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

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John Wendle for TIME

Old Soviet armored personnel carriers, tanks and artillery litter the countryside and cities of Afghanistan. Villagers in Khwaja Zaid in northern Afghanistan use two armored vehicles placed along the riverbank to help prevent flood damage to their houses and as a place to dry laundry

Image: Gennady Tseuma, with his son, Samiullah

John Wendle for TIME

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.”

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For the past 29 years, Tseuma and maybe around a hundred other Soviet POW/MIAs have lived through some of the most violent history of one of the most violent countries on earth. After serving in the European-style Soviet army, they lived and sometimes fought as Afghans. Those of them still alive have an extraordinary window into Afghan society combined with unique insight into the historical parallels between the Soviet defeat and the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces at the end of 2014.

Life has improved in the past 10 years but Tseuma — or Nek Mohammad as he was renamed after his conversion to Islam — senses grave danger ahead. “I’m afraid. Right now there are roads and there is light. But let’s see what happens down the road. Then there won’t be lights. Then the war will start,” he says. “People will be gobbled up everywhere. People will start killing each other. Then what will be here? Life will be here, but it will be bad.”

Mohammad switches off the TV set — he had been watching a Russian quiz show playing via satellite TV in the guest room of his mud-brick house on the edge of Kunduz city. He seems to be pondering both the past and the future with his quick, blue eyes — eyes that contrast with the white of his shalwar kameez — the traditional clothing of an Afghan man. “The Soviet government was looking for us, but I didn’t let them find me because I didn’t know what they would do to me,” says Mohammad in the soft-accented Russian of his native eastern Ukraine. The mujahedin pushed him to wage jihad against his former comrades, but “I have not shot one bullet since I became a Muslim,” he says.

Mohammad lived as a prisoner in the compound of a local mujahedin commander, which lies just a few miles from his old post with the Red Army. Many of the other shuravi — as the vets are known in the former Soviet Union — had similar experiences. “When they were captured, they became slaves. Psychologically, these guys are damaged,” Alexander Lavrentyev, the vice-chairman of Russia’s War Veterans Committee, tells TIME. “They are in their late 40s, but they all look like they are in their 60s.”

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In a vicious and confused war, the Afgantsy — another term for the Soviet vets — could disappear “like a puff of smoke,” says Lavrentyev. “Afghans were sitting, watching and you didn’t know if they were mujahedin or not. And that’s it. They’d pull you behind a wall and the troops would never find you again.” There are the stories of Soviet soldiers being stolen in the night, the stories of fighters disappearing after wandering onto remote corners of their own base, or the stories that begin and end with “they went to a village to buy cigarettes, and suddenly …,” Lavrentyev says. “And those were not isolated incidents.” Around 266 are still missing, he says. Some of those were buried in Afghanistan in unmarked graves — like the set of six uniformed remains accidentally unearthed by a bulldozer a few years ago at an old Soviet camp in Kunduz — now the base of the German Provincial Reconstruction Team. Lavrentyev has found 29 alive so far, and 22 have returned home. The rest have chosen to stay because they have family or because — to Lavrentyev at least — they have become more Afghan than Soviet.

But, Lavrentyev’s hopes of finding more of the vets alive are fading. Right now he estimates that only 20 to 40 of the 266 MIAs could still be alive and the trail is getting colder as time passes and history is forgotten. “Soon there will be no first-person memory of this history because everyone who was young then will be 50 or 60 years old and life expectancy in Afghanistan isn’t that long,” he tells TIME during his most recent search mission.

After the Soviet army withdrew, Mohammad slowly gained his freedom and moved to Kunduz city and worked as a long-haul trucker, ferrying goods all over northern Afghanistan. He somehow survived the chaos of the Soviet pullout and the civil war that ripped apart the country from 1992 to ’96. Surprisingly, life under the Taliban was easier. “The Taliban never touched me when they were in power. They were proud of me because I became a Muslim,” Mohammad says. Today he is married to an ethnic-Tajik Afghan woman from a nearby province. They have two sons and a daughter. He is part of his community. But, as the U.S. and NATO withdrawal nears, he worries for the future of his family — and he says his friends, neighbors and relatives are also worried, a sentiment echoed by the two other Soviet vets TIME was able to track down.

Sergei Krasnoperov says even the relative stability at the moment is not so great. Krasnoperov deserted after he was caught selling military supplies and faced stiff punishment. He went over to the mujahedin, converted to Islam, was renamed Noor Mohammad and fought against the Soviets — even serving as a bodyguard to ethnic-Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. He is now married to an Afghan woman, has six children, works part-time for the local electricity department and also repairs truck parts in the city of Chaghcharan in Ghor province, near his old base.

(PHOTOS: Afghanistan Now, Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev)

“Now you can’t understand who is working with the government and who is not — who is on which side is impossible to understand,” the Russian tells TIME in a crackly phone interview. “Even in the city, government power is not strongly felt. You can kill two or three people and jump on a motorcycle and that’s it. No one will say anything or come after you.” Even from his village point of view, he reflects widely held fears that the Afghan army and police will evaporate once foreign funding dries up — an idea denied by the U.S. and NATO. “Those [soldiers and police who] are paid, they simply do not fight. They do nothing. When the month ends, they take their next pay and that’s it. They are not on any side — only on the side of the money.” His take on the current government is just as harsh, saying: “Corruption here isn’t very clear. I only understand right now what the government doesn’t do — they do nothing. They only take bribes and kill people. The government here is a joke. If the Americans weren’t here right now, there would be no power at all, it would just be a bunch of robbers.”

Image: Alexander Levenets

John Wendle for TIME

Back in Kunduz, Alexander Levenets, another of the shuravi, sees similar problems. After the Soviets left, he says, “the Afghan National Army was completely destroyed, but now we have an army and police. However, those people get their salary from America. If America leaves, they will also be destroyed. There will be nothing of them left. There will be nothing here to control them and pay them.” Like Noor Mohammad, Levenets deserted and joined the mujahedin after selling supplies to the enemy and being caught by his commanding officer. He fled, converted to Islam, took the name Ahmad and fought against the Soviets. Eventually he married an ethnic-Tajik Afghan woman and now has five daughters. He works as a taxi driver and his wife is a teacher.

Drinking green Afghan tea, Nek Mohammad is less decided about the current state of affairs, but just as pessimistic about the future. “The Americans did not make a mistake coming here,” he says. “Before, I didn’t have electricity. Now I do. Before, there wasn’t a good road. Now there is. Before, there wasn’t a hospital. Now there is.” But he is not sure about what comes next. “When the Americans leave, it will become clear what will happen to Afghanistan. The Afghan Army can’t take their hands off the Taliban.”

In the end, he says, “The people will suffer. That’s what will happen. All of those people who work with the Americans, who work in the offices — when the Taliban comes, those people will be in danger, those people will be killed, because everybody wants power. Everyone will want revenge.” As for the Afghan government, he is of the same mind as the other vets. “Karzai and everyone, they all say, ‘We will defend your country. No one will attack here. Everyone will stand with us. The foreigners will help us,’ but on what does this depend? They say it depends on God … Everything depends on God. What he created, will be. But that’s all just talk. The tongue talks, but we’ll see what really happens.”

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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.”