A desolate landscape

Robert Doisneau: Les Helicopters, 1972As instructed Helga stopped the car at the limit of the airport. Both sides of the road were littered with the refuse of war, broken vehicles, hideously torn and burnt debris, broken glass and the litter of troops on the move. Beyond was a desolate landscape of ruined buildings, carcasses of airliners, burnt out armour, and artillery shells, sinister mementoes of the carnage of the last year.

She could hear, at intervals, the distant hammering of artillery, somewhere far away toward the North-East. Her guide pointed out the remnants of a control tower, an eerie skeleton over which savage battles had earlier been fought. The runways were reduced to grey dust punctured by craters and broken concrete slabs.

Through her human eyes, others, with more piercing vision, would observe the landscape, appraising, calculating, measuring. There were few sensors in this part of the country: the events had surprised the coven, thus her mission was now to conduct a direct assessment of the risks of planetary war. For what worried her species was the potential for a new conflict, and the consequences that would for decades delay their ambition of colonisation.

But Helga knew that this was already war: later, perhaps soon, the real fight would start, and huge armies and weaponry would be engaged. With Julian and Sarah, in the evenings of this late autumn, they had discussed the scenario for several weeks: a local uprising provokes a violent response, soon a conflict is born, fuelled by foreign interests and hatred… She trusted Julian’s deep understanding of the human psyche, more acute than hers, and Sarah’s judgement. Sarah… Helga longed to be now with her friend.

As she observed the desolation surrounding them, she was listening to her guide, who, in perfect German, was describing the life of local people, in the nearby city, through the night and day shelling and bombing of the past year, when the airport had been a battlefield. Helga reflected on the soldier’s absence of accent. At first she’d thought he might be a German mercenary, or volunteer fighter. But he had explained where he came from, far North, near the Arctic circle. Like the other military men Sarah and her had met on their arrival in *** his uniform had no insignia.

Three weeks ago they had driven all the way through Poland, after leaving Berlin. Friends in the German military had given Helga a detailed itinerary, and a letter for the authorities, in the capital. There they had spent three days, visiting the city, waiting for their laissez-passer. With their passports the officer who briefed them, explained how to make sure they would cross the front line at authorised checkpoints held by the army, and avoid those  guarded by militiae who were largely out of the government’s control.

Further East, Helga had relied on one contact she had from the coven’s days, a high ranking officer, who had confirmed the safe crossing points. Driving through the deserted back roads of the demilitarised zone, as such existed, they were met by two civilians, who, again in perfect German, had told them to follow them. Soon they entered the city, passing on their way columns of armour and motorised artillery. The country was at war.

In the city they had to wait another four days, under armed surveillance. They were well looked after. Helga’s contact had explained they would have to be patient. They would be cleared by officers of the army East, not from the local battalions. Indeed one morning they met the “team”. Four soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms, the look of professional fighters on their clean-shaven faces. Only one of them, apparently the political officer, spoke to them, in German. They would be given a guide and internal passports. At all times they must listen to the guide’s instructions. Their request to visit the airport had been granted at that condition. Only one of them at a time should go there, always with the guide. They could visit the city together, but had to keep within the military limits.

They were allocated comfortable quarters on what seemed to be the base of an army unit busy with telecommunications, judging by their vehicles, the forest of masts and satellite dishes on the roof of the building. Their room was guarded by two heavily armed soldiers. At no time had their luggage be checked, nor themselves interrogated, nor searched.

Today Sarah was meeting with some residents in the centre of the city, something she’d hoped to be able to do during their stay. Sarah was more relaxed here than she had been in the capital. Helga was reflecting on her friend’s affinities with the rebellion in this part of the country. Julian had also made clear where his sympathies lied.

Her guide was signing to her to enter a low level warehouse and be silent. Soon she heard the noise of powerful engines, still some distance away, above ground. Through the door of the warehouse Helga saw the helicopters, three ugly machines, bristling with weaponry and aerials. Her guide was talking on his combat radio set, in a language she could not identify.

The choppers were now very closed, in a few seconds a cloud of dust invaded the warehouse, the guide gestured to Helga to come out. One craft had landed in front of them, the other two were hovering a few meters from the ground, on each side of the warehouse. Three soldiers and one civilian were walking toward them. Her guide saluted. The three soldiers stood behind the civilian, and Helga recognised her contact.

The general had not changed since the day they had met in the small town, on the Rhenan border, it seemed a long time back. He smiled and they shook hands. Helga knew that he had worked out the reason for their visit, and remembered perfectly well who – or what – she was. “I am pleased to see you Helga, and you haven’t changed either, only more beautiful than ever,” he said gallantly, as if he could read her mind.

Helga did not answer immediately, her sight fascinated by the icy eyes, the calm composure, and his smile. For a fraction of a second she wondered if the general was not one of them, an agent like herself, gifted with a perfect human persona.

“I am sure the coven has good reasons to risk someone of your rank in this war zone… Although of course we have cleaned up this area now, as well as that corridor from where the enemy was shelling the city. People can sleep peacefully now, and you and your companion are safe.”

Helga replied: “We are grateful for your help, please accept this message from my own that should you require our… contribution,” Helga paused, “This would not be withheld.”

The general looked at her with searching eyes, smiled, then exchanged a few words with the guide who had stood by Helga all the time of the encounter. “We wish you a good stay,” the general finally said, “be assured you can contact me any time via your guide if you need anything, or just want to talk, I am here for a while.” He waved to her as he and his escort boarded the chopper. There was no signage on the craft, no identification. Helga and her guide looked on as the choppers were disappearing to the South.


Image: Robert Doisneau, Les hélicoptères, 1972