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Last Updated: Friday, 17 December 2004, 14:19 GMT
Moscow's Afghan war: The sapper's story
Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan on 24 December 1979, launching a war which lasted a decade. The BBC has spoken to people on both sides about a conflict which marked their lives.

V Grigoryev
Soviet interpreter:

Karl Paks
Soviet sapper:

N Akhadova
Soviet mother:

S Tursunova
Soviet nurse:

Jason Elliot
British mujahid:

Gelalei Habib
Afghan teacher:

Afghan refugee:

Omar Nessar
Afghan editor:

Karl Paks

Capt Karl Paks spent much of his career clearing World War II mines in Russia, but the Afghan war saw the Estonian sapper laying new ones as a Soviet paratroop officer.

He now campaigns for Afghan War veterans' rights in independent Estonia and hopes to commemorate local war dead with a monument in Tallinn.

Karl Paks (photo courtesy of Relvavendlus)
Estonian sappers like Karl Paks are serving in Afghanistan once again
I was 37 when I arrived as an officer with the 103rd Airborne Division. I served from July 1987 to January 1989 and was based at Bagram airbase outside Kabul.

Major military operations had ended long before but the roads were no less dangerous.

In the autumn of 1988, our sapper battalion had orders to clear away all destroyed vehicles between Kabul and Bagram. We brought them in and piled them up but a week later there were just as many burnt, burning or smouldering vehicles along the road.

Before that, I had been stationed with the 76th Airborne in Pskov [north-west Russia] for 13 and a half years. I know that I personally disarmed around 3,500 wartime munitions in the Pskov region.

We did not keep count of the number of mines we cleared in Afghanistan. We spent half the time laying them and the other half clearing them. We would go ahead of the convoys, for instance, to check the roads. They say Afghanistan is the most mined country in the world.

Our tour of duty ended on 21 January 1989. There were four or five of us and we were walking through Termez [on the Soviet side of the border] when suddenly we all burst out laughing. It was eight o'clock in the evening, it was the south and we had realised that we were walking through a town without our guns, helmets or flak jackets. That is when it hit us that our war was over.

Sketch of proposed Afghan veterans' monument in Tallinn (photo courtesy of Relvavendlus)
The proposed Estonian monument is named the Millstone of War

The stress would only show when you went home. You come home from the war and you see civilians going about their normal lives, and then some people get into a quarrel over some minor thing and you feel this anger welling up inside you. You feel like saying: "Why are you arguing over nothing? Do have any idea what it means to be alive?"

Worst affected were the youngsters in the special forces, who were always on combat missions. They would come back home physically intact but crippled psychologically. They are grown men now, but when they start to remember the war, they can go on drinking bouts lasting two or three weeks to drown out the stress inside them.

Estonian military records show that 1,652 local soldiers, both ethnic Estonians and Russians, served in Afghanistan. Sixteen Estonians and at least 22 Russians were killed.

Unfortunately, our Afghan veterans enjoy no special status, unlike the Estonian soldiers now serving in Iraq whose welfare is protected by new legislation. In Afghanistan, we were carrying out orders and one of the aims of our veterans' organisation, Relvavendlus [Brothers in Arms], is to obtain equal legal status.

We have had promises of help from district officials here in Tallinn to erect a war monument and I hope it will be up by 2006. The general opinion here seems to be that Afghanistan is an undeservedly forgotten page in Estonia's history.

There is, incidentally, a unit of Estonian sappers now serving with the international peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan.

Interviewed by Patrick Jackson, BBC News.

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