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Afghans Still Reeling From Soviet Invasion Four Decades Later

Afghan children play on the remains of a Soviet-era tank on the outskirts of Jalalabad in February.
Afghan children play on the remains of a Soviet-era tank on the outskirts of Jalalabad in February.

KABUL, -- Aziz Mohammad only has a few photographs of the nearly dozen relatives he lost in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan four decades ago.

Now in his 60s, he remembers the relentless Soviet bombing in 1984 that obliterated his village, Unamak, in the towering mountains of Salang Pass north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“We survived because we were outside,” he said of himself and his two brothers, who endured the hours-long assault. “Everyone inside our houses was killed.”

“We brought everyone here,” he said, pointing to a collection of mud graves distinguished by an irregular collection of tombstones. “My mother, father, brother, his son, and my cousin all are buried here.”

Muhammad Yasin, another elderly man in Unamak, lives near the graveyard. He says that every time he looks at the graves, they remind him of the tragedy 35 years ago.

“I salute the father who dug out the corpse of his 10-year-old son, wife, or daughter from the rubble. I remember how they brushed away dust and debris from their hair with bare hands [to identify them],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. [So many people were killed] that there were even four corpses on a single funeral bed.”

The villagers of Unamak were among the more than 1.5 million Afghans killed during the decadelong Soviet occupation of their country, which began with the December 27, 1979, invasion that first killed the country’s communist President Hafizullah Amin. His Khalq faction of the Marxist Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) had taken over in a bloody military coup on April 27, 1978, when they killed the country’s nationalist President Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan and his entire extended family.

Throughout the 1980s, Afghans on all sides endured grave tragedies. As Soviet jets and attack helicopters strafed the countryside, the Western-back Islamist mujahedin guerillas fought back from hideouts in Pakistan. They attacked Afghan and Red Army troops, cities and targeted anyone suspected of supporting or working from the communist regime. The war prompted some 5 million Afghans to seek shelter in neighboring Iran and Pakistan.

The Soviet occupation fragmented the weak state Afghan rulers built over the 20th century and strained its predominantly rural and tribal society in many ways.

Some 600 kilometers south of Unamak, Abdul Manan, an elderly Afghan man, also frequents a vast graveyard on the outskirts of the city of Kandahar to pray for four relatives he lost to Soviet bombing in the 1980s. Manan also visits the ruins of their large mud house.

“One bomb hit this place, and one little girl disappeared after that,” he said while pointing at a place in the large courtyard of his former family home. “We later only found her thigh. Three more people were killed there as a shockwave forced its roof to collapse,” he said while pointing to a crumbling mud wall that one formed a row of rooms like most traditional rural Afghan houses.

Thousands of kilometers away in Moscow, former Red Army Brigadier General Leonard Khabarov recalls his duty tours in Afghanistan, where he led many offensives. He was injured in the northern Panjshir Valley in 1981, which left his right hand paralyzed.

“We were angered when we were shot at,” he said. “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, will you react or present your left cheek to be slapped?”

Khabarov still believes the Red Army could have succeeded in Afghanistan if it had stayed in the country longer. “We should have prevented civilian casualties and acted in accordance with the laws of war and rationally,” he said.

Javed Kohistani, a security analyst in Kabul, says that extensive Soviet firepower was not precise and left too many civilian casualties.

“Their offensives were based on hitting targets with weapons systems relying on map coordinates, which were not able to monitor the specific targets precisely,” he said. “This resulted in too many civilian casualties in the villages or areas they targeted in operations.”

Back in Salang Pass, Muhammad Ishaq, an elderly resident, remembers the destruction from a Red Army offensive. “They hit us with everything they got,” he recalled. “We recovered more than 20 martyrs while scores more were injured.”

The Soviet invasion ended with the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989. But the war in Afghanistan continued. The demise of the communist regime led by the PDPA in April 1992 only paved the way for an internecine conflict between the Islamist mujahedin factions.

The emergence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s ultimately attracted a U.S.-led Western military invasion after terrorist attacks in September 2001 that killed thousands in New York and Washington were linked to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Eighteen years later, there is still no end in sight for war in Afghanistan.

Afghans continue to bear the brunt of war in their country. According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured in Afghanistan since 2009.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Radi Free Afghanistan correspondents Omid Marazban, Shafi Karimi, Laima Hadi and Sadiq Rashtinai.