MAZAR-I-SHARIF/KABUL, Afghanistan, April 26 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – A storm was brewing and the crowd was tense in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif last week on the night when Soviet army veterans clashed with local residents as the city’s elite looked on.
But the mini-football game ended with a 5-5 draw. Both sides got ovations, and there was no storm.
A team of 22 retired servicemen who were part of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-1989 toured their former battleground earlier this month, playing football with the locals, including their erstwhile enemies.
Russia has largely cut ties to Afghanistan after the troops’ pullout, which began 25 years ago next month, and the Central Asian country is mostly seen in Russia as a perpetual war zone whose inhabitants still loathe “the Shuravi,” or Soviets, and their successors.
But the messengers of “football diplomacy” – fully a delegation of 44, which included 11 non-playing vets and as many journalists – saw a surprisingly cordial reception in Afghanistan, where the Shuravi are now mostly remembered for the schools and factories they built, not the villages they bombed.
It remains to be seen whether the reconciliation effort will have any broader impact on Russian policy or public opinion. But the veterans, at least, were able to lay some old ghosts to rest, sipping tea and rolling the ball with people they had once hunted in the mountains.
The Russian lineup – the word “Shuravi” emblazoned on the back of their jerseys – was picked from among several hundred enthusiastic applicants from across the former Soviet Union.
According to official figures, about 600,000 Soviet soldiers served in the 1980s invasion. Almost 15,000 were killed, and 263 are still considered missing in action.
Cheering the Enemy
People who speak Russian can be found anywhere in Afghanistan, from customs and army patrols to souvenir shops and wedding halls (the country is teeming with titanic matrimonial venues).
More importantly, all these people smile when they speak the language. Spectators cheered the Shuravi not just in Mazar-i-Sharif, but also in Kabul, when the Soviet team snatched a hard-won 1-0 win April 17.
There, the Soviets played against several ex-mujahedeen, and were welcomed on the pitch by Muhammad Arif Sarwari, a retired senator who was once security chief for the legendary late guerilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Massoud, killed in 2001 by suicide bombers believed to have been affiliated with al-Qaida, is buried in the Panjshir Valley, 150 kilometers north of Kabul, which he fiercely defended first from the Soviets and then from the Taliban. (In-between, he fought just as fiercely for the city against rival factions within Afghanistan.)
The veterans traveled to his burial site after the Kabul game to lay flowers at his grave.
“He was a real threat. But he was also sparing prisoners and observing truces, and we respect him,” the trip's organizer, Vyacheslav Nekrasov, told RIA Novosti.
“Well, of course he's a hero here. They were defending their land,” one of the veterans muttered on a crowded minivan to Panjshir. Posters and billboards with Massoud's portraits are everywhere in northern Afghanistan, even 11 years after his death.
Not everybody from the delegation went to Panjshir: Retired army captain Valery Voshchevoz opted instead to spend a night in the village of retired mujahedeen warlord Sufi Payanda. They spent two years hunting each other in the 1980s and now occasionally meet up in Afghanistan for tea and light conversation.
Football Diplomacy & Wartime Nostalgia
The tour’s idea was hatched by veterans, and no official body in Russia expressed any interest in funding the trip, Nekrasov said, unable to completely hide his disappointment.
Veteran organizations footed the bill, which came to about $3,500 for each of the 33 veterans in the group. (Journalists paid their own way.)
The tour, endorsed by the international football federation FIFA, was supposed to comprise three games – in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and the Panjshir Valley – but the match in Panjshir fell through because builders had failed to complete the local stadium in time.
“It's nostalgia, I guess, that brings us here,” said Ildar Badretdinov, a former paratrooper from the Russian republic of Bashkortostan.
“That, and a desire to see how things worked out for Afghanistan,” agreed Baigabyl Maikotov, from Kazakhstan. He served in the transportation corps, driving army convoys across the mountains under constant threat of ambush.
Modern Kabul is a rundown but bustling city, its dismal roads full of traffic, including lots of luxury cars, and its two-story brick buildings housing a million grocery and drug stores, car repair shops and clinics. Construction is thriving, and real estate prices are obscene.
But it is also a city of armed men in uniform, grim concrete walls and barbed wire – all of them mandatory attributes of every government office, bank and guesthouse.
The danger in the air seemed to bring out old habits in the Soviet veterans, who spent much of their free time cloistered in the heavily guarded hotel, where chess, backgammon and moderate amounts of alcohol – which non-Muslims are allowed to bring into the country – were available.
But they also donned keffiyeh scarves and woolen pakul hats, blending in with the locals, and made forays for souvenirs that led to lengthy haggling sessions.
And whenever the delegation passed places where the men had lived or fought, the veterans spoke with a slightly defensive tone of local pride, pointing out landmarks and agreeing that, yes, it's better developed now, but it used to be somehow more friendly back in the old wartime days.
Burning Villages & Building Schools
The two types of stories the veterans shared most willingly concerned who died where and funny things that happened to the troops.
Badretdinov, the paratrooper, told of finding a book by anti-Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a heroin-smuggling caravan destroyed by his unit – both the book and the drugs ostensibly intended to sap the Soviets’ battle spirit.
After some probing, the veterans talk about the underside of war: the loot taken in raids (jeans, watches, Japanese radios) and the superiors’ tendency to confiscate it; their skin-and-bones state after weeks of running around the mountains with 60-kilogram backpacks that had little space for food; or how sometimes helicopters targeted particularly unfriendly villages. They came without warning, fired shots to indicate they wanted the mujahedeen to be turned over and, if it didn’t happen, came back 10 minutes later and leveled the villages, killing the enemy along with women, children and domestic animals. The unit numbers on the copters would be covered up to prevent scandals in case the story ever leaked out.
But the veterans were neither proud not apologetic.
“We were doing our internationalist duty, though it may sound odd to a younger generation,” said Andrei Ivanov, a stern-faced ex-paratrooper with a fondness for conspiracy theories. (He was referring to Moscow’s official explanation of the invasion: military aid requested by a pro-Kremlin regime.)
“We were soldiers. We do what we're ordered, and f*** it all,” shrugged another ex-paratrooper who did not want to be identified in order to be able to speak openly.
The Soviets, however, did more in Afghanistan than fight. Since the mid-1950s, Moscow had worked to turn the country into a reliable ally, building highways, schools, hospitals, airports and hundreds of industrial enterprises, many of which still operate, such as the Kabul Homebuilding Factory, launched in 1965 and now staffed by septuagenarians.
Now, this investment seems to have had a more lasting impact than the invasion.
“There was a lot of bad [things]. But the good things outweigh,” said Kamal Nabizada, a fuel magnate from Mazar-i-Sharif who received the Soviet team in his mansion after the game, treating them to a magnificent feast of pilaf, fish, salad, mantu dumplings, four kinds of meat on skewers and Coca-Cola.
Follow-up tours are already in the cards, with a bigger chance of government backing next time, Nekrasov, the organizer, said. The veterans were due to report to Russian lawmakers after their return to the country Wednesday.
“We still haven't processed everything that happened during the trip. It was just too intense, too much of everything,” team coach Viktor Kolobayev told RIA Novosti as he boarded the plane to Moscow.
“Bye-bye, Afghanistan,” the veteran next to him, a portly, jowly man with graying temples, said very quietly as he waved out the window. He seemed lost in reverie, and didn’t answer when asked whether he would like to return here for a third time.