Page last updated at 17:44 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

Afghanistan's Soviet remnants


Afghanistan's Soviet remnants

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News, northern Afghanistan

It took a call to an Afghan military commander, a chat with a police chief, a nod to a governor, and tea with a spook but we were finally given permission to pass through the gates to the Friendship Bridge linking northern Afghanistan to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

On the plain white bridge spanning the Amu Darya river, only a lone car rolled by every few minutes or so.

And then, a freight train came thundering down the rails, shattering an eerie quiet, allowing us to imagine a time centuries ago when mighty armies invaded across this border.

From Alexander the Great to the 19th Century Great Game, this has been the edge of empire.

Three decades ago, the Soviet Red Army came across this bridge.

Then, in 1989, the last of 100,000 soldiers rumbled the other way in an armoured column.

They left behind a country in ruin and returned home to a Soviet empire on the verge of collapse.

Some 15,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives and more than a million Afghans were killed in a Cold War confrontation between a Soviet-backed government in Kabul and mujahideen fighters armed by the West and Islamic neighbours.

The Soviet commander, Gen Boris Gromov, a decorated war hero, was the last to cross this bridge in a carefully choreographed farewell.

In Moscow, a foreign ministry spokesman announced "not a single Soviet soldier was left in Afghanistan".

I was based in Kabul then and watched the troops go. But ever since then, I've heard stories of the ones that never left.

Twenty years on, in the north-eastern town of Kunduz, I met Private Alexander Levenets and Gennady Tseuma, two village boys from Ukraine, former teenage conscripts.

The Afghan war turned their lives inside out. Alexander became Ahmad. Gennady is Nek Mohammad. But fate dealt them each a different hand.


Alexander deserted his unit to escape the brutality of his Russian officers.

As we walked through a depot of rusting Soviet weaponry in Kunduz, he remembered his walk into the darkness one night, believing he faced certain death.

Rusting Soviet tanks
Some 15,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives

The Russians had warned - anyone who surrendered would be tortured by the mujahideen.

But instead they took him in. He eventually converted to Islam and fought his former Russian comrades.

"I had hatred toward them and treated them as they had treated me."

Gennady was taken prisoner by a different mujahedeen group and forced to choose between conversion or death.

A quarter of a century on, little betrays their Ukrainian past. To all appearances, they are Afghan Muslims with their traditional shalwar kameez - tunic and trousers - and greying beards.

Among the "Afghantsy" - the Soviet soldiers who fought in this war - a small number deserted or were taken prisoner.

A few were honoured as special Muslims when the Taleban came to power. Some have gone back to their old homes.

Emotional reunion

Ahmad, with his gentle bearing and embroidered Muslim cap, wants to put the past behind him.

"I don't remember anything from Ukraine. There's nothing left for me there." His mother and only brother are now dead.

He drives a white estate taxi to support his wife and four daughters.

Tragedy is being repeated again. I feel that the Americans and other partners waging a war on terror have neglected historical lessons
Zamir Kabulov,
Russian ambassador

"I have no regrets," he says with a smile as his daughters play Afghan hopscotch in the fading light of day inside their walled compound.

In this conservative Afghan culture, his wife remained out of sight.

Nek Mohammad also has four children and an Afghan wife he married when she was just a young teenager.

But there is also Sergei - a brother who was only 11 when he left for the front.

In the past few weeks, Sergei managed to collect money and courage to visit.

As we sat on cushions, in Afghan custom, on a carpeted floor, Nek Mohammad recalled their emotional reunion.

"Sergei said, what happened to you? See what has fate done to us."


'I deserted the Soviets to fight for the mujahideen'

Sergei wants him to come home. Nek Mohammad is torn. "I wanted to go but my wife's family did not let her. My children are sweet. I could not leave them."

When Nek Mohammad turns on his satellite television to listen to Russian music, the women cavorting on screen offend Ahmad, who averts his gaze.

Nek Mohammad watches with a wry smile. "We never used to have that kind of stuff."

Their lives were changed forever by this war. But so was the fate of an entire country when the Soviet Union invaded to prop up an unpopular government in Kabul begging for help.

"It was a mistake," admitted Russia's Ambassador in Kabul, Zamir Kabulov, when we visit the memorial to Moscow's dead on the far edge of their gleaming new embassy in Kabul.

He was a young diplomat during the Soviet occupation and has spent almost all his career in Afghanistan.

Now he has a stark warning for the West.

"Tragedy is being repeated again. I feel that the Americans and other partners waging a war on terror have neglected historical lessons."

Ambassador Kabulov often speaks with some barely concealed satisfaction over the plight of former Cold War rivals. That annoys Western diplomats who dismiss history lectures from Moscow.

In 2001, when US and British led troops helped topple the Taleban, they were welcomed as liberators, not occupiers. It was hailed as a new start.

But as the Taleban advance close to Kabul, and civilian casualties mount from errant US and Nato air strikes, Afghans ask why the countries who came to help are now failing them.

But Nato governments are urgently reviewing their strategies. An extra 17,000 US troops are being deployed.

The Cold War railway relic on the northern border will soon help to bring in Nato supplies as it steps up its Afghan campaign.

You can see Lyse Doucet's report on Newsnight on BBC2 at 2230 GMT, 9 March.

Also showing on BBC World News on 11 March at 2030 GMT. Repeating at various times throughout the week.

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