bumped into everything in their pathways.
A couple of them were not moving, bodies stiff along the cold ground, a clear indication that life left them not too long ago. I have seen them for a few months now, but it was still difficult to get used to. What makes it even worse, is the constant reminder that it could easily be your own fate at any time.
I shudder and rub my arms for self-comfort, eagerly anticipating some soup. Well, not so much soup, it is some sort of mystery mush floating in salty water. Maybe if I’m incredibly lucky I will get a decent size piece of bread. I’m pretty sure I met my quota for the day…well, I sort of cheated here and there, but so far no one is the wiser.
I hear the guards speak in their usual sharp and aggressive tone. I carefully line up behind the other women in my brigade, eyes blinking in growing exhaustion from the exceptionally long workday. Sixteen hours, and I still have two weeks away before I get my monthly Sunday off. I take a deep breath and let out a sigh. Just don’t think about it. Just don’t think about it. At least this morning we weren’t made to undress and have our bodies be thoroughly investigated. Oh, soup!
The cook hands me a raggedy wooden bowl filled with liquid and chunks, a morsel of dark dry bread and a mug of water. No spoon. It was late in the evening, a bit too late for a conventional dinner time, but the commandant wanted us to keep going to cover some sort of…I don’t know, we just needed to work a little extra today, and bypass our usual meal break. I was starving as usual, to say the least. The food is never enough here to truly survive by, unless of course you prove yourself to be an exceptional worker. But even then, the more successful you are, the more they think the quotas can be raised. It is a never ending cycle. Even the strongest and most eager end up collapsing at some point.
I nestle into my tiny little area inside a very humble “home”. The other female convicts were on their way inside the barracks as well – the vast majority political prisoners like myself – shuffling into their officially owned territory. There was not a lot of space in our shack, we looked like chaotic sardines in a tin can. The bunk beds had at least three women each, and the floors had scattered human bodies everywhere in makeshift blankets. There was an attempt to be clean, but it was still filthy. There isn’t a lot of options for toilets and washing.
I take a sip of my soup carefully. At least we didn’t have to live with the men, apparently their world was so much more rough and dangerous. Granted, not that this was the high life, but at least my comrades (I’m technically not allowed to use that title with others, as we ceased existing as proper comrades, but they can’t control my head now can they?) were decent enough girls and women. A lot of them arrived here for similar reasons as I; they were late for work too many times, they said something they shouldn’t have said, they were accused of being spies for so and so countries, they were married or a child of a well-known arrestee, they were visiting foreigners and etcetera. I said something negative against the Soviet system, and an acquaintance reported me. Lo’ and behold, after a month of interrogation, another month stuffed in a cattle car, here I am located in this wasteland receiving ten years as punishment. All in all, we are enemies of the people, mentally and socially poisonous and dangerous; worse than rapists, robbers and murderers. Those are the "physical" crimes in comparison, as the state calls it, thus easier to rehabilitate and understand. We have lesser rights than they do in the camp world.
NKVD can go fuck themselves. And Joseph. Some of my comrades were still infatuated or in denial, but I wasn’t. I knew.
The rest of the women in our population, though not as many in number, were prostitutes and thieves. Usually affiliated with the male gangs, the former were much lower in hierarchy than the latter. They usually kept to themselves, and I was fine with that, as I had no interest in indulging into their unique and incredibly harsh world. Though one must still be careful with the thieves, they will obviously take your items from you. These days, socks, sweaters, utensils and other everyday items were worth their weight in gold.
I look down at my empty bowl. Finished already! Ugh. I carefully scrape the bowl with my fingers, itching to get any sort of little slip of remaining soup. I stood up from my spot, deciding to head outside for a bit. It was becoming very stuffy in here, and despite already having fresh air all day I wanted to go back outside. Besides, with winters lasting ten or so months here might as well take advantage of the reasonable weather.
I step out and look around. There was some lighting here and there thanks to the odd bulb dangling on wires, but it was otherwise fairly dark. I can see the menacing towers in the distance where the night guards were watching over us. I can see some other women in the distance, chatting with each other. Some of them older women, some of them adolescents, others in-between, wearing various shabby clothing as their main attire. Many of the clothes were leftovers of the day they first got arrested, whereas the others were given poorly fitted uniforms back during their interrogation days in a formal prison. Everyone had their hair tucked away in under a scarf, and everyone equally looked pale and gaunt. They were talking about basic things, as one usually does in this environment. I join in the conversations, discussing food, little details about the old family life, who is in the punishment cell, who got pregnant, who died today, who were the lucky few that became seamstresses or kitchen staff instead of loggers or miners as it guaranteed extra food, shelter and privacy. Dark humour later comes in, a regular method of coping with a hellish circumstance. We really wanted to talk about other things, like politics, history and more details about the current events of outside world, but that is much too risky.
I suddenly hear this cry in the distance, followed by sharp piercing laughter. The women glance around nervously, trying to find the direction of the sound. A few seconds later the realization dawned on one of them.
“Oh no. Oh no.” One of the women say, face dripping with severe tension.
“What is it? What is that?” As I say that, there was a banging sound echoing through the darkness.
“We have to go. We all have to go inside right now”
My stomach sank. What is going on? Is this what I think it is?
Male voices are heard, cat calling followed by insulting commentary. It was faint, but still very powerful in their intentions and determination.
“We are coming for yyooooooouuuu whores! Hahahaha, ready for some fun?”
I get it now. The organized criminal gangs, managing to successfully band together even in these dreaded labour camps. A reputation for being brutal and cruel, they are the prisoners associated with the purely so-called physical crimes. Trademark tattoos riddled their bodies, each individual mark signifying their own symbolic and sinister meanings. I’ve heard about this happening frequently. It’s beyond the simple everyday notion of the occasional harassment or having informal camp husbands as protection. I was informed about the case of a hundred young girls being brutally attacked on a cargo ship by the thugs who broke down their room, killing the good men who tried to protect them. Then there are various accounts from other camps that women are often hunted by these criminals for….for…for…
I didn’t hesitate and quickly follow the other women back into our building.
“Won’t the guards stop them or something?” I ask.
Another woman snorted in response “They hardly ever intervene in these cases.”
We slam the door shut and proceed to look around to try and find something to barricade it. It wasn’t like our barrack was a mighty stone fortress, just a building containing old logs and rickety windows. In any case, it was worth the fight and we managed to shove beds against the available doors. Next was the windows, which we tried to seal with planks of wood that were meant to be for a future fire.
I was actually worried about the criminal women among us – what if they are working with the gangs during a moment like this? What if they help them? I carefully glance over at their faces, and they actually looked as worried as we were. One of them started to weep. I am then reminded of the simple fact that even though they might be members, the criminals still view their own women as less than dirt. This was a surprise to them, different than being aware of something ahead of time.
We waited. For about a minute there was silence. Then the voices reappeared in the distance, laughing and shrieking. We do have a wall surrounding us, so they still have to get over that.
Bang. Bang. BANG.
There were other shelters nearby, and I sincerely hoped that the other prisoners had taken some sort of measures to protect themselves.
I slip myself against a corner, taking long deep breaths to calm myself down. Everyone was as silent as I was, for obvious reasons. I rub my hands together, wanting to do some sort of spiritual reaction, but as that sort of thing was also banned and targeted, I wasn’t able to put the kind of words I wanted together. What was it? Deliver us from evil, something about bread, peace and judging bad dead people? Wait, I think I might be combining two different ones together…
There was another noise in the distance, something I wasn’t able to put my finger on. Creaking? Crashing? Whatever it may be, it was a clear indication of one thing – their attempt was successful.
I hear more cat-calling, and more random speeches. I couldn’t understand everything that was being said in their cheers and chants, as their slang language was different from the other natives and citizens, but it still sounded menacing. Swear words, threats, what will happen to our bodies after they had their way, how many we will get each. Apparently some of them have knives, others clubs. That much I can at least get a basic gist of.
Their voices were getting closer, and then I hear the sound of a woman screaming in fear then quickly turning into stark agony. I wanted to weep, weep for the poor soul who whatever reason was still out there. It didn’t take long for the screaming to finally stop. A few more minutes go by, before one voice belches out saying how he successfully cut off a very intimate part of her body and was showing it off.
Footsteps. Footsteps that were quickly coming closer and closer to our building. The way they were moving it sounded like they were surrounding it. I couldn’t help but swear under my breath. If those bastards manage to get in here I’m going to destroy them the best that I could!
“Hello hello. Pretties. Pretties! Come on now, pretties, open the door” His voice was gruff and deep, heavily accented in their standard form.
A knock on the door.
“Might as well get it oooooovveeer wiiith, hahaha!”
This time they started kicking one of the doors. The door was shaking off dust as it vibrated against the bed that pressed against it. Some of the women yelp in terror, others started sobbing, and some start swearing and telling them to go away.
The thugs continue trying to smash down the door, all the while a few other members were whisking back and forth in front of the windows, their peeking shadows dancing in inside the walls of our barracks. I ended up hearing some strained scratching sound near my head, no question of one of them trying to use a knife.
“The more you try and resist, the more we will mess up your fucking faces after. Saw you in half while you are still alive.”
I put my hands over my ears, desiring to block out their unsolicited noises and rantings. How long until everything breaks down and they come in? How many are out there anyway? If I were to guess…. maybe a minimum of five and a max of fifteen. Oh I am not sure; my brain is so tired it is hard to think about numbers. I used to be so good at math and philosophy at university, but that was taken away from me too.
There was some rustling. I think I heard something about a fire. Shit, are they going to try and burn us out?Please…please…let the guards do something about this.
There was some more banging, and a woman screams into her right hand as the left clutches her chest. But afterward, the banging eventually ceases, and you can hear the footsteps slowly fade away. Are they really giving up? Did we do it?? All of us stood motionless, aware that jumping into conclusions too soon will likely be our own undoing. Some time goes by….I have no idea how much. They could be waiting nearby, hoping we would let our guard down and tip toe back outside to investigate. Fat chance, we were staying in here for the rest of the night assholes!
Everyone’s bodies start to relax a little, and the idea of sleep is finally touching upon us. I stretch out my legs slightly. So that was my first attack. I’ve been lucky so far, with few forced prepositions and exchange deals. My head falls back towards the wall and I look up towards the ceiling. A tiny hole was spotted, with a small glimpse of a star in the night-time sky.
Loud screams, once more in the distance, and all of us jerk up in shock. The screams were varied and mixed, most of them women, then some possible children, and one appears to the sound of a young man. Was that their “calf”? No, they were secret wannabe-gang victims meant for a future meal, so it can’t be that. A camp husband who sneaked his way in earlier? The screams were now louder and drawn out, absolutely blood curdling. We hear thumps, screeching, running, and laughter.
“They got to the other barracks” An older woman speaks in a hushed and solemn tone. We jump up slightly when we hear something being thrown against our outside wall. It was a sickening sound, hard yet wet sounding at the same time.
We were forced to endure the sound for some time, until finally a dated loud speaker started to boom across the territory.
“That is enough now. Stop. You’ve had your fill.” It was a somewhat serious voice, but there was also something vaguely casual and nonchalant about it.
The horrifying sounds resume.
“I said enough.” Last names of staff were quickly listed. “Go attend to the situation immediately.”
You can hear some whistles and shouting, followed by the odd gunshot. It was a mix of relief and pure anger over their delay in handling the hell that just transpired. All the commotion, both close by and far off, eventually begin to die down. The booming voice of the commandant then tells his other men to proceed piling up some of the bodies. Don’t worry about burial tonight, we will wait until morning so the surviving prisoners can do it.
I crinkle my nose. My first week here I had to assist in burying hundreds of decomposing bodies in permafrost. It didn’t matter if it was warmer outside nowadays, the ground was still impossible to work with. The best that was done was throwing rocks and snow on top of them.
My mind quickly shifted to sorrow. I wanted to weep and mourn for everyone, to cry on behalf of the injustice. To tell the world someday. I was exhausted, but sleep was not kind to me that night.
Early morning came swiftly, and roll call was carried out. I line up outside with the other women, groggy and depressed, carefully shifting an eye towards our building. It had scratches and splinters all over it, surprising now that it actually stood up the way it did. I notice a blotch of blood on the side of the wall, and as my eyes travel towards the ground I notice the torso of a human. The eyes were wide in shock, hands curled up, hair blooded and matted, with something stuffed in her mouth. I think I recognized her…a Frenchwoman. We met briefly, and I helped her translate something in Estonian and Russian.
I darted my head away and closed my eyes. The guard demands that we scatter and start picking up what needed to be picked up. Here is an old cart, do your duty, then head straight towards the forest, he says. Anyone who resists or disobeys is immediately executed, he says. That last threat was a normal one. After it is done breakfast may be given as usual. I shuffle my way over to a rickety cart, lifting it up slowly and carefully. I push the cart by the usual Goners, ironically the ones seemingly untouched by the whole ordeal, their movements swaying about in a melancholy and eerie motion in nearby.
Just nine years and six months to go. Just nine years and six months to go. Just nine years and six months to go. Two years is the average before one perishes, the daily fight for life is fought hour by hour. In my head, I will constantly tell myself, this is not the hour I will die.
Written by BlackPersephone