Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Haunted by Memories of a Never-Ending War

War correspondents don't usually dream much. But lately I have been having a strange feeling that you can't really call a dream. It is just that in the pre-dawn gloom, half way between sleep and wakefulness, I get this feeling that I have to get up quickly and run over to the truck where a makeshift radio station has been set up in order to report back to my newspaper in Moscow. And for a few minutes it really seems like I am back in that fantastic city where I spent several weeks in the spring of 1989. It was a city that had been almost completely deserted, where my photographer and I had a whole floor of one of those standard Soviet five-story buildings all to ourselves.


This was before the time when such abandoned cities existed all over the territory of the old Soviet Union. No, this was abroad, in the Soviet Embassy in Kabul just after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The embassy compound consisted of several streets lined with apartment buildings that once housed not only the embassy staff, but the numerous civilian and military advisors who were sent to help the Afghans "build a bright Socialist future." As Soviet troops were withdrawn from the country, though, all the advisers and most of the embassy personnel were also evacuated, until only a few men (and only men) were left on the entire, enormous compound.


The compound itself created some sort of conditional, not always rational feeling of security for those of us inside. It was something like the feeling we used to get from our soldiers. Before the withdrawal, whether one was at headquarters, in some distant outpost or in a tank or a helicopter, one felt more or less safe. You knew that the Red Army would not abandon or betray you. If something bad happened, you felt, they would call in some helicopters and everything would be alright. But after the pull-out, that feeling disappeared.


Once I found myself sitting in an Afghan armored personnel carrier heading toward a mountain pass and suddenly it occurred to me that, except for the four of us here with our two rifles, there was not a single Russian for many, many kilometers. Almost at the same moment, the APC made a sharp turn on the twisted mountain road and jerked to a halt. In seconds we found ourselves surrounded by about 300 armed men in native garb. For the rest of my life I will remember the sight of one man standing in rubber boots in the snow and aiming a grenade launcher straight at me.


It turned out that it was a local detachment of government troops that had been sent to meet us, but you can imagine how glad I was when I finally got back to the relative shelter of the embassy compound. The embassy, with its high double wall and its garrison of a few dozen border guards became a refuge for all of us.


It was there that one of the border guards was always on duty in the canteen, ready to pour out a generous helping of soup or a piping hot portion of kasha. And in the evenings the canteen turned into something of a club -- with endless arguments about Afghanistan, perestroika, Gorbachev and the like, as the soldier on duty passed around cups of coffee fortified with a spoonful of cognac.


Left without the wives on which they had come to depend, our usually glittering diplomats began to grow somewhat tarnished. The officers also started looking a little shabby. Word spread quickly when it was discovered that one officer knew how to cook pretty well and that another had a large collection of extra buttons and needles and thread. It seemed that you would lose a button just about every day back then. One diplomat, it turned out, even had an iron, although we soon learned that not everyone was up to the task of using it.


On April 20, the embassy was hit by several artillery shells. One even smashed into the assembly hall just a few meters from the ambassador's office. The reporters all smirked as an embassy bureaucrat strictly ordered that the incident not be reported so as not "to provoke the enemy." Instead, we were told to report that the embassy workers, "in unison with the entire Soviet people," would take part in a subbotnik the next day in honor of Lenin's birthday.


And there actually was a subbotnik. I remember two, particularly unlucky guys who were assigned to clean out the embassy swimming pool. Embassy old-timers swore that the water had been removed from the pool on the day that Soviet troops entered Afghanistan and that for more than 10 years it had stood empty, rusting and accumulating dirt. I remember those boys standing on the bottom of the pool armed with brooms. They would make one or two futile sweeps and then look desperately up into the hills for snipers -- and so on, back and forth.


I got one big scoop during my stint in Kabul. About a week after the subbotnik came the glorious anniversary of the April Revolution, and the government decided to celebrate. It happened at a time when both the rebels and the government wanted to prove that they controlled the capital. Holding the parade became a matter of principle for the government, just as preventing it was for the rebels.


In the end, there was indeed a parade, but in the interests of security it was held unexpectedly a few days before the date that had been announced. In addition, journalists were not told about the top-secret event. I just happened to find out about it from an embassy military attach? who liked to do favors for military reporters. Western journalists were brought in after everything was pretty much over.


I can't really say that the stands were full of cheering spectators. And those who were there were constantly squirming in their seats, trying to follow the disorganized parade while always keeping one eye on the nearby hills, just like the guys cleaning the swimming pool. Only the diplomats from North Korea sat in stone-faced calm.


Maybe the thing I remember most about that city of lonely men was how well everyone got along. And I am especially grateful to those soldiers of a dying empire who more than once risked their lives protecting us.


The country they were serving no longer exists. Its embassy in Kabul is now a heap of ruins; the last time I was there the streetfighting was so bad you couldn't get anywhere near it. The Afghan war, though, is not just something that haunts our dreams. It is getting closer every day: It is in Tajikistan, Abkhazia, Chechnya. That is why I do not want these reminiscences to seem romanticized. There is no place for romance in war. For more than a year now, I have had another dream -- about getting caught in the middle of a firefight deep in the Afghan mountains. But I still can't write about that.





Alexander Golz is a political commentator for Krasnaya Zvezda. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.