* * *
“When I was drafted into the army in April 1984, I was a nineteen-year-old boy. The club where they took us was a distribution centre. Officers came there from various military units and picked out the soldiers they wanted. My fate was decided in one minute. A young officer came up to me and asked, “Do you want to serve in the commandos, the Blue Berets?” Of course I agreed. Two hours later I was on a plane to Uzbekistan (a Soviet republic in Central Asia), where our training base was located.
During the flight, I learned most of the soldiers from this base were sent to Afghanistan. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t surprised. At that point I didn’t care anymore because I understood that it is impossible to change anything. ‘To serve in the Soviet army is the honourable duty of Soviet citizens” – as it’s written in our Constitution. And no one gives a damn whether you want to fulfil this “honourable duty” or not. But then I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. Up until 1985, in the press and on television, they told us that Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were planting trees and building schools and hospitals. And only a few knew that more and more cemeteries were being filled with the graves of eighteen- to twenty-year-old boys. Without the dates of their death, without inscriptions. Only their names on black stone…
At the base we were trained and taught to shoot. We were told that we were being sent to Afghanistan not to plant trees. And as to building schools, we simply wouldn’t have the time…
Three and a half months later, my plane was landing in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan… We were taken to a club on base. A few minutes later, officers started to come by and choose soldiers. Suddenly, an officer with a smiling face and sad eyes burst in noisily. He looked us over with an appraising glance and pointed his finger at me: “Ah ha! I see a minesweeper!” That’s how I became a minesweeper. Ten days later, I went on my first combat mission…”
* * *
“The war divided the Afghan people. Some were with us, and others were against us. On our side was the Afghan government, which had come to power in April 1978 (not without our help), and the Afghan Republican Army. This army, like any other, was made up of officers and soldiers. Most officers received special training at Afghan military college; some even studied in the Soviet Union. An “amusing’ example of this kind of training: an Afghan officer named Ahmad Shah. He had graduated from the Soviet military academy, returned to Afghanistan, and went off to the Mujahadeen in Panjusher, where he headed one of the largest groups and put his training to good use. Actually, the only thin an Afghan had to do to enter a military college was apply, and he was in. They chose the soldiers differently: troops went into a village and rounded up men of appropriate age. There were some volunteers, of course – a few.
The Afghan army often took part in combat missions together with Soviet troops. Frankly, they were lousy soldiers. They tried to stay behind us and were never in a hurry to overtake us. There was nothing surprising about this: many of them, like many of us, were not in this war of their own free will. We had nothing to lose but our lives, but they were fighting their own people on their own land. Our newspapers depicted them as brave and valiant warriors defending their revolution. There were some volunteers who fought on our side to avenge the deaths of their families murdered by the Mujahadeen. Just as there were those who fought on the side of the Mujahadeen to avenge the death of families killed by our shelling. This is what a civil war is about. The only questions was, What were we doing there? And why were there more and more unmarked graves in our cemeteries?”
* * *
“From my point of view, there were three kinds of Mujahadeen.
The first, and the largest number of them, were Afghans who simply went to work to earn money from the war. … For their work, they were paid regularly: from 5,000 to 10,000 afghanis for killing a Soviet soldier; from 10,000 to 20,000 for killing a Soviet officer; about 100,000 for destroying a tank or a helicopter or an airplane. An example: once three Mujahadeen were captured in the mountains. They turned out to be Afghan students who were attending Soviet universities. They’d come home for summer vacation and decided to earn some extra money. Among other things, war is a business. Someone sells weapons, someone uses them.
We usually called the Mujahadeen by the less impressive word Dushman (“bandit”). The Dushmans were in the mountains long before the war, only there weren’t so many. They stole a bit and dealt in drugs a little, when suddenly the opportunity arose to have a ‘stable income’. There was competition for these jobs. We often heard about fighting between neighboring groups of Mujahadeen; the issue was territorial control.
Journalists don’t write about these Mujahadeen in the foreign (and that includes the “free” American) press. But they write about them constantly in the Soviet press.
The second kind of Mujahadeen are the ones who took up arms to defend their country from us. They don’t care whether the troops are Soviet, American or Martian. Any alien who comes into their land bearing weapons is their enemy. I respected these Afghans, although we were on opposite sides of the barricades. The foreign press wrote a lot about them; the Soviet press diligently ignored them.
The third kind were those who went into the mountains not of their own choosing. Mujahadeen came into their villages, threatening to destroy everything, and took away the men. They needed more men, and they hadn’t taken these men, the Afghan Republican Army would in time have come and taken them.
But it would be untrue to say all Afghans were involved in the war. Many of them ,simple peasants, harvested their crops, herded their sheep, and fed their families… For example, when our troops came to the Bamian region, several elders came out to meet us. In the name of all the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, they gave our troops an ultimatum…: “We aren’t hiding any Mujahadeen. We are peaceful peasants, who have worked on this land all our lives. And if the Mujahadeen come, we can defend ourselves. We won’t let them in. And we won’t let you in either. We don’t want deaths here. But if you come on our land with weapons, we will defend ourselves.”
It may sound strange, but we believed them…, and we left. We knew they were telling the truth, and we didn’t want the deaths of our soldiers any more than they wanted the deaths of their people. Somewhere in our subconscious, we understood that the only thing we wanted was to go home. We also knew that if someone invaded our land, we would defend ourselves, just as these Afghans were doing.”
* * *
“… We stood silently at the Vietnam War.
“There’s always a lot of people in Washington on this day,” John said unexpectedly, and started to walk away.
“Today is Memorial Day,” explained his wife Melanie…
On the way home, John picked up a few movies for the evening. “This is for you,” he said, handing me a videotape.
“Rambo in Afghanistan!” Melanie smiled. “You’ll find that interesting.”
The film turned out to be quite amusing. A well-done cheap action picture. And here are the Mujahadeen: their tired, worn-out faces, heads held high. It was easy to see: they were defending their land and families from Soviet soldiers. “Is that true?” asked Melanie, hitting the pause button.
Yes, it was partly true. At home, in the Soviet Union, they showed only the villages burned by the Mujanadeen and newsreel footage of them shooting down civilian aircraft. From that point of view, our television and newspapers were also partly right. As for me, I can only talk about what I saw.
I saw houses burned by the Mujahadeen, as well as disfigured bodies of prisoners they’d taken. But I saw other things too: villages destroyed by our shelling and bodies of women, killed by mistake. When you shoot at every rustling in the bushes, there’s no time to think about who’s there. But for an Afghan, it didn’t matter if his wife had been killed intentionally or accidentally. He went into the mountains to see revenge.”
(From “Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam” by Vladislav Tamarov)