Page last updated at 09:14 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Witnesses to Moscow's Afghan war

People with connections to Moscow's Afghan war share their memories with the BBC 20 years after the last Soviet soldier left.

Some witnessed the actual conflict, which claimed at least one million lives, while others encountered veterans of the conflict.


Ferrying the dead

Axe versus tank

The horror


Family targeted

The day Russians came

Brothers at war

David Shatski, 17, remembers what his late father told him about the war.

Captain Yevgeni Shatski flew transport planes for the Soviet air force
Captain Yevgeni Shatski, former Soviet Air Force pilot, died last year

My father served in the Soviet Air Force and took part in the conflict between 1982 and 1983, flying a 'Black Tulip' [the Soviet Army nickname for coffin transport planes]. He made flights to Kabul on an An-12 transport and delivered coffins back to the Soviet Union.

From time to time, the mujahideen fired Stinger missiles at his plane but fortunately the crew would manage to set off flares.

As a pilot, he had very little contact with ordinary Afghans, I think, but he always said to me that at the airfield in Kabul, there were big mountains just in front of them, and always as he took off, he pulled up hard not to crash into them. This required great skill from the pilots, especially as there was also the fear of getting hit by a Stinger.

One other thing my father told me is that they never put more than a few coffins in any one plane because if it got shot down, the bodies would be given a military funeral twice.


Zalmay Visah
Zalmay Visah rejected offers to change sides after Najibulla's fall

Zalmay Visah served as a general in the army of Moscow-backed President Mohammed Najibullah. At the time of the Soviet withdrawal, he was a brigade commander:

As a general, I always fought alongside Soviet troops. Back then it was our belief that we were fighting for the people and those who fought against us were enemies of the people. But, of course, we also had this uncomfortable sense of fighting against our own people.

Once when I was commanding a tank battalion we got called out on the radio. An old man flung himself against our tank and hit it with an axe. I brought this man over to us and gave him some food. Of course, I was annoyed but at the same time I admired his courage.

Another time, we had a local man come in and complain that a soldier had taken away his ring. The Soviet commander immediately summoned the soldier and the moment the Afghan identified him, he ordered the looter to be handcuffed and sent to the prosecutor's office where he received a very heavy punishment.

From an interview given to the BBC Russian Service.


Alexei (not his real name) works in risk management in Moscow and frequently has dealings with Russian veterans of Afghanistan and Chechnya through his work.

I was at a banquet where I was sitting opposite a very senior Russian Army officer. I asked if he had fought in Afghanistan. He said he had. I asked what it was like. He answered: 'I blew up women and children, what else do you want to know?' He was very twitchy and struck me as someone who suffered from bad nerves.

My cousin fought there as a conscript and he used to talk about the severed heads of Russian soldiers lined on the side of roads as they drove past.

In my experience, these veterans are very uncomfortable talking about the war, except when they are drunk, maybe.


Ken Zaher as a young man
Ken Zaher was 15 when Soviet troops first arrived
Ken Zaher was a schoolboy at the time but recalls life before he fled to Pakistan.

I was a student at that time in high school in Kandahar. I was 15 years old.

My dad was a successful businessman in the oil business. When the Soviets took over, they targeted him because of his money and contacts.

One afternoon the soldiers came and asked for my father. He was out in the town and somebody must have tipped him off. Twenty soldiers with AK-47s sat in our courtyard for two days.

My mother was shaking. My father stayed away. Eventually he went to Saudi Arabia.

The communists created little organisations inside our high school to watch the kids. One of the kids passed my name on as the son of a rich man.

I was interrogated almost 10 times asking me where the mujahideen were, whether my father was funding them, etc. It got to a point when I knew I was going to go to jail.

I left the country by walking five miles and taking a bus across the border to Quetta in Pakistan. I was a teenager in a strange land. Somebody gave me a passport and told me to go to America.

I did that and claimed political asylum. My parents survived and they are back in Afghanistan now.


Parwez and his family
Parwez (far right) and his family in 1980
Parwez Faizi says the arrival of the Russians changed the course of his life.

I remember the day the Russians invaded Afghanistan. I was 10 years old. It was around 3pm when we started seeing hundreds of planes in the sky.

Our house was only about 400 yards [metres] from a huge open space where the Russians decided to make a base.

They put up a little screen and played propaganda movies. All the kids gathered around it and watched pictures of Russians marching into Germany.

Slowly, we started trading with the Russian soldiers: anything Russian for anything American. It started getting bad after that. People started disappearing. My aunt's husband disappeared and a couple of my dad's friends. They would come at night time, ask people to go for questioning and no-one would ever hear from them again.

There was a book burning night where we had to burn anything to do with the West. The communist government would come randomly and search our house.

In the end we migrated to Pakistan. That was a horrible experience but I am now in the US. I went to Afghanistan recently and it hasn't moved forward at all


Abdul Basir's family was divided by conflict as one brother fought for the mujahideen and the other for the Afghan army.

Abdul Basir
Abdul remembers the day the invasion began
During the Soviet invasion of my country I was living in suburb of Kabul.

It changed my life. One of my brothers was a soldier in the Afghan army and another was fighting in the mujahideen. They were fighting each other but at least they were on different front lines.

I was seven when it all started. I remember dozens of helicopters flying overhead. At seven I thought it was funny watching them fly over the mountains. Sometimes I heard the sound of bombs. People around me were frightened that they would bomb our village too.

The mujahideen took my oldest brother away by force when he was 15 or 16 years old. My other brother was forced to join the army. He tried to escape once but they caught him. The mujahideen brother was killed in the fighting, the other is working in Kabul now.

I was 12 when my father died, my mother took me to an orphanage to be looked after. At that time they were taking children in large numbers to schools in the Soviet Union. I ended up in a school in Tajikistan and my family couldn't find me for years.

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