Michael Maki – Breakfast With Aram

Sheridan Federal Detention Center

Sheridan Federal Detention Center

Another dispatch from our POWOD correspondent at Sheridan Federal Prison Camp, Oregon:

There’s a stir among our Armenian-Russian brethren here (there are four of them, from all different walks of life and parts of this country, befitting a people scattered to the winds by modern history). A fellow in our wing, Elvin—better known as Elvis—got papers last night that he is being relocated. So there were hurried speculative consultations as to what might be up, but no conclusions. First thing his morning Elvis found out that he’s being shipped to an appeal hearing in Oklahoma. He learned this from a hurried phone call to his attorney, who was able to get the basic and purported facts. To get there will take a few weeks, part of the usual diesel therapy punishment for being a thorn in the side of the BOP/DOJ and asking for fair recourse in the law. He’ll apparently go first to Las Vegas/Parump, the CCA federal prison nexus and privatized toll booth for a few weeks, then on to El Reno (the now-famous federal prison visited recently by President Obama), then to another location in Oklahoma, from which he’ll attend a hearing, which will likely last a few minutes. Whether he will be shipped back here is anyone’s guess, but there’s a hopeful possibility. He thinks he might be back in a couple of months.

This morning I sat down in the chow hall with Aram, another Russian-Armenian friend. Aram is a fit, burly, fiftyish man, with classic Russian enthusiasm. He’s a Russian-trained attorney who has spent a lot of time knocking about Siberia, so we don’t have many places and experiences in common. This morning, though, as the breakfast table was discussing the future (and past) possibilities of nuclear war, and life behind our respective propaganda curtains during the Cold War, Aram jumped into his Russian army experience.

All young men in Russia are required to serve two years in the military, and Aram was sent to Mongolia, where he was six months before the full outbreak of the Afghan war. Then his unit was sent to the Khandahar area, and life got dangerous instantly. The fighting in the countryside was nothing the Russians had trained for; driving out in tank convoys under sniper fire to trouble spots on mountain roads, only to have the first and last tanks in the line hit by artillery, stopping the parade. This was the common practice, almost a daily occurrence. Then, while the soldiers sat in the stifling heat waiting for air support, they didn’t dare pop their heads out of the tanks, because a sniper hidden somewhere in the rocks had a bead on every tank. Shooting Russians in barrels.

“Why? Why? For what reason?” asks Aram. “We never saw the enemy, only snipers, always. In the morning you never knew who would be killed by lunch. I lost so many good friends. For what?! To bring freedom to the Afghan people? That’s what the Russian government told us. The Afgahn people don’t want freedom, except from foreigners. They have thousands of years of their own history, their own way of life. They don’t want to be part of ours. Just leave them alone! No one will ever defeat the Afghans, not America, no one!”

Aram said that before coming to Afghanistan, he had never drunk alcohol, but to sleep at night without a strong dose was impossible, with men screaming in their sleep every night. So after a few months he began to drink the vodka issued by the commanding officer to help put them to sleep. “I sleep with my Kaleshnikov by me every night. We never know when we will be attacked, or if we will wake up in the morning.” He said that during the day the sport of the Afghan snipers was to pick off officers only, plink, plink, plink. Maybe ten men died every day, mostly one at a time.

“You go into a village, you’re very thirsty, but they poison all the water. You make them drink it first to be sure.” His broad face took on a look of remembered fear and disgust and deep sadness. “Just leave them alone. Leave them alone.” Aram survived, and after perestroika came to California to live, working with his ex-pat community. We see each other every day, even though he is in the RDAP program, and we greet each other in Russian. He loves to work with rocks, and has volunteered to help out with a kind of crazy rock planter project one of our guys has taken up on the compound. Unlike so many of the guys here, despite his experience and no-doubt PTSD, he is always cheerful and upbeat, a man of great integrity who passes through here for reasons greater than the concept of punishment meted out by our own misdirected government.

Mike Maki

Mike Maki

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