Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Hidden in Afghanistan: Soviet Veterans of a Previous War Compare and Tremble

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My latest story and photos are now available at TIME at: Hidden in Afghanistan: Soviet Veterans of a Previous War Compare and Tremble*

There are only a few of them left — deserters and MIAs of the huge Soviet Red Army divisions sent in to control Afghanistan. But they still remember how it all ended — and worry that the American war will end the same way

Even after three decades, Gennady Tseuma remembers the wavering call to prayer that went up clear over the hillside village. It floated out over the fields and river and pierced the early morning hush on the Bangi Bridge. Tseuma, then a Soviet soldier assigned to a small force guarding the river crossing in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province, recalls a feeling of dread when he heard the sound. Like many of the conscripts serving in the Red Army in Afghanistan, Tseuma was bored and undisciplined, and after 10 months of service, curiosity finally got the best of him.

The decision to investigate the call to prayer cost him the life he had known up to that point. “Our checkpoint was close to the village. Every morning the mullah did the call to prayer. It was totally new to me. I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought maybe they were killing people or something,” Tseuma tells TIME. “So, one day, early in the morning, I got off my base to take a look. When I got close to the mosque there was an old man sitting there. Then suddenly men with guns surrounded me and captured me. After that, the mujahedin told me to convert to Islam or they would kill me. I decided it was better to live than to die, so I became a Muslim.”

and

Possibly the most chilling comparison of all is made by Ahmad, the taxi driver, who reaches back into the history he has seen in Afghanistan, saying: “When the Soviet army left it was peaceful until the Soviet government stopped giving the Afghan communist government money. When the money stopped, the war started. Everyone only fights and works for money. People do everything for money.”

As dusk closed around Nek Mohammad’s village on the edge of Kunduz city, he invited us to stay for dinner, but he was worried about our security. “This is an Afghan village, so I can’t say anything. I don’t know what will happen here. Anything could happen. You’ll leave late and this place is unreliable for foreigners,” he says, mixing Dari and Russian. “I’m afraid. I’d be very happy for you to eat here, but …” Walking us out of the house in the gathering gloom, he recited a Russian saying, “We need to pull our claws out of here” — meaning, We need to run away from here, he explains. Says the old soldier: “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

*I don’t have final say on my headlines. There was no trembling involved.

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Written by johnwendle

July 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm

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