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How Soviet troops stormed Kabul palace

Soviet troops pulling out of Afghanistan in the mid-1980s
The Soviet assault was the start of a nine-year civil war

What was it like to be in the presidential palace in Kabul 30 years ago when Soviet soldiers burst in and killed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin?

The BBC World Service has brought together for the first time two people who were on different sides in the palace that day - a Soviet soldier and a young Afghan girl, Lucy Williamson reports.

It was the first time Najiba had set foot inside the palace. For an 11-year-old girl, she says: "it was like something from a movie: the staircases, the golden lift, the chandeliers, and the glitter - the beauty of it."

It was all brand new - the palace had just been refurbished. And Najiba's parents had been invited there for a party, to show off the new design.

It was 27 December, 1979. And as the guests warmed themselves with lavish food, outside the palace walls other - uninvited - guests waited in the winter cold.

Afghan woman Najiba as a young girl
The things I saw, my God, I saw a person… like a scene from a nightmare movie, dead bodies, lots
Najiba

Afghan eyewitness

Among them was Rustam Tursunkulov, a 23-year-old special forces commander with the Soviet army. As Najiba bickered with her brother over the party food, outside Rustam prepared to give the order.

Thirty years on, Rustam was sitting in our Moscow studio, after the BBC's Russian Service had found and contacted him.

"In the end," he told me, "I didn't really order them at all. I hugged each of my men and said: 'I'll go ahead, you follow'.

"We had no body armour and hardly any of us had helmets. We had to run through a shower of bullets.

Panic set in

"I kept the magazine of my rifle and my helmet for a long time afterwards - they were riddled with bullet holes."

The coup had begun.

Inside the palace, confusion spread quickly.

"There was this huge, loud sound," Najiba remembers. "A huge explosion that shook the place. We had to run to the corridor and my nice yellow shoes were left behind and my white coat - I really wanted them, but my mum said there was no time, we had to run."

Out in the corridor, Najiba saw President Amin half-dressed, shouting to his family; his wife running, bringing the Kalashnikovs.

As panic set in among the palace residents, Rustam and his men moved methodically through the building.

"We killed the Afghans who put up any opposition to us," said Rustam. "The building was on fire and by the light of the flames we could see silhouettes. We recognised our own people because they were swearing in Russian."

"The things I saw," said Najiba. "My God - people on the floor. I saw a person… like a scene from a nightmare movie. Dead bodies. Lots."

Begs forgiveness

Rustam tells me his orders were to kill everyone they met in the palace. I ask him if he did.

"I was a Soviet soldier," he says. "We were trained to accept orders without question. I was in the special forces - it's the worst job.

"In any army there has to be someone who'll do the harshest, most horrible tasks. Unfortunately, it's not soldiers, but politicians who make wars."

I ask him how many people he thinks he killed that night.

Rustam Tursunkulov as a Soviet soldier
I want to thank you for talking to me and beg your forgiveness for what we did
Rustam Tursunkulov

Former Soviet soldier

"If I knew, I wouldn't tell you," he says. "I just carried out orders, I didn't count them."

As I talked down the line to Rustam in Moscow, Najiba came into the studio and sat down shakily.

It was the first time she had spoken to anyone involved in the coup. Clutching a tissue, she spoke haltingly into the microphone.

"Hello," she said. "My name's Naijba, and I was inside the palace 30 years ago."

Rustam's voice came back from Moscow: "I want to thank you for talking to me and beg your forgiveness for what we did.

"It was a terrible thing, but you need to hear both sides of it."

Bled to death

Najiba told me she had been up all night turning over in her head the questions she wanted to ask. "There were so many," she said. "It's been 30 years."

But in the end, she asked about the children - there had been lots of them in the palace that day, including the president's own 11-year-old son.

"What happened to him?" Najiba asked. "Did you try and save the children?"

Rustam replied: "Please try to understand that when there's a battle going on, it's hard to know there are children there.

"Amin's son was hit by shrapnel and bled to death. All the bodies were wrapped in carpet and buried near the palace. There was no ceremony for them."

Najiba asked him: "Do you remember me? I had blond hair then, and my mother was very fair."

"No," said Rustam. "I'm sorry."

"How long did the whole operation take?" asked Najiba.

"Forty-three minutes," he said.

It was 43 minutes that turned into a nine-year war, took the Cold War to a new level, and left more than a million people dead.

Rustam and Najiba are both writing books about their memories of that night.

As they end their conversation, Rustam promises to send Najiba some documents, to help with her research.

They say goodbye, and the line to Moscow goes dead.

You can hear more from both Najiba and Rustam in a special two-part series of 'Witness' on the BBC World Service, on Monday 28 December and Tuesday 29 December.



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