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It was a beautiful, sunny spring day when I arrived by train in a little town, together with dozens of other recruits. Here we were supposed to spend one year of compulsory military service, learning how to defend our socialist homeland from its numerous enemies who were envious of our successful country and wanted to carve it up and share it among them, as jackals do with their prey.
I looked around me and the scene was not encouraging. The station was unattractive, a grey shabby building, and the streets sleepy. Above the roofs of the houses towered high hills covered by patches of mist, which drifted around them uncovering a dense fir wood. The scene could have been from a romantic film, had it not been for a pungent stench coming probably from a factory. It was so strong that it bit my eyes and made them red.
Two soldiers came up to us, ordered us to line up in twos and led us through the almost empty streets of the town. The only sign of life were numerous cars with scantily dressed tourists on their way to the Adriatic Sea. They would slow down their foreign cars to look at us with curiosity, and probably with pity. Their goal was beautiful beaches of golden sand, ours thick barracks walls.
When we arrived to our final destination we received the same treatment reserved for all recruits on this planet, no matter the political system of their countries. That means taking off civilian clothes and donning military uniforms, getting a buzz haircut and turning into an anonymous cog in an enormous military machine.
They gave us a few weeks’ respite until we took the oath promising to defend our homeland to the last drop of our blood and be ready to sacrifice our own lives. I felt stupid uttering these solemn words because I was not ready to sacrifice my precious life for some communist bigwig, who lived like a king and in his spare time went into woods to shoot bears and deer, while ordinary people could hardly make both ends meet.
However, the majority of my fellow recruits believed in every single word of the oath and were ready to die for the ideals of socialism and communism. From the very beginning, I understood that it was impossible to discuss these sacred ideals with other people without risk of being seen as a traitor and therefore I decided to keep my mouth shut.
The next day we started our drills with weapons and long marches on the hills. We were treated like cattle as our officers drove us wherever they wanted, pushing us to the limits of our physical and mental endurance, without anyone of us having the courage or willpower to refuse to obey the orders, which often seemed completely meaningless. We were so exhausted at the end of the day that everyone was dreaming of only two things: a dinner and a bed.
Watching the evening news in a TV lounge was compulsory, but I would simply close my eyes and imagine my girlfriend, her large brown eyes and her long dark hair, while the newscaster from the TV set hanging from the ceiling was reading about the new achievements of our country, as well as the latest decrees issued by the party leaders.
These 30 minutes of ideological propaganda were meant to strengthen our belief in the political system and society, but I took advantage of them to get lost in a daydream, as an escape from the harsh reality. In those early days, I thought I should have fled the country as soon as I had received my draft card. Now I would be somewhere in the West sitting in a cafe and enjoying warm days outside, but instead I was experiencing the most difficult moments of my life in this godforsaken town.
One day I discussed our predicament with another soldier who was older than me and whose military service was nearing the end. When I told him about my feelings he chuckled and said, “You’ve seen nothing yet. Wait until the Lieutenant returns from his holiday.”
I asked him who the Lieutenant was, because once I had overheard people talking of him with unease, and the soldier answered, “Wait until you see him. But my advice to you is to give him a wide berth (?) whenever you can.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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