20 February 2004

Former Soviets Left Behind in Afghanistan

The Argus links to a poignant story on IWPR about Soviet soldiers who remained behind in Afghanistan.
On February 15, 1989, General Boris Gromov was officially the last Soviet soldier to stand on Afghan soil before he crossed the Termez bridge into the USSR, drawing a close to the long and brutal campaign that Russian politicians were later to call "a tragic mistake".

But Gennady, and more like him, were still there. As Russians, Ukrainians and the rest began shutting off from the Afghan war as a nightmare best forgotten, those who were left behind faded from memory, too.

Many would find it hard to go back – some were deserters, while others converted to Islam after being captured and held by the mujahedin. In the interim, the Soviet Union they had known collapsed into 15 different countries.

A few achieved some fame – notably the two Russian citizens known as Mohammadi and Islamuddin who served as bodyguards to the famous commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. As late as 1996, they were rumoured to be at the front line, fighting with Massoud's Northern Alliance against the Taleban.

Since then the two men are said to have left Afghanistan, going back home to Russia. But others remain.

During a recent trip to Kunduz, a taxi driver tipped me off about someone called Ahmad, a former Soviet soldier now living as an Afghan.

This was far more than a rumour – I was given the address of the building where he rents a small room with his family.

Only half an hour later, I was sitting in a local store talking to a man in the typical flat "pakol" hat, with all the mannerisms and dialects of a native Afghan – but still looking like a Russian.

He looked so intimidating that I didn't dare speak to him in Russian, switching over only after an initial conversation in Dari.

When I asked him what name his parents had given him, his face remained immobile as he whispered an Islamic invocation.

But after a long conversation in the dark, mud-walled room, Ahmad relaxed, and gradually revealed some of the characteristics of the young man he had once been – Private Alexander Levenets. The incongruousness of the situation was accentuated by the music he put on – Alexander Rosenbaum's Soviet-era ballads of army life.

The 19-year-old Alexander, from the Ukrainian village of Melovadka, joined the Soviet army in April 1983. He thought his troubles were over, that he had a ticket out of a hard life of providing for his blind widowed mother and an elder brother with diabetes.

At first army life was good, as his unit was transferred around the USSR and eventually deployed at an airbase in Kunduz.

But things took a turn for the worse as – like many Soviet conscripts – he was subjected to beatings and other forms of humiliation by other, more senior soldiers in his unit. Eventually he could bear it no longer, and deserted.

One cold October night in 1984, Alexander fled into the night. His life was saved by a kindly old Afghan, who took pity on him and allowed him to hide at his house.

The man introduced the deserter to some mujahedin, who fortunately for him belonged to one of the more moderate factions. They listened sympathetically to his story, and treated him with a respect he had not had from his countrymen.

"I stayed in the group," he said. "And after a month, I accepted Islam."

So Alexander became Ahmad, serving under guerrilla commander Omir Ghulam – but not expected to take up arms against the army he had once served in. The Afghans' acceptance of him grew into respect as he became a more observant Muslim than most of them.

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