‘I’m an Afghan now’: The Soviet soldiers who never left the country they invaded

Thirty years have passed since the end of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, but more than 200 troops stayed behind

A former Soviet soldier who now goes by Nik Mohammad, 55, sits in his rental house in Kunduz surrounded by his family.
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On a clear starry night in 1984, Gennady Tsevma – then 18 years old – quietly stepped over the drunk, dozing-off soldiers who kept watch at his camp in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.

He had made up his mind to escape what he refers to as the “tortures of the Soviet army,” not knowing what would come next.

Upon desertion, the Ukrainian soldier walked straight into the arms of the Mujahideen, the US-backed Afghan militant group fighting the Soviets during their invasion.

When the Soviet army withdrew in 1989, they were sure that all of their soldiers had left Afghan soil. But Mr Tsevma remained. In fact, a total of 226 army-defectors like him stayed back, according to the Russian Cultural Centre in Kabul.

The decade-long war killed almost two million Afghan civilians, as well as 15,000 Soviet soldiers between 1979 and 1989. Mr Tsevma was alive, but decided to put his previous life to the grave.

Originally an atheist from the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, Mr Tsevma, 55, now refers to himself as Nik Mohammed. He is a father of four, speaks fluent Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, and has become a practising Muslim.

In his beige baggy tunic, he sits surrounded by his family on a bed outside his house, resting his arm on a walking aid as his smiling two-year-old grandson tries to get his attention.

“I’ve built my life here and I’m an Afghan now,” he says in Dari, with no hint of a Ukrainian accent.

“There isn’t much that I miss anymore, except for maybe a cold beer every once in a while,” he grins.

Back in 1984, when he encountered the Mujahideen the same night he fled, he was first taken prisoner. But the group soon integrated him into its ranks.

“They gave me a language teacher, taught me how to pray and chose Bibi Hawa – 14 at that time – to become my wife,” he says, adding that he stayed with them for seven years, after which he took up a job as a lorry driver.

Old Soviet tanks continue to speck the landscape in Adghanistan. This one in Kandahar Province.
Old Soviet tanks continue to speck the landscape in Afghanistan, such as this one in Kandahar Province. Stefanie Glinski / The National

Heading back to Ukraine – though the Soviet Union had fallen – never became an option for Mohammad again, even after representatives from the Russian Embassy contacted him and offered a repatriation stipend of $2,000 (Dh7,340).

“I was afraid and, besides that, I had already built a family in Afghanistan,” he remembers.

Eight years ago, he travelled by land to Donbass with his Afghan passport which he acquired for the trip, having already obtained an official Afghan ID card, or "taskira". It was his first and last visit.

“My parents had already passed away, so I met my brother and his family. It was emotional. We couldn’t stop crying and hugging.”

After a two-week visit, Mohammed returned to his family in Afghanistan, sharing photos and stories with his children. He barely keeps in touch with his family, but says he has one Ukrainian television channel that he switches on every once in a while to follow the news. The war in Donbass between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, which broke out in 2014, has saddened him, and ultimately contributed to his decision to never return.

“I would have liked to see Ukraine, but it’s a long trip from here,” his 26-year-old son Faizal says, adding that he barely speaks a word of Ukrainian.

The family now lives in a big airy house in Kunduz that they rent for 7,000 Afghani ($95) a month. Mohammed spends his days sitting on his terrace, overlooking his blooming garden. At night, he sometimes wakes up to the sounds of explosions or US and Afghan air strikes around the city and its outskirts.

Decades of war have taken a toll on the man, who looks much older than his actual age. Fighting has increased around Kunduz, with the Taliban closing in on the city. The insurgent controlled the city for more than two weeks in late 2015 before withdrawing.

Afghanistan’s army has now turned its position from defensive to offensive, according to the Ministry of Defence, and the US has increased its air strikes by around 20 per cent.

“I came here to fight a war, but now the war is fighting me,” Mohammed laughs cynically.

Mohammed says he does not know any of the other Soviet fighters who stayed behind, except for Haji Ahmad, another Ukrainian living in Kunduz who worked as a logistician, driving goods down to Kunduz, but defected the same year Mohammed did.

“When we meet, we speak Dari with each other,” Mr Ahmad, whose birth name is Alexander Uriwich, laughs. Like Mohammed, he escaped the army, eventually joining the Mujahideen.

Haji Ahmad, 54, a former Soviet soldier, now works as a taxt driver in Kunduz city. He arrived in Afghanistan in 1984 and hasn't left since.
Haji Ahmad, 54, a former Soviet soldier, now works as a taxi driver in Kunduz city. He arrived in Afghanistan in 1984 and hasn't left since. Stefanie Glinski / The National

Mr Ahmad has never visited Ukraine. He says he cannot afford the journey. Instead, he saved up for the Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia six years ago, and says that he’s saving for a second trip – and this time he hopes to bring his wife.

Mr Ahmad, a father of six and taxi driver who sits in a busy market area in Kunduz does not stand out with his traditional tunic, hat and long beard. His village, Hazrat Sultan, is in a Taliban district, but he says the militant group respects him.

“I accepted Islam and it almost feels like I’ve spent all of my life here in Afghanistan,” he explains. Though some memories remain.

“In Ukraine, I had a girlfriend. On weekends, we’d go out to parties to have a drink,” he remembers. “Life was free and I could do whatever I wanted to do. Here, I didn’t choose my wife. It was given to me by the Mujahideen.”

He doesn't seem upset with the way things turned out for him though.

Like Mohammed, Mr Ahmad received financial assistance from a Russian delegate to travel back to Ukraine, but said he used the money elsewhere.

“I have a big family and it’s my first priority to provide for them,” he says, his voice almost drowned out by the bustle of the market’s patrons.

There isn’t much that reminds Ahmad of his life back in Ukraine he says, explaining that his parents and siblings have already passed away and he cut ties with his extended family.

Old and rusty Soviet tanks continue to speck the landscape throughout Afghanistan, reminding of a war long gone. Like the conflict, their homeland is now a distant memory.

“I don’t miss Ukraine,” Mr Ahmad says, getting ready to drive off with his next customers. “Afghanistan is my home and this is my culture. It’s not bad. I’m happy.”