I Was a Child Soldier—and I Never Stopped Fighting

When my father joined our country’s fight for freedom from Mother Russia, I ran away from home to join him. Two decades later, I’m back on the front lines, wondering if my own children will ever know a world without war.

I Was a Child Soldier—and I Never Stopped Fighting

I woke up expecting to hear my mother’s voice, telling me that dinner was ready. I was cold, so I thought the electricity supply had been cut again, as was the usual in those days. I opened my eyes, but it was so dark in the room I couldn’t tell where I was. I tasted blood in my mouth. Then I remembered: I was in a prison cell, and had been for about a week. I was cold, starving and sore from the gunshot wounds on my head and leg, and from the bruises all over my body. But more painful than the wounds were the memories of horrifying chaos, blood-freezing cries of women, children’s tears, empty looks on the faces of the dead. I was at war. I was only fourteen, and I was a soldier.

In 1991, when the republic of Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, we celebrated, but before long the country devolved into internal conflict. In 1993, war broke out between the government of Georgia and Abkhazian separatist forces, backed by Russian armed forces and thousands of North Caucasian and Kazak mercenaries.

Narratively_BoySoldier_3 My father, one of the leaders of the independence movement of Georgia in the ’90s, immediately joined the military forces of Georgia fighting the separatists in Abkhazia. We hardly ever heard from him. My mother eagerly watched the daily news hoping for information from the front line. Buses full of soldiers and volunteers left every day, and every week my mother went to the station to send a parcel and a letter to my father.

Electricity and gas were considered luxuries. My mother had to sell all the valuable items from the house to buy us food. She used to line up at the bread factory for eight hours, starting at three in the morning, just to buy us some bread. She had to take care of me and my sister alone, in the absence of my father.

My father had been away for three months; I was in geography class when my mother came to pick me up, saying it was urgent. I felt there was something wrong. Then she told me my uncle was dead. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was fighting back tears, remembering my father telling me that “real men don’t cry.”

Early the next morning, I grabbed my father’s old military backpack. I collected a first aid kit, the pocket utility knives my father had given me, a water canteen, my hiking boots and pocket lights. My dad had taught me some basic survival tactics, so I didn’t need to bring much. I put my father’s gun in the backpack. (Georgia was in a constant state of conflict and weapons were to be found everywhere.)

My mother was asleep; she was very tired from the daily struggle for survival. I kissed her silently
before sneaking out. I knew my father was somewhere at war, and I had to find a way to join him. I was a man and I could not silently stay and watch while my country was being destroyed and innocent people were killed. I knew mother would one day understand my decision. I also knew my childhood was over.

I went to the same bus station where my mother sent letters to my dad. I told the commander of the volunteers’ battalion that I was part of Zurab Mamulashvili’s unit and needed to join them at the front line. (My father was a general and everybody knew his name.) I looked older than my age, so no one questioned my boarding a bus to the conflict zone.

I made friends with the other volunteers during the two-day trip. A big awkward man sat next to me, his face full of freckles and head full of bright red hair. Giorgi was in his early thirties; he was an economist in his “previous life,” as he referred to it. The day the conflict erupted, he had decided to take up arms, because he believed his country’s future was in danger and needed to be defended at any price.

When the buses arrived at the front line, I started asking around about the whereabouts of my father’s military unit. An elderly man told me they were based near the power station, which was the most dangerous location due to its strategic importance. He said I could only get there with the tank brigades that were leaving next morning.

I will never forget the look of disbelief on my father’s face when he saw my head popping out of the tank; a mixture of pride and not-so-well-masked sadness. He whispered something to his staff and a colonel came to see me off to the main building.

It was a calm and peaceful morning about three months after my arrival. Gia and Sergo, my brothers-in-arms, told me they saw some abandoned beehives nearby and they would sneak out very early in the morning to harvest honey. We’d been living off of flour and water for months, and we all had kids’ sugar cravings – even though they were twice my age, 29 and 35.

“We’ll be right back,” Sergo winked at me. Sergo had been my closest comrade since I arrived in the conflict zone. We shared memories and dreams for the future of our country and our own destinies once we returned home. But this morning, our lives were about to change forever.

Narratively_BoySoldier_2I heard the shots shortly after the guys went to hunt for honey. My blood started to pulse.

“We are surrounded,” I heard Sergo yelling.

Those were his last words.

Our unit was surrounded by Russian forces and foreign mercenaries for twenty hours. Twenty hours of non-stop shooting and bombing. There were three hundred of them and 35 of us. We were based in the former administrative building of the hydropower station. From my position by a window, I was in charge of the front line. The building was in the middle of the deep, subtropical forest, and the delicate smell of orange blossom and eucalyptus hung in the air. The shadowy forms of the enemy were moving against the sunlight, and suddenly death started to rain from all directions. I quickly looked out of the window to position the enemy, and I felt a bullet go through my hat. Lucky, I thought, it was just a scratch on my head, and now I knew where the enemy was hiding. I saw men fall as I shot.

Many years later, the image of the dead soldiers on the ground in front of the building, in the sharp spring sunshine, would haunt my mind.

“They captured children from the village school,” I heard my father shouting from outside of the building. “They want us to surrender or they will shoot them.”

We surrendered, ready to give our lives for the lives of the children. The Russians were angry; they had suffered significant human loss. They wanted revenge, but they did not shoot us. They tortured us. They ordered me to collect the dead – the bodies, the limbs and remains of the soldiers with whom just yesterday I was sharing food, joking and planning for home. I dug the graves for my brothers-in-arms, with guns pointed at my head. I looked at the enemy’s inhuman face. His skin was faded and lifeless, he heavily smelled of alcohol. His eyes glowed with hatred. They were psychologically and morally exhausted.

Why were they here, on our land? I wondered.

War is senseless, people say, but it is not senseless for a soldier fighting for his beliefs, fighting to protect his land, his people, his country’s independence. But what was the enemy fighting for?

I was alone in a prison cell for three months. A few days after we were imprisoned, I heard a prisoner in the cell next to mine. I didn’t know who he was, so I started talking to him carefully through the wall. It was my father. He hadn’t known if I was alive, and my presence breathed life into him. He had been badly tortured and couldn’t move. He didn’t have food or water for days. I was fed twice a week and had some water. I made a paper cylinder and poured the water to him through the hole in the wall so that he would survive.

Mamuka and his father in captivity. They were being interviewed by the Russian media. (All photos courtesy Mamuka Mamulashvili)
Mamuka Mamulashvili and his father in captivity, being interviewed by the Russian media. (All photos courtesy Mamuka Mamulashvili)

The prison guards would regularly beat us with clubs. They also applied psychological pressure: Early one morning, they gathered us outside the prison building and ordered us to stand facing the wall. They said they got an order to execute the prisoners. They pointed guns at us. We stood there, silently welcoming death. But they didn’t shoot – they only wanted to break our will. We had survived another day.

Red Cross staff came to visit the prison, and when they realized I was underage they requested I be moved to more “humane living conditions.” I was locked up in a house of one of the prison guards. I was fed rotten food and beaten regularly – they sent in boys my age to do it. Four days after I was placed in the house of the prison guard, I decided to escape. When night fell, I forced open the window in the room I was locked in and jumped out into the dark. It was a hot night; the lazy summer moon lit the garden adjacent to the house. A dog started to bark when it heard me, but then it stopped, letting me go, compassionate to my sorrow. I crossed the fıeld of tangerine trees. I didn’t know the area, so I started running toward the forest I remembered seeing when I was moved to this house. And then a terrible thought crossed my mind – what if they shoot my father when they realize I escaped? I returned to my house of imprisonment, where I was kept for another few months.

After six months, I was exchanged for another prisoner and returned home. I tried to adapt to a “normal” life, to forget the pain and atrocities of war. I went to university, earned a degree, married and started my own family. The future seemed bright, free from guns and bombs. But the world of an ex-soldier is very different from the world of a civilian; you are still a human being on the outside, but you feel dead inside. The emotional scars of war never heal. You try to put the war behind you, but you know intuitively that one day it will haunt you again. And for me it did.

Members of the Georgian National Legion reading condolences for fallen comrades. Mamuka is in the middle.
Mamuka Mamulashvili (center) and members of the Georgian National Legion reading condolences for fallen comrades.

In August 2008, the enemy was back. Russia invaded Georgia. We had to take up arms again and defend our land. Our unit of war veterans, as they call us, was on the front lines. The same enemy that wanted to destroy our motherland fifteen years ago was now even closer, threatening the full elimination of Georgian statehood. We fought like never before; many from our legion left their lives on the battlefield. It became clear that war will never end for us.

Mamuka Mamulashvili waiting to be called on stage to receive the National Hero of Ukraine award.
Mamuka waiting to be called on stage to receive the National Hero of Ukraine award.

Then in early 2014, Big Brother came back again. This time the aim was Ukraine. Another country that dared to dream of the unspeakable: democracy and independence, true freedom from Russian influence. It was our duty to help our Ukrainian brothers in this unequal fight. Our unit of Georgian volunteers fighting in Ukraine became known as the Georgian National Legion of war veterans. Today, I am a Commander of the Georgian National Legion in Ukraine. Once again I left my family, my young sons, my “peaceful life” to fight.

My childhood dreams were lost in war, but I want my sons to have a normal childhood, to live in a peaceful democratic country, free from the constant danger of Russian influence and intervention. For them, I will keep fighting.