Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Review : The Long Walk - Slavomir Rawicz****

Rawicz was a proud Pole who served as a cavalry officer and fought against the German invasion of his country in WW2. He was arrested by Russian troops and imprisoned on charges of being a spy, which he was not.

The inventiveness of humans when trying to be cruel and evil to each other is incredible, the 'chimney' cell in which Rawicz spent weeks or months is a true horror, and the endless, pointless and paranoid questioning under torture which the young man endures is almost beyond belief. Rawicz realised early on in his imprisonment that making a false admission to spyhood would would probably earn him a death sentence, although it is apparent that men without his phenomenal willpower would have taken death as the easier option.

He was sentenced to 25 years hard labour, enduring a hellish train journey across Russia and then weeks of marching with men chained in long lines to the back of trucks to their gulag somewhere near Yakutsk.

In the gulag the men cut trees and make skis for the Russian army, and the formulate a plan to escape. The actual escape is fairly easy, but due to the extreme remoteness and the unforgiving Siberian weather, it is the camp's location that prevents more detainees from trying.

Slavomir Rawicz and his companions cut the wire and begin to walk to freedom, from Northern Siberia to Lake Baikal, across Mongolia and the Gobi desert, through China and Tibet and then across the Hamilaya's into India, the men walk thousands of miles. They have virtually no supplies, almost no way of carrying water, the most valuable items they posses are a couple of old knives and an axehead. They make their own clothing and shoes from animal skins, survive for weeks on almost no food at all.

Rawicz does not complain though, in the midst of what must have been physical agony and mental misery he finds beauty in the natural world about him and solace and companionship in his stout and brave fellow escapees. The distance that these men walked, thousands of miles, and the extreme conditions they endured is simply astonishing. To have the strength of will and single minded determination to carry on, to never stop, to not fall behind or become weak and let your friends down is an admirable thing. There must have been a hundred times when carrying on seemed hopeless, without food and water, with no map or compass and never knowing even which country they were in, the bravery and endurance of these men is almost without comparison.

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