Riding the last Russian tank out of Jalalabad

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WAR VETERANS laid wreaths across Russia last Monday to mark the 10th anniversary of the completion of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. I found myself in spirit with these Russian men in their forties - from poor invalids to General Alexander Lebed - for I, too, was in Afghanistan, as a reporter on the tank convoy that started the nine-month pullout.

After the official remembrance ceremonies, I decided to call on my friend, Colonel Oleg Kulakov. He was sitting in his bachelor flat, alone except for his red setter, Richard, watching a television documentary about the war.

"Congratulations on fulfilling your `international duty'," I said, in ironic reference to the Soviet propaganda term for service in Afghanistan, and handed him some grapes. "What is there to celebrate?" asked Oleg who, like most veterans, admits that Soviet interference in Afghanistan was a mistake. "But it's great to see you anyway. Come in. I'll put the kettle on."

Old veterans' reminiscences are boring to those who did not share the experience. Indeed, both Oleg and I have moved on since the war and neither of us dwells on the conflict. Yet, on this occasion, we both enjoyed a self-indulgent chat about operations in the Panshir Valley. Oleg got his maps out and it was as if we were back there, fighting the dushmani or ghosts, as the Soviet soldiers used to call the elusive Muslim guerrillas.

Oleg grew up in Minsk. A romantic attraction to the Orient led him to Afghanistan. In 1979, he was an unsuspecting student of the exotic Dari language. Then the Politburo sent troops to Kabul. From 1980-82 and again from 1986 until the pullout, he found himself in demand as a military translator in Afghanistan.

Now he is Professor of Geopolitics at Moscow's Military University. He has not been paid properly for months, but that is nothing to a man who was injured three times in war. His wounds were all classified as "light", although one nearly cost him his sight. A bullet went through his eyebrow, missing his eye by millimetres. He was lucky. Some of his comrades were not. He still finds it painful to talk about friends who died.

For Oleg, as for me, however, the experience was not one of total horror. We both remember a country of stunning physical beauty and life will never again be as intense.

I rode in the tank convoy that began the pullout from the southern city of Jalalabad in May 1988. The general in charge was reluctant to take female reporters on the trip. Only later did I realise why. We had to pass through the Black Mountains, which were in the hands of the mujahedin who would not guarantee safe passage. We could not stop. The men urinated merrily from atop the moving tanks but we women had to endure. It took our minds off thoughts of mortality.

This was mild discomfort and slight risk, of course, compared with what Oleg went through, translating in the heat of battle. He knew Pavel Grachev, the former Russian defence minister, during the war and was a close friend of Ruslan Aushev, now President of the Caucasian region of Ingueshetia.

But when Oleg came home, nobody wanted to hear his stories. "It was hurtful," he said, "but it was easier for me as an officer than for the ordinary soldiers. Theoretically, I knew I should expect indifference."

He knows better than to hope for financial help from the bankrupt Russian state. "I must rely on myself. I'm building up a business, doing translations for private clients."

From time to time he speaks at international conferences on Afghanistan. "We should not forget Afghanistan. Since the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan has become a black hole. It is a danger to our common security."

Helen Womack