WORLD

LEGACY OF A BLOODY WAR

SOVIET SOLDIERS RETURN HOME TO FLOWERS—AND DOUBTS ABOUT THE PRICE THEY PAID IN AFGHANISTAN

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 20 1989
WORLD

LEGACY OF A BLOODY WAR

SOVIET SOLDIERS RETURN HOME TO FLOWERS—AND DOUBTS ABOUT THE PRICE THEY PAID IN AFGHANISTAN

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 20 1989

The carefully orchestrated celebrations began shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 6, as 300 Soviet soldiers, waving and saluting from their armored personnel carriers, rumbled across the Friendship Bridge linking northern Afghanistan with the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Within minutes of their arrival in the town of Termez on the Uzbek side, the soldiers—from the 350th Alexander Nevsky Parachute Regiment—were presented with red carnations, which they stuffed down the barrels of their submachine-guns. Then, as a crowd of more than 2,000 people watched, six young girls, wearing the white shirts and red scarves of the Communist Young Pioneers, chanted a poem praising the soldiers for their “service to the homeland and to world peace.” After a series of speeches, the paratroopers were allowed to search for their waiting families. Declared Pte. Eldar Galiev, shortly after meeting his grandmother: “I cannot describe the joy I feel today.” At the end of the Soviet Union’s nine-year war against insurgents in Afghanistan, elation over the soldiers’ return was tinged with second-guessing over the past—and apprehension about the future.

As more than 35,000 troops returned home at last, by land and by air, Soviet officials declared that a full withdrawal would be completed before the Feb. 15 deadline—and, against most evidence, that their Afghan operation had been a success. At the same time in Kabul, the Afghan capital, officials in the Soviet-backed government of President Najibullah insisted that they were well-prepared to repulse the inevitable assault by the Mujahedeen guerrillas. In fact, the Afghan military ordered the evacuation of at least five villages just north of Kabul in preparation for an offensive against the rebels. Meanwhile, Soviet attempts to arrange a truce were unsuccessful. “The withdrawal of Soviet troops,” maintained Sayed Ghulabzoi, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, “will not weaken the republic’s central government.”

But those claims seemed decidedly optimistic. Rebel forces were advancing on Kabul, and Soviet foreign ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov said in Moscow that 30,000 insurgents had massed along major roads and were trying to blockade Kabul and provincial centres. The guerrillas openly controlled large and strategically important areas, including the Khyber Pass in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan; at week’s end, they claimed to have captured almost all government outposts on the approaches to Jalalabad, the country’s second-biggest city, 115 km east of Kabul, with the remaining positions ripe for the taking. Many analysts predicted that Jalalabad would be the first major city to fall after the Soviet pullout.

In a last-ditch effort to arrange a truce, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze flew to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, which provides political and military support for Afghan guerrilla groups based there. But after two days of talks with Pakistani leaders, including Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Shevardnadze failed to persuade them to withdraw that support—and did not even meet with the guerrillas. At week’s end, some 500 rebel leaders and exiles—deeply divided themselves along political, religious and tribal lines—gathered at Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad, for a consultative council, or shura. Their mission: to produce an interim government for Afghanistan—one that does not include Najibullah. But the meeting quickly collapsed over how many shura seats should be allotted to eight Mujahedeen groups based in Iran.

For the Soviets, the hour of withdrawal brought into bitter focus the colossal human toll of their Afghan incursion. Out of a prewar population of 15 million, more than one million Afghans are believed to have died, while another five million fled the country. Last week, the Soviets announced that more than 15,000 of their troops died in the war—an increase of 2,000 over the previously acknowledged figure. Their wounded numbered more than 35,000. Declared Alexander Bovin, a prominent Soviet journalist: “We paid the highest price of all—the price of blood.”

Still, even in the age of glasnost (openness), the official Soviet rhetoric was plainly designed to convince the country—and the rest of the world—that the war had not been in vain. It was also intended to try to spare Soviet troops the experience of many American veterans, who returned from Vietnam to a humiliating homecoming of indifference and resentment. As troops pulled out of Kabul, Soviet television showed images of large crowds waving affectionately and holding thank-you signs. Such Soviet newspapers as Pravda, the official organ of the Communist party, published comments from Najibullah thanking the Kremlin’s troops for responding in 1979 to the “Afghan government’s request for assistance.”

The Soviets also flew more than 100 foreign journalists from Moscow to Termez to witness the arrival of their troops. Local residents said that the 350th Regiment was one of more than a dozen groups of soldiers to travel through the area upon returning from Afghanistan. But, they added, the 350th Regiment, which was the only group that journalists were allowed to observe, was given a much larger and more elaborate reception. It was also apparent that the regiment had been well-coached in homecoming rhetoric. In answers nearly as identical as their standard-issue green uniforms, most of those interviewed told foreign journalists that they were “delighted to have completed an internationalist duty in the name of peace.” The withdrawal also exposed fundamental differences of opinion between Soviet civilian and military leaders. Some high-ranking military officers were openly angry when leader Mikhail Gorbachev last year described Soviet involvement in Afghanistan as “our country’s old sin.” When one officer, Maj.-Gen. Valery Strepnin, was asked last week if he agreed with Gorbachev’s assessment, he declared: “I do not think a historian will make claims too quickly. More time is needed.” After hesitating briefly, he added, “I thought our presence in Afghanistan had very noble aims.” That view was shared by many rank-and-file soldiers. As one private in the 350th Regiment put it, “We do not want to believe we risked our lives and watched our friends die for nothing.”

In spite of those sentiments, the Soviets leave behind a country that is not only in disarray but destined for more violence. Last week, Najibullah’s ruling People’s Democratic party, which has about 200,000 members, announced that it had distributed 30,000 firearms to party members—men and women—as Soviet troops pulled out. An Afghan foreign ministry spokesman said that the members were “armed to defend their homes, localities and the various sections of their cities.” Another danger was the growing desperation of Afghan residents plagued by shortages of food, fuel and other supplies. As rebel forces cut off roads to Kabul, a dozen cargo planes from the Soviet Union flew in daily shipments of provisions. But in Islamabad, the crew of a Boeing 707 chartered by the UN to fly in 32 tons of emergency food and medical supplies delayed takeoff for several days because of safety concerns.

Many observers insisted that it was only a matter of time before Najibullah was overthrown. Even some Soviet officers admitted that the Afghan army was suspect at best. Last week, at a mud fort built as part of airport defences in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Soviet Capt. Arkady Anonich said of his Afghan allies, “Their technical knowledge is weak, and their morale is low.” The rebels, he added, “have religion on their side and the fact that the local population does not support the government.”

Other analysts, however, contend that the Afghan army may be strong enough to maintain a prolonged civil war. “The conventional wisdom is that Kabul will fall,” said Ashok Kapur, a University of Waterloo political scientist and expert in south Asian affairs. “But I don’t think it’s imminent.” In the government’s favor is the long history of factional fighting among the Mujahedeen. Some of the 15 guerrilla groups are Islamic fundamentalists, others are moderates; some are from the Shiite minority sect of Islam, others from the majority Sunni sect. Without the Soviet enemy as a unifying factor, said one Moscow-based Western diplomat, “they may very well end up turning on each other.”

Moscow officials were clearly hoping that, with nearly 50 million Moslems in the Soviet Union, Afghanistan would not become a fundamentalist Islamic state. Foreign ministry spokesman Gerasimov said that suggestions by Pakistani officials that they could form an Islamic confederation with Afghanistan amounted to “hamstringing Afghanistan’s independence and infringing upon its sovereignty.”

But the prevailing emotion among many Soviets last week was simple relief that their troops were finally coming home. Although the Soviet media rarely offered details or showed scenes of the fighting until recently, the traumas of the returnees have given rise to a powerful and eloquent subculture. Many young Russians have become familiar with the expression “black tulip,” which is used to describe the military mortuary aircraft that carry the bodies of soldiers home in zinc coffins. A current hit song describes a soldier flying on one such air craft with the bodies of his dead comrades, who are “returning home to be buried on indefinite leave.” Another song, depicting two young men who leave for Afghanistan from school, includes the lyrics: “A few grams of lead wedded us forever to our deathly bride on the bloody clay.” The Soviets, who roared confidently into the country at the end of 1979, are leaving with a haunting lament—and with Afghanistan still in turmoil.

SCARRED AND SHELL-SHOCKED

The Afghanistan tour of army Pte. Sergeitas Lukachus ended last August with an explosive roar and a jolt of pain that he cannot forget. Lukachus, 22, a blond, strapping Lithuanian, was on patrol in the southern province of Kandahar when a shell fired by the rebel Mujahedeen landed nearby. The blast sent fragments into his right eye and leg, and he was evacuated to the Soviet 340th Regiment Military Hospital in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 360 km north of the Afghan border. Six months and 11 operations later, he is still there, his eye swathed in bandages, his wounded leg unable to support his weight. “Something hurts all the time,” said Lukachus. Still, noted Col. Ivan Chizh, the head of the hospital’s medical services: “He is a lucky one. Ten years ago, he would have lost the leg, and perhaps the eye.”

As one of more than 35,000 Soviet soldiers wounded during the nine-year occupation of Afghanistan, Lukachus receives the finest care his country can offer. The Tashkent hospital has extensive rehabilitation facilities and state-of-the-art medical equipment. By contrast, many other Soviet medical facilities suffer from shortages of such basic items as thermometers, with some hospital attendants demanding bribes to change bed linen. But for wounded soldiers, said Col. Stepan Bazhan, director of the Tashkent hospital, “we do everything we can to provide for them.”

That is not always enough. Although the Soviet Union is a world leader in such areas of medicine as eye surgery, other services border on the primitive. At the Tashkent hospital, half of the injuries treated are to arms and legs, the result of exploding mines. But Bazhan conceded that the prosthetic devices needed to replace severed limbs are of “poor quality and in short supply.” In some cases, the wounds are less visible. Of the 67 veterans under treatment in Tashkent last week, 37 had physical injuries. The remainder were under the care of psychiatrists for varying degrees of psychological trauma, or shell shock.

For wounded veterans, the outlook varies. Lukachus, who expects to be released next month, plans to leave the army and “just live a normal life” in Lithuania. Lieut. Andrei Yakovlev, 27, who suffered burns when his tank hit a mine in January, will return to active service next month. “I am a professional soldier,” said Yakovlev, “and that is my duty.” Others will not have any choice. Of the soldiers treated at Tashkent hospital, doctors concede that a small percentage have injuries so severe that they will remain in hospitals for the rest of their lives. The average age of the patients is between 18 and 22—“very young,” said Chizh. But, he added angrily, “Is it not always the young who are the backbone of every army?”