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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 August 2005, 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK
Red Army's 'ghosts' of Afghanistan
By Tom Coghlan
BBC News, Baghlan province, northern Afghanistan

Former Red Army soldier Nasratullah
Nasratullah has built a new life in Afghanistan [Photos: Veronique de Vigeurie]
To the men of the Red Army who fought in Afghanistan, their elusive mujahideen enemy were always called simply the "Dukhi" - the ghosts.

But when their last tank rolled back across the Oxus river in February 1989, the then Soviets left behind some Cold War ghosts of their own.

In the hills of northern Afghanistan, there are still men with pale skin who talk Russian when they are together.

Until 1981, Nasratullah was a soldier in the Red Army called Nikolai.

Together with two others, now known as Rahmatullah and Aminullah, he survives from a total of five Soviet soldiers known to have been captured and converted to Islam.

They went on to fight against their old comrades with the mujahideen.

'Terrible fight'

The ill-fated Soviet adventure in Afghanistan is often compared to America's disastrous foray into Vietnam.


Russia says 13,000 Soviet soldiers were lost between 1979 and 1989.

An estimated 1.3m Afghans, mainly civilians, also died.

Today, 45-year-old Nasratullah is a softly spoken, melancholic, chain smoker who earns $80 a month as a policeman.

But until his conversion to Islam, he was a junior officer from an elite Soviet parachute regiment.

He agreed to be interviewed only with the encouragement of his former mujahideen comrades. He remains close to the men who first captured him.

I didn't choose to convert. The religion chose me

"We captured Nasratullah during an ambush in Kaligai village in 1981," recalls his white bearded former commander, Sufi Payda Mohammed, eyes rimmed with kohl.

His mujahideen band operated in the steep-sided valleys of Baghlan province, along the key re-supply route from the Uzbek border to Kabul.

The mujahideen commander remembers "a very terrible fight" during which they killed around 20 Soviet soldiers.

Nikolai was the sole survivor, captured after he exhausted his ammunition and hid in a drainage ditch under the road.

The area around what was known as Soviet Base 80 is still littered with the rusting tanks and destroyed supply vehicles.

Local people say Russian embassy officials returned to the area last year offering cash rewards for the location of the graves of missing Soviet soldiers. They left with six exhumed bodies.


Nasratullah himself tells a different, more ideologically-driven version of how he came to fall into mujahideen hands.

He says he witnessed a massacre of more than 70 civilians at Kaligai.

Former mujahideen commander Sufi Payda Mohammed
Sufi Mohammed says he captured Nasratullah in an ambush

"We swore in the Russian army on the sword and the Bible to help society. It was against the law what was done," he says.

In horror and disgust, he says he simply turned and walked away from his unit.

Prisoners were often killed by both sides, but Nikolai was found by villagers who cared for him and then passed him to the mujahideen.

It was a year, he says, before he decided to convert. During that time he helped to mend mechanical equipment.

"I didn't choose to convert," he says today. "The religion chose me."

His former captors deny that any of the men were forced to become Muslims, or did so through fear.


They were renamed by the clerics who converted them. Nasratullah then spent eight years in the frontline with the mujahideen.

A derelict and abandoned Soviet tank
Remnants of the Soviet campaign litter the Afghan landscape

According to his comrades, the Soviet converts were decent fighters and particularly useful for listening to Soviet radio traffic.

"If you are in the frontline then you must fight and you must kill," is all he will say about fighting against his countrymen.

Nasratullah says he was born in 1960, in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. He will not give his last name.

His father was also a soldier in the Red Army and Nikolai attended a military academy, which he will not identify.

He volunteered for service in Afghanistan and served there for three months before his capture.

In July 1988, Moscow offered an amnesty to all Soviet prisoners of war in Afghanistan, whatever they had done during their captivity.

None of the Soviet converts took the offer, though all have visited their former homeland since the war.

"They said that they felt like white pigeons among black crows in Russia," says Sufi Muhammed.

"They told us 'we were devout and wanted to pray, but our families had no belief and didn't understand us'."


When he visited Ukraine in 1996, Nasratullah met some of his old Red Army comrades.

I have a good life here, though the economy is not very good

He says he was relieved when they did not blame him for his conversion, or for joining the mujahideen.

Like many of the veterans of Vietnam, the Soviet veterans have suffered wide disillusionment.

There were mass protests in June by some of the Ukraine's 150,000 Afghan war veterans, many of whom survive on a state pension of $40 a month.

"Russia and Afghanistan are not so different," says Nasratullah. "I have a good life here, though the economy is not very good."

Under the Taleban, Nasratullah and his fellow Soviets came to the attention of leader Mullah Mohammed Omar who, impressed with their devout lives, gave them homes and businesses.

All three have local wives and families. Three years ago, Nasratullah had a daughter he named Mosal.

But after the Taleban fell in 2001, the houses were reclaimed and none of the three is considered rich.

Locally, they are regarded as curiosities, and admired for being devout.

Nasratullah says that while he has the support of his old mujahideen comrades and his Islamic faith he will never leave Afghanistan.

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