The Soviet 40th Army invaded Afghanistan in the closing days of 1979. They would not leave for another nine years. Exhausted and frustrated by their inability to decisively crush the elusive freedom fighters in the mountains – the Mujahideen – the Soviets turn to atrocity and criminal violence to achieve their objectives. Meanwhile, adrenaline-seeking journalists and idealistic Western reporters illegally sneak into the war zone to uncover the truth behind the war.
The Soviet 40th Army invaded Afghanistan in the closing days of 1979. They would not leave for another nine years. Exhausted and frustrated by their inability to decisively crush the elusive freedom fighters in the mountains – the Mujahideen – the Soviets turn to atrocity and criminal violence to achieve their objectives. Meanwhile, adrenaline-seeking journalists and idealistic Western reporters illegally sneak into the war zone to uncover the truth behind the war.
Ahmadi-Miller, Enjeela. The Broken Circle: A Memoir of Escaping Afghanistan. 2019.
Ansari, Mir Tamim. Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan. 2012.
Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. 2010.
Borovik, Artyom. The Hidden War. 1990.
Braithewaite, Rodric. Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. 2011.
Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to 2001. 2004.
Dobbs, Michael. Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. 1997.
Feifer, Gregory. The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. 2009.
Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Soviet-Afghan War, 1979-89. 2012.
Galeotti, Mark. Storm-333: KGB and Spetsnaz Seize Kabul. 2021.
Goodwin, Jan. Caught in the Crossfire. 1987.
Grau, Lester W. The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics In Afghanistan. 1996.
Hosdon, Peregrine. Under a Sickle Moon: A Journey Through Afghanistan. 1986.
Kalinovsky, Artemy. A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. 2011.
Kaplan, Robert D. Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 2001.
Rosen, Ethan. The Bear, The Dragon, & the AK-47. 2017.
Tanner, Stephen. Afghanistan: A Military History of Afghanistan from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban. 2009.
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---- WELCOME -----
Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network, and as always, I’m your host Zach Cornwell.
You are listening to Part 2 of a multi-part series on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which took place from 1979 to 1989. Now, if you haven’t listened to Part 1 yet, it would probably be a good idea to go ahead and do that before diving into this one. But hey, you’re an adult. If you want to eat Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for breakfast or listen to history podcasts in a random order, that is your decision. And I respect it.
But in case you need a refresher on what the hell happened last time, let’s take a quick second to run through the highlight reel.
When we last left off, Soviet tanks were rumbling into the Afghan capital of Kabul, just a few days after Christmas 1979. The brutal Communist leader of Afghanistan, Hafizullah Amin, was dead. An elite team of Soviet special forces – the Spetsnaz – had murdered Amin in the night.
The assassination had been a long time coming. Amin may have been a fellow Marxist, but he was a loose cannon, and the Kremlin had grown tired of his incompetent and bloodthirsty style. Since their takeover of Afghanistan’s government in 1978, Amin and his fellow homegrown Communists had managed to provoke a full-scale insurgency in the countryside, enraging the rural, conservative Islamic majority with socialist reforms at the point of a gun. As many as 50,000 Afghans were murdered by Amin’s government in an effort to make the changes stick. But to no avail.
Land reform, equal rights for women, and compulsory, atheist education programs had given rise to the Mujahideen – “Soldiers of God” – who vowed to topple the Afghan Communist government at any cost, even if it took them a thousand years to do it.
Back in Moscow, the hawks and doves bickered over the best course of action, but eventually the hawks gained the upper hand. Afghanistan was too valuable of a Cold War chess piece to surrender without a fight, they argued. The leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev emphatically agreed. So, on December 12th, the Soviet Union decided to kill Amin, invade Afghanistan, and prop up a new, more compliant regime.
Two weeks later, the invasion began with the spectacular raid on Amin’s palace and the systematic seizure of strategic objectives throughout Afghanistan. As New Year’s Eve of 1979 became New Year’s Day 1980, the Soviets believed the country was firmly in their grasp.
They did not expect to stay long. They would be there – at most – six months. Just long enough to let the new government find its footing and put down the Mujahideen guerillas in the mountains. It would be easy. Annoying, inconvenient, but easy. Reality unfolded very differently. The Soviet Army would not leave Afghanistan for another nine years. From 1979 to 1989 they would find themselves ensnared in a geopolitical bear trap that they were not prepared for in any way, shape, or form.
But it would be the ordinary people, everyday Afghans, who would pay the ultimate price.
Today’s episode will be much longer and much less linear than Part 1. Because the Soviet Afghan War is not a linear conflict, in the sense that there are no big, decisive, battles that propel the story forward. There’s no Stalingrad, or D-Day. There’s no Waterloo or Culloden. There’s no Agincourt or Hastings or Cannae.
It’s just two sides bleeding each other. Physically. Psychologically. Spiritually. It’s a slow, painful arm-wrestling match that kind of sways back and forth over a decade. And honestly, I’m not all that concerned with red arrows zigging and zagging across topographic maps. Troop movements, offensives and counteroffensives. As interesting as that stuff can sometimes be on the page, it can also make for pretty lousy podcast listening.
This episode is about people. Good people, bad people, ordinary people. The people who fought, died, reported, plotted, murdered, stole, healed, and loved in a decade-long conflict that will continue leave scars on our present for the foreseeable future. People we will attempt to understand, even though we probably never really can.
So - as always, thank you for tuning in. I’m really excited to share these stories with you. And I hope they have as profound an effect on you, as they have had on me.
Welcome to Episode 25: Ghosts in the Mountains: The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Part 2.
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It’s March 1980.
All across America, young men and women are training for the greatest physical challenge of their lives. They came from big cities like Philadelphia. And small towns like White Haven Florida. They were all young, hungry, and at the absolute peak of their physical prowess.
In the spring of 1980, the athletes of Team USA were preparing for the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. In just a handful of months, they would journey into the heart of the Soviet Union to represent their country in front of the entire world. It would be the culmination of years and years of arduous training. A thousand excruciating hours of pain, sweat, doubt and self-discipline.
As a gymnastics champion named Ron Galimore remembered:
In 1980, everything came together. I was in great shape. I was healthy. I was confident. All of my routines were international caliber, and I could perform them well. I anticipated everything and kind of knew the ropes.
The games were especially important to a young basketball player named Carol Blazejowski. Carol had tried and failed to qualify for the team in 1976. But in 1980, she made the cut, and when she saw her name on the list for Team USA, it was a dream come true. This was her time, and she was confident she would medal in Moscow:
By that time, my game had really matured as one of the best players in the country, if not the world — captain of the USA team. Everything was humming pretty good.
458 American men and women, from Portland to Puerto Rico, were set to compete in the 1980 Summer Games. But when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979, everything changed.
Four months of uncertainty and anxiety passed. How would America respond to the Soviet’s occupation of a sovereign nation? Would we still go? Who would not go? What would happen now? That spring, it became abundantly clear. On March 21st, the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, addressed a packed room in the White House:
The Olympics are important to the Soviet Union. They have made massive investments in buildings, equipment, propaganda. As has probably already been pointed out to you, they have passed out hundreds of thousands of copies of an official Soviet document saying that the decision of the world community to hold the Olympics in Moscow is an acknowledgement of approval of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, and proof to the world that the Soviets' policy results in international peace.
“I can't say at this moment what other nations will not go to the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Ours will not go. I say that not with any equivocation; the decision has been made.”
In the space of a single press conference, the lifelong ambitions of 458 world-class athletes evaporated. A champion wrestler named Gene Mills remembered decades later: “Basically he crushed my dreams. At the time it felt like he had crushed my life.”
For Gene and dozens like him, 1980 had been THE year. The brief window when their exhaustively sculpted bodies could be expected to perform at a level that might earn them a Medal. And now they weren’t going. Just like that, their big chance was gone, probably forever. As journalist Henry Bushnell writes:
Dozens of them, world-class competitors who’d circled July 19 on calendars, who’d been told four years earlier 1980 would be their moment, who’d slept on basement floors and quit jobs, who’d deferred school and delayed marriages, who’d endured abuse and broken records and pushed their bodies to untold limits, for hours everyday, with one irreplicable goal, never participated in their sports again.
For President Carter, the decision had been an agonizing one. But the thinking was clearly laid out by a domestic policy advisor named Stuart Eizenstat:
There was one other thing that was in the back of our minds. It was never really clearly enunciated, but it was always there — and certainly for me it was — and that is what happened in the 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler. We let Hitler basically tell us we couldn’t have Jews on the team. Jesse Owens, an African American who won several track and field events, was not given a gold medal by him because of his racist policies. And Hitler got a great public relations boon out of those Olympic Games. The president didn’t want the same thing to happen here. He didn’t want the Soviets to be able, while they were invading another country and fighting a war with 85,000 troops, to get the public relations benefit of showcasing these Olympics to demonstrate how great the Soviet Union was.”
That all sounds well and good and logical, but it was cold comfort to the hundreds of athletes who had lost their shot at glory. And Team USA was not alone. Canada, West Germany and Japan joined United States in their boycott of the 1980 Summer Games.
For the Soviets, it was a stinging, if somewhat expected, rebuke. But as irritating as the Carter-led Olympic boycott was, Leonid Brezhnev and his glorified sewing circle in Moscow had more pressing concerns. And the source of those concerns was a place that very few of those disappointed athletes could have even pointed out on a map:
Four months before Carter announced the boycott, the Red Army had descended upon Afghanistan in a massive display of force. Hundreds of tanks, gunships, armored personnel carriers and jeeps carrying thousands of men had swarmed into the country.
The elite Spetsnaz commandos had performed their task perfectly, assassinating Hafizullah Amin and clearing the way for a successor hand-picked by the Soviets. Before Amin’s blood was cold, the voice of that successor came over the airwaves of Radio Kabul. And the Afghan people learned what had happened at the Tajbeg Palace.
“Today the torture machine of Amin and his henchmen, savage butchers, usurpers and murderers of tens of thousands of our compatriots . . . has been broken. . . . The great April revolution, accomplished through the indestructible will of the heroic Afghan people . . . has entered a new stage.”
With that new stage, came new faces. White faces with blue eyes. From a faraway land to the north. As they entered Afghanistan by the thousands, many Soviet soldiers were fascinated, even charmed, when they saw exotic Kabul for the first time. As one remembered:
“The first sights of the city were impressive. The people were dressed in strange clothing. […] The women went around with veils on their heads. The children were incredibly beautiful. It seemed as though we had traveled back in time to medieval Asia.”
A Soviet journalist named Artyom Borovik was also fascinated by Afghanistan’s unique ‘stuck in time’ quality.
“It isn’t so much a geographic boundary as a border in time, a line between two social and economic systems, between two philosophies, between war and peace. On one side they live int the late 1980s under the socialist system, and on the other side they live in 1366 (by the Muslim calendar) under a feudal system with tribal vestiges. You don’t need a time machine to experience the difference.”
And while the Soviets saw Afghanistan as an exotic and anachronistic destination, all the Afghans saw were heavily armed tourists. Godless communists who’d sponsored, armed, and funded the regime that had caused them so much pain and suffering in recent years. And they made it abundantly clear just what they thought of their visiting Soviet friends on Feb 22nd, 1980.
As night fell that evening, the Soviets began to hear a strange noise coming from the rooftops of buildings all over Kabul. It was a chant, the same two words over and over again, emanating rhythmically from the throats of TENS OF THOUSANDS OF 400,000 people. “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is Great”. All saying in one voice, we don’t want you here. Historian Mir Tamim Ansary described the uprising generally as:
“An emotionally intense sense of mass intention, an exhilarating sense of a unified “Us” mustering to fight against a massive, evil “Them.”
The Red Army tried drowning out this “Allahu Akbar” chant with rockets and artillery, but the inhabitants of Kabul just chanted louder.
To a grunt from Ukraine or a journalist from St Petersburg, it was a chilling sound. And when the chants erupted into riots and demonstrations against the invading Soviets, the temperature and anxiety only rose higher. One journalist staying at the Hotel Kabul described the scene:
Darkness came quickly. A dull, strange sound swelled outside. Only a very large crowd could generate such a noise. . . . I went over to the dark blue drapes and opened them a chink. . . . The sight that met my eyes was truly dreadful. The neighboring “Pak” hotel was already ablaze like a haystack. Two overturned buses smoldered in the middle of the road. The flames cast an eerie glow over a multitude of turbaned men and veiled women. . . . I feared the knives in the hands of my medieval contemporaries.”
In their fear and frustration at the Afghan defiance in Kabul, the Red Army cracked down hard with merciless precision. The Afghan protestors soon found themselves facing a long column of armor-plated tanks and APCs bristling with automatic weapons, wielded by spooked, unsympathetic Soviet soldiers. God may have been great, but He was unable to save the protesters from what happened next. As one man in the crowd remembered:
“It was scary, everybody was screaming, pushing and running to get away from the tanks, which didn’t stop. A girl near me who was shouting “freedom, freedom, we want freedom!” was shot in the head and back. Friends tried to stop the bleeding with a girl’s veil, but before they could the soldiers started to fire again. She was hit several more times in the back and died instantly. She was sixteen.”
When the dawn broke the next day, 300 people were dead. Obviously, three hundred people dead in the streets sounds unimaginable. But over the next 9 years, at least 1.3 million Afghans would be killed in the war. That sixteen-year-old girl and her fellow protesters were just the first drops in a very large bucket. This was only the beginning.
As they wiped the blood off their boots in the aftermath of the Kabul protests, the Red Army might have been tempted to think that the hardest part of their task was over. A little action and unpleasantness was to be expected, but now that they’d put the Kabul agitators in their place, the rest of the country would fall in line.
But as we’ve said before, Kabul was not Afghanistan. The real Afghanistan was out there, in the wilderness. Spread out across 35,000 remote villages, towns and isolated hamlets. The geography of Afghanistan is 80% mountains. And in those mountains, God was calling.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘jihad’ before.
In the modern day, we understand ‘jihad’ to mean a ‘holy war’. Because, frankly, that’s how it’s most often used. But in the Quran, the meaning of ‘jihad’ is much more complex and ambiguous. The literal definition of ‘jihad’ is closer to something like “struggle” or “effort” or “striving”.
Back in the day, about 1,400 years ago to be exact, the Prophet Muhammed talked about two kinds of Jihad. There was a lesser Jihad and a greater Jihad. The lesser Jihad, is the one most people are familiar with - the armed struggle against the enemies of Islam. Pretty straightforward, right? But the Greater, and much more important Jihad, is the lifelong pursuit of being a good Muslim, of becoming closer to God.
A lesser jihad, a holy war, would eventually end. But the greater Jihad never ended. From the moment you opened your eyes as an infant to the moment you closed them in death, you fought the greater Jihad. A war of spiritual self-examination and reflection. A daily battle to be a better person. A more righteous person. Naturally, the two struggles, lesser and greater, were intimately intertwined.
And it was in this deep, introspective emotional state that the rural men of Afghanistan decided to wage a guerrilla war against the invading Soviets. By waging a lesser Jihad, they could further their own greater Jihad. As one explained to a British journalist named Sandy Gall:
Jihad embraces the whole Muslim world. All Muslims are obliged to take part in it by sending money, or demonstrating their support in some other way. Any writer or poet should write only about the Jihad. A merchant should work longer hours to make money for the Jihad. Not to take part in Jihad is a sin.
The Afghan warriors who fought the Jihad, would be come to be known as the Mujahedeen. It means “holy warriors” or the “defenders of the faith”, or more literally “the ones who conduct jihad”. There are a few different spellings but the one you most often see is “M-U-J-A-H-I-D-E-E-N.”
Now it’s tempting to characterize the Mujahedeen as a monolith. A faceless army of interchangeable peasants with turbans and AK-47s. But they came from all walks of life. They were farmers and landowners. University students, craftsmen, and merchants. Some of them had never left the tiny village where they lived. Others had traveled the world. But when the Soviets invaded, they all answered the call of the mullahs, or Islamic teachers, to wage a lesser Jihad against the Russians in service of the greater Jihad of becoming closer to God.
Some of course, were opportunists, or would-be warlords, but the vast majority of the Mujahideen were compelled by an unshakeable religious conviction to defend their way of life. To protect their cultural reality.
The Mujahideen would need every ounce of bravery they could muster. Because they faced the 40th Army.
Created especially for the invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet 40th Army was a hammer intended break the Mujahideen like a piece of glass. Over 100,000 men, mostly conscripts from the patchwork of territories that made up the southern flank of the USSR. They came from all over the Soviet Union, many were Muslims themselves – but almost all of them were young, completely uninformed about the country they were invading, and armed to the teeth.
Just as American teenagers had been dropped into the jungles of Vietnam more than a decade earlier, the Soviet Union sent thousands upon thousands of its own young men into a country and culture they could not begin to understand; hopped up on misleading propaganda and outfitted with some of the most effective death-dealing hardware that this planet has ever seen.
State-of-the-art artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships, fighter jets, night vision, thermal imaging, chemical weapons. As an Afghan judge named Omar Babrakzai would later say in the darkest days of the war:
It is as if Afghanistan is a laboratory for the Soviet Military to learn their trade. Every single weapon in the Soviets’ arsenal, with the exception of the nuclear bomb, has been unleashed on us.”
The Mujahideen, on the other hand, were not so well-equipped. Initially, many of the Afghans carried rifles that were older than they were. These were family heirlooms; ancient breech-loading rifles that had been looted from British corpses in the time of Queen Victoria. Some of them even carried old matchlocks, flintlocks. To quote a fictionalized portrayal of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, “that’s basically what Davy Crocket used!” In a way, Afghanistan was kind of like the Texas of the Muslim world. Pretty much everyone had a gun. And as ancient as they were, those guns still worked. And they could still kill.
It was a fact that made itself known to the soldiers of the Soviet 40th Army as shots from rusty, rifles pinged off their state-of-the-art tanks in the wilderness and wastes outside Kabul. Initially, the Soviets were unconcerned. And why should they be? The Afghans were bringing 19th century weapons and tactics to a 20th century war. The Soviet Empire had crushed Nazi Germany; surely a few disorganized guerillas wouldn’t be a problem. As one Mujahideen fighter admitted:
“You know, if you were to put the facts of this war into a computer, it would say that we cannot survive the might of the Russian army for more than a few weeks.”
You have to understand, in 1979, the entire world was terrified of the Red Army. On paper, they were invincible. Undefeated champs since they’d miraculously pulled themselves off the ropes at Stalingrad in 1943. Two years later in 1945, the Soviets had exacted vicious payback, turning Berlin into a potpourri of cement, metal, and body parts; and they’d been preparing for another large-scale conflict ever since. Conventional wisdom dictated that anyone who stood up to the Soviets in a hot war was destined to fail.
The war in Afghanistan would be anything but conventional.
The Mujahideen realized almost immediately that they could not stand up to the 40th Army in the open field. They didn’t have tanks, or jets, or helicopters. They didn’t even have a formalized chain-of-command. All they had were their grandfather’s rifles, an intimate, almost supernatural knowledge of the local terrain, and the anesthesia of intense religious belief.
The Mujahideen decided that if they couldn’t defeat the Soviets outright, they would do the next best thing. They would drive them insane. They would make occupying Afghanistan so costly, so painful, so psychologically damaging – that on a long enough timeline, the Russians would simply give up. Just like the Americans had given up in Vietnam.
So, the Mujahideen fled deep into the mountains of Afghanistan, and when the 40th Army tried to pursue them, all that technological superiority meant next to nothing. As one guerilla fighter named Haron Amin described:
As the enemy goes up in the mountain to claim the high positions, what do you do? Very simple; you go farther up. Up in these steep valleys, the enemy does not have support. Tanks are not able to come up, the enemy does not have armored personnel carriers, the heavy weapons are not with them. Now it is the enemy with light weapons and you with light weapons.”
When the Soviets attacked, the guerillas would hide. But the second those same Russians let their guard down, to close their eyes, eat a meal, or take a piss, the Mujahideen would pounce. They would ambush, and bomb, and snipe, and maim and bleed the 40th Army little by little by little. When the Soviets tried to counterattack, the Mujahideen would just melt back into the passes and tunnels and valleys, as if they had never been there at all. One Afghan guerrilla explained the overall strategy.
[…] Guerrilla warfare is taking the war to the enemy; you don’t let them bring the war to you. You organize and attack at point A. The enemy tries to recapture point A, and you attack point B and point C so that their resources are divided. If you lose point A, B, and C at the same time, you withdraw your forces and what do you do? You attack points D, E, F, G, and H, so the enemy thinks, “My God, I have an enemy that is invisible and yet I keep losing people!”
[…] you take the war to the enemy, and you do it for a long period of time because it is your land. Your ancestors were born there and you are going to stay there. Time is on your side.”
A Mujahideen proverb put it much more succinctly: “They have the clock. We have the time.”
This was going to be death by a thousand cuts. And as the 40th Army settled in for a long, ugly asymmetrical war against the Mujahideen, their sanity quickly began to crack.
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It’s the summer of 1987. We’re in San Francisco.
Just after nine o’clock in the morning, a journalist named Artyom Borovik stepped out of a cab in front of a house near the center of the city.
Artyom was a talented young reporter from Soviet Russia. He was only 27 years old, with a baby face, a mop of black hair and a bushy Tom Selleck mustache. But his youthful, borderline goofy appearance was deceiving. Artyom had seen more death and destruction in the last few years than most people do in a lifetime.
Throughout the mid 1980s, Artyom had been traveling with the 40th Army as a war correspondent in Afghanistan. He had spent that time interviewing countless Soviet soldiers – young men, old men, brave men, weak men – all in an effort to try and understand what the war in Afghanistan was doing to them. And eventually, he hoped to publish a tell-all book that would reveal the true cost of the war to the people back home.
But on this bright, muggy morning on the West Coast, Artyom found himself very far from both his homeland in Russia and the battlefields of Afghanistan. He had come all this way to find and interview someone very special. Someone who did not want to be found.
Artyom climbed the stairs to the second story entrance of the house and rang the doorbell.
The man who answered had, according to Artyom: “a pale face and two alert, cautious eyes”. This man’s name was Aleksei – a fellow Russian. And after a brief exchange of pleasantries, Aleksei invited the reporter inside his home.
“I know you only from photographs” Artyom said.
“What is it you’re interested in?” Aleksei asked nervously. He was already chewing on his fingernails.
“Your life” Artyom replied.
Artyom was a good reporter and an even better researcher. He was already very familiar with the broad strokes of Aleksei’s life.
Aleksei had been a young man when he was drafted into the 40th Army and sent to Afghanistan in 1983. Less than six months later, he’d gone missing in action. Or at least that’s what the Soviet army told his mother back in Uzbekistan. But Aleksei hadn’t gotten lost, or separated from his unit – he’d run away. He dropped his rifle and ran as far away from the 40th Army as his legs would carry him. Aleksei went AWOL. After his desertion from the Soviets, he was captured by the Mujahideen. Before long, he ran from them too, eventually defecting to America, and finding his way to New York City. The US government had resettled him here in San Francisco, where he worked as a chef in the Four Seasons hotel.
Artyom Borovik was here to record Aleksei’s side of the story. To understand why he had run away, why he had defected to Russia’s greatest enemy, and how he liked living in America – the promised land of wealth and opportunity that most Soviets could only dream of.
The two shared a drink, toasting to the fallen soldiers in Afghanistan. Shortly after, according to Artyom, the defector Aleksei: “sat down on the couch and suddenly burst into tears. He cried like a child, sobbing violently, full of despair. He wasn’t embarrassed by the tears and he didn’t try to hide them from me. He let them stream down his cheeks and fall on the floor”
Through the tears and the gasps, Aleksei told Artyom: “We were all deceived and turned into mincemeat. As least I managed to get out, but the other ones – the fifteen thousand we drank to – didn’t.”
This young reporter, Artyom Borovik, would go on to become one of the most prolific Russian journalists of his generation. And in this modest living room in San Francisco, he was witnessing the collective trauma of an entire fighting force. A trauma that had begun seven years earlier in 1980, shortly after the 40th Army had pursued the Mujahideen into the mountains of Afghanistan.
WELCOME TO AFGHANISTAN
Most Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan did not want to be there. Many of them didn’t even want to be in the army at all.
The Soviet Union filled the ranks of the 40th Army though the process of conscription – a draft, essentially. They knocked on your door, handed you a slip of paper and told you to report for training. A few days later, you were on a plane heading to some distant corner of the Soviet Empire. When you landed, they shaved your head, handed you a gun, and taught you how to follow orders– whether that meant pushing a broom or pulling a trigger.
A few short weeks later, you were boots down in Afghanistan.
Most fresh recruits were nervous, or afraid, but some faced their situation with a grim sense of resignation. As one soldier named Tamarov droned:
‘I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t surprised’. At that point I didn’t care anymore because I understood that it was impossible to change anything’
When freshies like Tamarov asked the older guys why the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in the first place, they received a mix of scowls and shrugs in response. The average Soviet grunt had no idea why there were in Afghanistan. They didn’t know about Hafizullah Amin, or the reforms, or the cultural powder keg the Kabul communists had sparked by trying to transform their country overnight. According to the Soviet brass, the 40th Army was “defending the southern borders of the Soviet Union, as well as the Afghan revolution’.
Whatever that meant. To some nineteen-year-old kid from Leningrad or Kiev, it was typical Politburo bullshit.
But it wasn’t all bad. At first glance, Afghanistan was absolutely beautiful.
You looked up at night and saw, as one paratrooper described “ enormous skies – uncommonly starry – occasionally punctuated by the blazing lines of tracers.” The mountains were stunning too. As the young reporter Artyom Borovik remembered: “During the day, the mountains around Kabul resembled a black and white photograph of a storm at sea.”
In the valleys between the mountains, there were rich, green river lands. Full of vegetation and farms and orchards. The black soil was ideal for growing peaches, melons, cherries, apricots, figs and pomegranates. Treats that were just as sweet as any factory-made confection back home in the USSR.
A Soviet writer named Alexander Prokhanov described the lowlands as “a flowering, fertile plain, where settlements built of golden mud bricks spread out among the gardens and vineyards, where cool water filled the hand-made wells, where the young rice showed green in tiny, carefully cultivated fields, where flowering poppy and yellow sunflower flamed and burned’. One British journalist swooned over the landscape as well, saying: “It can feel like Tuscany.’
In the marketplaces and bazaars of cities like Kabul and Kandahar, the Soviet soldiers found things they could never dream of getting back in the USSR. The shops and stalls offered all sorts of unique treasures. As historian Rodric Braithwaite writes: “Japanese electronics, fashionable Western clothes, sneakers and jeans, cassette recordings of Western and even Soviet music banned back home. For the shopkeepers at least, the invasion was a business opportunity.”
But eventually, every new recruit had to leave the safety of the barracks and venture out into the wilderness. Up into the mountains in pursuit of the elusive freedom fighters, the Mujahideen. In those arid passes and ravines, the true reality of their situation began to sink in, as they became intimately acquainted with the darker side of Afghanistan.
If you were a young Soviet soldier stepping into the Afghan mountains for the first time, you quickly began to suspect that almost everyone and everything in this country wanted you dead. The Mujahideen wanted you dead. The peasants and farmers wanted you dead. Sometimes your fellow soldiers wanted you dead. Even the climate wanted you dead.
For one soldier named Simonov, the first thing he noticed about Afghanistan was the altitude. At 15,000 feet above sea level, in the mountains, the air gets very thin. And if you’re not used to it, the altitude sickness just hits you like a truck. Simonov remembered literally gasping for air at one point: “I was working my lungs like a fish on the shore works its gills.”
Then there was the heat.
For men from the cool climates of Eastern Europe and Russia, it was unbearable. In the summer, temperatures in Afghanistan can top 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. One Soviet journalist describes the metal components of assault rifles being so hot that drops of sweat would: “sizzle as they fell on the metal.”.
And where there is heat, there is thirst. Life-threatening dehydration was often just one empty canteen away. Water became as important as bullets or gasoline. According to one soldier:
With every passing minute, each drop of water becomes more precious. Indeed, in just half an hour everything but water will have lost its meaning, and then there will be no greater curse than an empty canteen. In Afghanistan, thirst can actually make you stoop to drink from a puddle of camel urine. Every Soviet soldier, in fact, carries a miniature water purifier for just such an eventuality.”
Another Soviet war correspondent reflected on his time in Afghanistan:
“Once, I took the freedom to drink water – as much water as I wanted – for granted, but now I realize that no such freedom exists in the desert.
And if the Soviets thought they’d be any more comfortable in the winter, they were sorely mistaken. One Lieutenant remembered a close call with frostbite: “I really thought my toes would freeze and fall off. Hard to believe, but it’s warmer in Russia.”
Another soldier complained about the cold: “Our lighters and matches turned stubborn in the rareified air; you needed half a matchbox just to light one cigarette. The 4 kilometer altitude made your head spin a little and your legs feel weak.
Marching and walking through the mountains in those conditions is so exhausting that it’s hard to even really understand it unless you’ve experienced it. It is fatigue at a cellular level. One soldier named Okhotnikov gave the new guys a few choice words of advice:
“It’s better not to stop in the mountains. After a rest, it’s impossible to tear your ass from the ground. Once you pause, you get the feeling that the pull of gravity has increased tenfold.
As a soldier named Dzhabarov summarized:
“After Afghanistan, any hardship will seem like a mosquito bite”
And as you dealt with all this physical discomfort - the choking heat, paralyzing cold, the altitude sickness, the exhaustion, the blisters and bleeding feet - that’s when a bullet would zip past your head. And you knew the Mujahideen had come.
In the early stages of the war, ambushes and surprise attacks were the most common types of engagements. A Soviet convoy might be driving down a dirt road, with high sloping hills on either side. Then suddenly, land mines would explode, destroying the lead vehicle and trapping everyone else behind it. The hills would erupt with gunfire that seemed to come from all directions. Casualties mounted as Soviet soldiers fired blindly in every direction, trying desperately to suppress the enemy ambush. And then suddenly, the hills went silent.
When the smoke cleared, the Mujahideen would be gone. Most of the time the Soviets never even saw who was shooting at them. These kinds of abrupt, nerve-shredding firefights became the norm for the 40th Army. And as you can imagine, it took a monstrous psychological toll.
As one soldier named Sorokin said following a winter ambush. “You feel yourself not just matured but grown old. At the very end of the last ambush, everybody was exhausted, soaked, and freezing. I was only shooting so it would end sooner.”
Before long, the Soviets had invented a slang term for the Afghan freedom fighters. They called them “dukhi” (doo-HCH-ee), which is Russian for “ghosts”. The Mujahideen were like spirits or apparitions. There one minute, and gone the next.
The war became a cyclical, Sisyphean exercise for the 40th Army. They would go into an area to clear out the guerillas, fight for days, take terrible losses, but eventually the Mujahideen would be driven off. But then once the Soviets left, the guerillas would just move back into the area again – as if nothing had changed at all. It was like the Mujahideen were a rubber ball, and the 40th Army was a sledgehammer. You could hit the ball, flatten it with a terrible blow, but the second the hammer lifted the pressure, the ball would simply morph back and retain its original shape. Like nothing ever happened. In time, the 40th Army grew to hate and fear the ghosts in the mountains – as well as the civilian population that sheltered and aided them.
Just like so many traumatized and angry American soldiers in Vietnam, the Russians started to despise all the locals, not just the ones who were shooting at them. It was virtually impossible to tell if a random Afghan man on the side of the road was just a normal farmer, or a Mujahideen scout with a pistol under his shirt. Even the children could be spies and spotters working for the guerillas. Little kids were sometimes paid fistfuls of cash by the freedom fighters to puncture Soviet oil pipelines with sledgehammers. From the Russian perspective, it was better to err on the side of caution, and just shoot them all.
When the 40th Army sent squads into the rural villages to sniff out information about where the Mujahideen were hiding, they rarely got any cooperation. But they did find hostility. As one soldier remembered:
“You watch your buddy knock a door down in a kishlak. Out comes a dark, bony hand with a sickle. It slashes his belly open and his guts fall to the ground. Your buddy is just standing there, looking – he can’t believe that it isn’t a dream. Whenever you see something like that, you don’t care who or what’s in that house. You just throw a grenade at it, then another one. Bang. The roof is blown off.”
Even commonplace items could be a source of death or dismemberment.
Soviets searching Afghan villages would find ingenious booby traps left behind by the Mujahideen. On one occasion, a Soviet war correspondent found a coffee thermos in a house and decided to keep it as a souvenir. But he noticed it felt unusually heavy, which he casually mentioned to one of the soldiers. He was instructed to unscrew the bottom, where he found: “a curious glob of black goo. It turned out to be a potent contact explosive.” The soldier laughed darkly and told the war correspondent:
“Tonight you would’ve learned your lesson. After supper you would’ve poured some hot tea into your new thermos, expanding the paste and thus triggering an explosion from the increased pressure. It would’ve been the last time in your life you ever made tea.”
Others were not so lucky. Watches, pens, tape recorders, and lighters would often blow up in the hands of men who picked them up. The 40th Army quickly learned to be suspicious of even the most innocent objects. As the same journalist wrote: “Hidden death has been camouflaged so masterfully that only someone with a practiced eye can see it.”
Seeing friends die randomly at the hands of an invisible enemy was unraveling the sanity of the men of the 40th Army. As one soldier remembered after the war:
“Month after month, and in combat, day after day, it tormented you with the age-old questions: “Why him, Lord, and not me?” and “When will it be my turn – in five minutes, or fifty years?”
Staying alive was often just a matter of blind luck. One soldier told a story to journalist Artyom Borovik about a scrape with death. As Borovik writes:
“He’d gone into the bushes to take a leak when his unit suddenly came under heavy fire. He swore that if his life were somehow spared he’d join a monastery. At that very moment a mortar shell exploded nearby, killing all the other soldiers in his unit.”
After spending months on the cusp of death with the 40th Army, Borovik beautifully expressed the sense of visceral anxiety that plagued the soldiers out on patrol.
“Risk is like radiation; at some point the dose becomes critical.” […] Ahead, the operation awaits – an ambush that can separate you from the rest of your life. It is like the last five inches of a ledge on a skyscraper: you know that the distance ahead is insignificant compared with what is behind, but everything depends on those five inches.
Death was terrifying enough; but the worst thing of all, the Soviets believed, was to be captured by the Mujahideen. There were chilling rumors of what the guerillas did to the Russians who they managed to drag back to their camps. As historian Gregory Pfeifer writes in his book The Great Gamble:
One of their favorite tortures was skinning Soviet soldiers alive by slitting them around the waist, pulling their skin above their heads, and tying it there, leaving the doomed to suffer excruciating deaths.
Most Soviet soldiers were deployed for two consecutive years before being cycled out of rotation and sent home. To make it through those grueling 24 months with their sanity intact, the men had to employ a variety of coping mechanisms. Some healthier than others.
The one good thing about Afghanistan, at least in the mind of a scared, lonely, homesick Soviet soldier, was that you could score drugs…everywhere. In towns and villages and on the military bases, you could get high whenever you wanted to. And the prices were very affordable. In the mid-1980s, a kilo of heroin cost $1 million dollars in New York City. In Afghanistan and nearby Pakistan, it cost about a hundred bucks. Hashish and cannabis were plentiful too. The Russians often discovered huge, endless fields of it growing in the fertile valleys. Journalist Robert D Kaplan wrote: “The going price for a credit card-size brick of opium is $4 in Darra.”
Faced with the daily horrors of deployment in Afghanistan, thousands of teenagers and twentysomethings in the 40th Army chose to simply numb themselves any way they could. The sweet prick of a needle or a lungful of sticky smoke was the only real escape they had.
The average Soviet soldier was paid almost nothing, but they found other ways to fund their habits. To buy drugs, they sold weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies to the locals. The majority of those rifles and bullets, of course, just filtered back through the villages into the hands of the Mujahideen. But most guys didn’t care. What good was a blanket when you couldn’t sleep at night? What good were grenades you couldn’t make it through the day without experiencing a panic attack? What good was a pistol when you thought more about putting it against your own head than aiming it at the enemy?
Drugs were a respite from annoying, complicated emotions like sympathy and grief and anger. Better to go numb than to face the reality of what you were doing, and what was being done to you. As one defector named Koval’chuk explained:
“It’s best to go into an operation stoned – you turn into an animal. If you drink vodka or dry alcohol that’s diluted with water, you can still feel your whole body. But taking a drug is like anesthetizing your soul; you stop feeling altogether. Later, when you come back you just collapse, like a watch spring that needs to be rewound. And your muscles ache. As long as you’re in combat, however, you just get high and run around like a maniac. Hashish stifles emotions, smooths over nervous fits. And there are lots of those, especially in the beginning.”
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Some soldiers found ways of coping that were healthy, productive, even creative. If you walked through any given Soviet barracks in Afghanistan, you would have heard music, and singing, and the jangling of acoustic guitars in the air. There were plenty of soldiers who were much better at plucking strings than shooting guns, and they created a rich catalogue of original folk music that described their experiences in Afghanistan.
One soldier, named Kirsanov, was especially prolific. As Rodric Braithwaite writes:
He and a colleague systematically recorded the sounds of Afghanistan on a small tape recorder – the call of the muezzin, the rattle of armoured vehicles, the noise of battle and the cry of the jackal – and he used them as the introduction to his own songs. These he recorded in ‘studio’ conditions – in the regimental bathhouse, where he worked at night, when the electric current was more or less stable and the noise of war had died away. He composed to express the emotions of war and the soldiers’ hopes for a safe return. ‘Kirsanov’s songs succeeded in doing what the professional artists were unable to do,’ remarked one journalist. ‘They preserved the real and genuine truth of the Afghan war.”
For the less musically-gifted in the 40th Army, jokes and gallows humor were a way of taking the bite out of their worst fears. If you could laugh about your situation, maybe it wouldn’t seem so scary. The Soviets, after all, were world famous for their distinctive, pitch-black sense of humor.
One airborne trooper named Simonov had a joke he liked to tell to the new guys:
“Do you know what an airborne trooper is? An airborne trooper is an eagle for all of a minute, and for the next five days he is a horse. Your turn into a horse the minute you jump off the helicopter. So in reality, we aren’t the airborne troops, we’re the workhorses.”
During his time with the 40th Army, the journalist Artyom Borovik met a soldier named Ushakov, who was famous for a distinctive set of silver teeth and a razor-sharp sense of humor. Borovik remembers hearing him tell the following joke:
“Oh my life? It’s a comedy with a tragic ending. Do you guys know how to find out whether your wife has been faithful to you when you come home from training camp? Here’s how: You drive up to your house and go up to the door, making as much noise with your boots as possible. The old women who sit together on the benches in the street freeze in their places and go quiet from fright. You gather as much air in your lungs as you can and yell to them with all your might: ‘So what do you have to say for yourselves you old whores?” ‘You think WE’RE whores? They’ll answer. What about that such and such wife of yours?’ That’s when you’ll find out everything.”
But for all the jokes, and drugs, and music and misery, the 40th Army was suffering in a silent vacuum. Because the septuagenarian bureaucrats in the Kremlin and the KGB refused to let any information about the war in Afghanistan filter back to the Russian public.
This is the big, key difference between America’s war in Vietnam, and Russia’s war in Afghanistan: Media coverage. Or lack thereof.
There were no nightly reports from a Soviet version of Walter Cronkite telling the hard truths and cold stats to the Russian people. Dispatches from the front were aggressively censored and redacted. To the average Soviet citizen, the military was on a vague peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan – nothing to see here, move along, don’t worry about it.
At this early stage, there really was no popular anti-war movement like you saw in America against the Vietnam War, because in the eyes of the Soviet government, the invasion of Afghanistan did not exist.
The soldiers of the 40th Army, upon being discharged, were told they could not disclose any details about their experiences to the people back home. It was a violation of state security, the authorities said. So imagine - going home with all these experiences, memories, and nightmares rattling around in your brain….and not being able to talk about any of it? To anyone.
As for the soldier who didn’t make it back, according to historian Artemy Kalinovsky: ”Even the gravestones of fallen soldiers were prohibited from stating how or where they died.”
The Kremlin may have wanted to pretend the war wasn’t happening, but there were some people who did want to talk about Afghanistan. A different kind of army – one equipped with pens, notebooks, cameras and tape recorders – was also invading Afghanistan.
By the mid-1980s, Western journalists were flying into Pakistan every week. Sneaking across the border with the Mujahideen and recording what they saw, heard, felt and experienced. If the Soviet Union wouldn’t tell the world what was really happening in Afghanistan, the journalists of the West would risk their lives and reputations to do it themselves.
To pierce what one reporter called a “curtain of silence”. And to do it, they would have to travel into the warzone with the Afghan guerillas themselves.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to meet the Mujahideen.
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In the spring of 1984, a woman named Jan Goodwin was enjoying her cushy job in New York City as the Executive Editor of Ladies Home Journal.
Jan was forty years old, with curly red hair and fair skin. She stood about five foot, four inches tall. Maybe five foot six in a pair of high heels. But she cut an intimidating figure as she prowled the halls of the magazine’s high-rise offices. By all accounts, it was a pretty sweet gig. As Jan remembered:
“My elegant 36th floor office, with its panoramic view of Manhattan, was a predictable setting for what is often describes as a “glamour job”. And much of the time, the job was glamorous. Expensive account lunches, invitations to celebrity parties, first nights at the theatre, private movie screenings.”
Jan’s typical workload at the time consisted of celebrity stories and puff pieces:
“On a normal day I was more likely to be fielding calls from Buckingham Palace on a story about Princess Diana, negotiating an exclusive interview with Katherine Hepburn, or guiding an investigative reporter through a libel minefield.”
But despite her posh position, Jan had an adventurous streak. A thirst for adrenaline. She’d once bailed on a fancy dinner reservation for her birthday to go skydiving instead. She’d spent time in the slums of Calcutta researching the philanthropic work of Mother Theresa. In her early days as a journalist, no assignment seemed too rough or dangerous: “I had covered riots, crime, terrorism, catastrophes.”
But in the spring of 1984, a tip came across Jan’s desk that she could not ignore. While chatting with a friend, an Austrian activist named Peter Rainier, she heard something that absolutely shocked her. Peter told Jan that “50% of the world’s refugees are Afghan.”
“Are you sure?, Jan balked, ”That’s one hell of a story. Why on earth aren’t we reading about it?”
In the early months of 1984, anyone who could flip through a magazine or a newspaper was fully aware that the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and were entangled in a nasty war against the Mujahideen. But what few people knew, was that the Soviet strategy had fundamentally changed.
After years of being constantly harassed by the “duhki” – the ghosts in the mountains – the Soviets had had enough. The 40th Army, addled by drugs, disease, and tactical failure, had come to the conclusion that the only way defeat the Mujahideen was to cut them off from the local populations that fed, sheltered, and funded them. As Mao Zedong had once famously said, “The guerilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea”. Well, the 40th Army decided they would simply drain the sea, and spear the fish.
As Mir Tamim Ansary writes:
Soviet military planners made a fateful decision. They decided to deny the Mujahideen their logistical advantage in the only way that looked feasible to them: they would cut the ties between the people and the guerillas by driving the people out of the countryside.
Thus began the most terrible phase of this terrible war, a phase that should never be allowed to fade from the annals of infamy. The Soviets launched a deliberate effort to depopulate rural Afghanistan. They bombed countless villages. Flying over the farmlands, they scattered land mines, which still litter Afghan soil and have made much of the land difficult if not impossible to cultivate. They strafed livestock from the air, cutting them to pieces so that the rural population would no longer be able to feed the guerillas—or (incidentally) themselves, which would force them to move, either to the nearest big city, which the Soviets could control with their armored vehicles and artillery, or to the nearest safe country of refuge, which for most meant Pakistan or Iran.
The 40th Army, through the use of airstrikes, mine fields, gunship raids, and artillery strikes, endeavored to make the Afghan countryside as unlivable and inhospitable as the surface of the moon. The result was something that has been referred to as “migratory genocide”.
As Jan Goodwin researched the raw numbers from her 36th floor office in Manhattan, she was shocked. Five million Afghans had been forced to flee their homes and seek shelter in squalid refugee camps across the border. In a country of only 19 million, that is an unimaginable level of death and displacement. As Jan pointed out years later in her book on the Soviet Afghan-War: “This is the equivalent of 76 million Americans being confined to camps in Mexico or Canada.”
3.5 million of those refugees were in Pakistan. At the time, according to Jan Goodwin: They are the largest single group of refugees in the world, equaling the population of Israel or New Zealand.”
Then there were the two million “internal refugees” who stayed in Afghanistan but had to move from place to place to stay one step ahead of the Soviet gunships and kill squads. As Jan wrote with horror: “It is not uncommon to find families who have been bombed out of as many as six homes.” As one refugee said: “We move from place to place. If our children are lucky they attend school for a few months, but then the school is bombed or we have to move to another place. How can they learn anything?”
As she dug deeper and deeper, one question burned in Jan’s mind like a cattle brand: How was everyone on the planet not writing and talking about this?
“In a world that vowed “never again” after the Holocaust of WW2, in a world that screamed its outrage after Lieutenant Calley slaughtered 347 civilians and their children in Vietnam’s My Lai, why were they being silent now?”
The truth was, most people just didn’t care. Or were content to let the backwards, barbaric women-oppressing Afghans suffer the fate they deserved. As Alexander Cockburn of the Village Voice wrote in 1980, Afghanistan was:
An unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers … I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape, it's Afghanistan.”
Well, Jan Goodwin decided that neither she, nor the publication she ran would remain silent:
“Three months later, (July ‘84), I flew to Pakistan to do a story for Ladies Home Journal on what life was like for Afghan women refugees.”
What she saw in those camps, stuck with her for the rest of her life.
“I had never seen so many child amputees as I saw among the Afghans. The children had been maimed and frequently blinded because they had picked up the small antipersonnel mines, many disguised as brightly colored toys. “
“Mines that look like as toys” sounds cartoonishly evil – but it’s true. In their depopulation campaign, the Soviet Army dropped hundreds of thousands of what were called “butterfly mines”. They were called butterfly mines because they would slowly flutter down to the ground on little plastic wings, dropped from planes. They looked just interesting enough to be mistaken for a toy. Afghan children would pick them up out of curiosity, and boom. There’s a lot of debate around whether or not the Soviets were intentionally disguising mines as toys – stuffed animals, choo-choo trains, that kind of thing. Some people swear they saw mines like this; others dismiss it as hyperbolic propaganda. It’s hard to know for sure. But either way, lots of little kids were getting blown up by Soviet landmines in Afghanistan. That is a fact.
On the 35-hour journey back from Pakistan, Jan Goodwin could not get the images she had seen out of her head. The millions of innocent people, driven out by an angry, vengeful, and exhausted 40th Army who just wanted the war to end. The Soviet soldiers were hurting and hopeless and didn’t care how many kids they had to blow up to get back home.
Somewhere in the air over the Western hemisphere, Jan Goodwin decided she had to go back. But not to a refugee camp. She needed to get inside Afghanistan. She needed to see the real war, combat, with her own eyes. And the only way to do that, was to make contact with the Mujahideen reps in Pakistan. To sneak across the border into the warzone.
The Soviets had made it crystal clear what would happen if they found Western journalists with the Mujahideen. As the Soviet Ambassador to Pakistan said in a chilling press conference:
“I warn you, and through you, all of your journalist colleagues: stop trying to penetrate Afghanistan with the so-called guerillas. From now on, the bandits and the so-called journalists accompanying them will be killed.”
People in Jan’s personal life practically begged her not to go. Male journalists had been traveling in-country with the Mujahideen for years, but in a culture where women were essentially invisible and had no political influence, the idea of a female journalist tagging along with fundamentalist freedom fighters terrified Jan’s friends and family. As one of her friends, a US military veteran warned her:
“Traveling with the resistance, you’ll have to follow orders as if you were one of them or risk getting your head blown off. You’re far too independent, endlessly curious, constantly challenging, all traits that make for a lousy foot soldier. I can see you following orders for a week, for a story. But for three months?”
But all the fuss and patronizing warnings did was deepen Jan’s resolve: “The more they tried to dissuade me, the more determined I found myself becoming.”
In the summer of 1985, Jan Goodwin arrived in Peshawar, the frontier town in Pakistan that became a lightning-rod of Cold War intrigue during the Soviet Invasion. We actually talked briefly about Peshawar at the top of Part 1. If you recall, Peshawar was a common pitstop on the journey into Afghanistan. The Cold War Dodge City or Deadwood, remember?
As Steve Coll writes in his book, Ghost Wars: Peshawar was: “an arid frontier city teeming with Afghan refugees, rebel fighters, smugglers, money changers, poets, proselytizers, prostitutes, and intriguers of every additional stripe.”
Jan was jet-lagged and exhausted as she stepped out of the cab and checked into her rough-and-tumble hotel in Peshawar. She was extremely aware of the danger she was in even by being there at all. Peshawar was: “a city that could have been invented by Ian Fleming for one of his James Bond books. It challenges East Berlin for the title of world spy capital.”
Arms dealers, drug lords, CIA assets, KGB handlers and Pakistani intelligence agents were waging a constant, covert battle to push their own agendas and rub out problematic interlopers. At one point, Jan was picked up by the ISI, Pakistan’s version of the KGB. They gave her the good cop, bad cop routine, and questioned her for days. At one point, they asked: “Were you trained in subversion or sabotage before you came here?”
Jan laughed innocently: “Give me a break. I work for Ladies Home Journal.”
Peshawar was populated by a huge cast of eclectic, and dangerous characters. Thrill seekers, and adrenaline junkies who traveled from all around the world to get a taste of the war. Some of them weren’t journalists at all; They were here to join the Mujahideen and fight Russians for a variety of personal reasons. One of the most interesting, and odd, was a Japanese man named Koshiro Tanaka. As Robert D. Kaplan writes in Soldiers of God:
Koshiro Tanaka, a struggling Japanese businessman in his late forties who had a sixth-degree black belt in karate, believed that “since World War II, there has not been an honorable way for a Japanese man to die in the true samurai spirit.” So he exchanged his cubbyhole in a Tokyo trading office for a bare room and sagging jute bed in the $i.i5-a-night Khyber Hotel. This was Tanaka's base for going out on Rambo-style combat missions with the mujahidin. He also trained hundreds of guerrillas in hand-to-hand combat. The only medical supplies he brought with him on his missions inside were three elastic tubes to use as tourniquets. “Three is enough,” he explained to me. “If all four of my limbs are cut, then I am finished.” Tanaka always carried at least two hand grenades, one for throwing at the enemy and the other for killing himself. “I can't be taken alive, because if I'm captured — big diplomatic problem for Japan. […] Though he had killed quite a few Soviets with grenades and his AK-47 Kalashnikov rifle, he still had not attained his ultimate goal: killing a Russian with his bare hands.
Then there was the British window cleaner from London who had flown to Peshawar and told the guerillas that he had: “always wanted to kill someone.” As Kaplan writes:
“he went on a mission with an obscure guerrilla group, whose members let him pull the trigger of a rocket launcher aimed at a tent full of regime troops. After the explosion, in the distance he saw two bodies lying on the ground. The window cleaner then went home to London. […] His wife paid the airfare.”
But as scary and weird and hostile as Peshawar seemed, Jan Goodwin from Ladies Home Journal eventually made contact with the Mujahideen, and a few weeks later, she was riding in the back seat of a car, with her face covered, crossing a Pakistani checkpoint into Afghanistan. Somewhere along the way, the reality of what she was doing fell on her shoulders like a 50-pound boulder:
“I realized that for the next three months beginning tomorrow, I would be solely in the company of men, and men, for the most part, who were not used to being in the company of women except those in their immediate family, and certainly not on the battlefield. Normally, as any soldier knows, friendships are formed very rapidly during war. But these were men who had never had women as friends. And although this was hardly the time for thoughts of sisterhood, I was a woman who had been born assuming I had equal rights with members of the opposite sex.
Even when I was a child, no one had ever told me the world was circumscribed because I was a female. How would I respond if this all-male Muslim movement designated me a second-class citizen and decided I was not worthy of their acceptance based on my gender alone? And we got beyond that hurdle, how would they react to me? We would be living in such close proximity that privacy would be non-existent. Would I inhibit them, would they avoid me, or would they resent me?”
Jan didn’t know it yet, but over the course of her time with the Mujahideen, she would grow extremely close with her companions. She had worried that her gender and her cultural background would be an impediment, but ironically, these young, zealous Mujahideen let her in and opened up to her in ways she never expected:
“As a woman, I was able to see a different side of guerillas from the one that is normally shown to male journalists. With me, the freedom fighters could almost allow themselves to be vulnerable. And in turn I came to respect and care for these men.”
But that was later. This was now. When she initially crossed the border into Afghanistan, Jan was terrified. The most pressing concern was the physical challenge of simply keeping up with these guys. They “seemed to have bodies made of steel. […] exhaustion was a word that didn’t seem to exist in the Afghan vocabulary.”
Before they’d agreed to take her inside, one Mujahideen commander had openly doubted her ability to keep up. They’d met many male journalists who completely failed to endure the rigorous treks with the 20-30 men groups of guerillas crisscrossing the mountains:
“Many of them turned back, one after another. And those who did told us all before they ran 15 kilometers a day. Several of them were running every day in Peshawar. There was a woman with them; she cried from the physical hardship and asked to be sent back.”
Another guerilla just scowled at Jan’s presence: “Women don’t go on Jihad. American women must be crazy.”
Still, Jan was defiant: “All I know, is that what I lack in physical strength, I make up for in determination.”
The Mujahideen regarded her with amusement. One of them tried to assure her that they would keep her safe from Soviet mines and bullets as best they could: “We haven’t lost any journalists yet, and we don’t want to spoil our record.”
Jan was optimistic on her first few days in-country, but suddenly…. she began to feel exhausted, bloated, uncomfortable. She felt stabbing cramps in her lower abdomen, and then it hit her. Are you fucking kidding me, she thought:
“Just then I began to feel the first twinges of menstrual cramps. Great timing, I thought. Just when I needed all my physical strength, I was going to feel enervated for the next couple of days.[…] How, I wondered, did you tell a guerilla leader it’s the first day of your period, and you’ll be fine tomorrow?”
The cramps eventually passed, but Jan’s ordeal was only beginning.
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In 1897, a 23-year-old Englishman wrote in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph that that the people of Afghanistan were:
“Amongst the most miserable and brutal creatures of the earth. Their intelligence only enables them to be more cruel, more dangerous, more destructive than wild beasts. “Their system of ethics, which regards treachery and violence as virtues rather than vices, has produced a code of honor so strange and inconsistent that it is incomprehensible to a logical mind.”
That angry young man was named Winston Churchill. And while the ‘ol Bulldog never did think very highly of the Afghans, he might have felt differently if he had traveled, lived, and struggled alongside them, as Jan Goodwin, the 40-year-old Executive Editor of Ladies Home Journal did in the summer of 1985.
At first, Jan felt like a fish out of water. Here she was, 2,000 miles from home, in the midst of a strange, proud, almost alien people. The Afghans were, according to one Western observer:
“A tough people who can live on bread and goat’s milk, and most who have known them have commented on their extraordinary personal dignity and love of freedom. The Afghans believe that the greatest of all virtues are revenge and hospitality. They never forgive an injury, yet paradoxically they do not turn away a guest even if he is a tribal or personal foe. These qualities are particularly associated with the Pashtuns. The romantic image is of a tall, bearded tribesman striding along a rocky path with a rifle on his shoulder and a fierce glint in his eyes. His land is everything and his home, with its thick mud walls, stout gates, and watch towers at the corners, is his castle. His prestige and honor depend on his ability to defend them against a foreign invader, against another valley – or against another branch of his family.”
Jan Goodwin traveled all over eastern Afghanistan with a small contingent of Mujahideen guerilla fighters. They crossed rivers, and mountains, and minefields. They slept in huts, bombed-out villages, and on the cold ground under the open sky.
Jan learned how to load and shoot an AK-47, and hide from Soviet gunships. She learned how to endure a level of physical hardship that she never imagined possible. She learned how to survive, when necessary, on a few ounces of bread a day and a couple hours of sleep a night. But as a journalist, the most valuable thing she learned was who these really men were. And the answers completely surprised her.
Being a woman, she had expected, best-case scenario, to be treated as a pest. A nuisance. A burden. The Afghans, and especially the ethnic Pashtuns, were said to have a deep disdain for women, even their own. As one Pashtun proverb supposedly went: “Women belong in the house or in the grave.” In a kind of bizarre cultural paradox, women were both sacred and a source of shame. Journalist Robert D. Kaplan elaborated: A Pashtun won't even tell you the names of his wife and mother. To ask him is an insult. It would be like asking him to undress in front of a crowd.
As a result, Afghan society was completely dominated by men – where simple values like strength and resiliency were prized above all. As Mir Tamim Ansary writes:
Afghan culture is, to be sure, a macho culture. From the earliest age, boys are expected to be tough. They think nothing of taking beatings from their fathers and elder brothers. They learn to laugh off such beatings and even take pride in how hard they’ve been hit by the people who care about them most. It’s all part of becoming a man.
But Jan Goodwin was shocked at the level of acceptance the Mujahideen displayed towards her. They were friendly, warm, even protective. Like a gang of machine-gun-wielding older brothers. Even the conservative, fundamentalist villagers who often sheltered their group were obliged to respect Jan’s special place among the guerillas:
“Normally as a woman, I would never have been permitted to sit and eat with the men, but since I was dressed as the Mujahideen and was traveling with them, the village elders who had joined us for dinner seemed prepared to overlook that fact.”
Still the Mujahideen couldn’t help but steal the occasional glance at her strange, exotic looks: “When I removed my turban, revealing my red hair, I received the kind of attention that a skilled striptease artist would get elsewhere.”.
Their fascination with her pale skin and curly red hair didn’t stop them from giving her shit as she sweated through her jacket and struggled to carry heavy backpacks and supplies on the long, 12-hour marches. At one point she collapsed, and one man affectionately teased her: “She’s not a good goat; nor is she a good donkey.”
The guerillas teased Jan constantly. Even about bug bites:
“It was hard to find a part of my anatomy that wasn’t adorned with angry red welts. I’d been bitten so often on the face that one eye was swollen shut, making me resemble a prizefighter. The itching couldn’t have been worse if I’d spent the night wrapped around a poison oak tree. The Mujahideen laughed when they saw my appearance. “Looks like the flies found a good deluxe foreign restaurant.”
But the longer Jan traveled with the Mujahideen, the more they began to open up to her. They told her where they had come from, who they cared about, and why they had decided to join a hopelessly outgunned resistance movement fighting against a world superpower. Slowly but surely, the men who the Soviets called the “ghosts”, began to take shape. They weren’t demons or spirits or mountain apparitions, they were just ordinary guys in extraordinary situations.
One of the men who Jan grew closest to, was named Tor. T-O-R
When Jan met him, Tor was probably in his late twenties. He had thick black hair, a short beard, and kind brown eyes. Before the Soviets invaded, Tor had dreams of studying to become a doctor in Kabul. But after December of 1979, Tor saw his hopes and aspirations disintegrate. He realized that he would not be allowed to study at Kabul University unless he joined the Communist party. As Tor told Jan:
That’s when I became a Mujahideen. The only other choice was conscription into the army, and I wasn’t going to fight my own people.”
Tor’s story was representative of a lot of young Afghan men. Guys who had big plans for the future, who wanted to live in cities, travel abroad. When the Soviets took away their future, they found refuge in the only avenue of purpose available to them: the lesser jihad.
Tor never did become a doctor, but he did seem to have some rudimentary medical training, and he became the de facto physician for the group of Mujahideen that Jan traveled with in 1985. On one occasion, Jan listened to Tor break down in anger about the futility of bandaging a group of young children whose village had been bombed by the Russians:
There’s very little I can do. I just don’t have the right medications. But even if I had medicine, I could cure these children, and then the bombs would kill them.”
Another guerilla who Jan became close with was named Wakil. Before the war, Wakil had been a University student in Pakistan, and was engaged to be married. But when the Soviets came, everything changed, and he broke it off:
“I knew I couldn’t get married if I was joining the resistance. If I died, what would happen to my wife? I made a decision that I wouldn’t think of marriage until the war was over. [you know] I haven’t seen my parents in eight years. My father is a very special man; everyone who knows him, loves him. When he dies, something will die in me.”
Many Mujahideen had to leave their families behind to wage Jihad against the Russians. But those loved ones were always on their minds. One man who couldn’t stop missing his children confided in Jan: “Sometimes I think my babies will forget me.”
The freedom fighters came from far and wide. One man told British journalist Peregrine Hodson that he had spent time in the United States. When the Soviets invaded his homeland, he rushed back to Afghanistan to join the resistance. He was only 25-years-old, and he missed his life in America.
“When I was in the States I used to smoke a lot of dope and got into heavy rock music. I still listen to it sometimes. I put on a tape and sit beside one of the rivers here; it is beautiful. Occasionally, when I think of the life I used to have in Washington, I feel sad, but I must be here. This is my country and these are my people.”
The longer Western journalists like Jan Goodwin spent with the Mujahideen, the more they began to understand why there were fighting. As one fighter candidly told Hodson:
Many of us are brave, although there are also cowards. But even the cowards fight, because this is a jihad. In the West you think we are fighting because the Russians invaded our country and we want to be free. That is only half the truth. The Russians bomb our mosques and religious schools, they try to teach our children communism and tell us that Islam is a backwards way of thinking. It is true that Afghanistan is a poor country, but the most precious thing we have is our faith. Without it we have nothing. We are fighting to protect our religion.
The Russians may have had state-of-the-art jets, tanks, infra-red goggles and sniper rifles, but the Mujahideen’s secret weapon was their belief. As one freedom fighter named Mustapaha Jan explained:
“One thing the Russians do not understand is our religion. A man who believes in God is stronger than a man who has no religion. Ten, twenty, thirty years from now the Russians will grow tired of the war. Like the American people tired of the war in Vietnam. Communism began 100 years ago, and already it is old and confused. But God is eternal. Perhaps now you understand, Abdul Baz, why this jihad can only end in victory. […] We are fighting because we believe in God. If all the country is burnt, all the trees are dead and all the rivers dry, we will still fight.”
As Jan Goodwin and other Western journalists traveled with the Mujahideen, they talked about everything. They talked about religion, philosophy, food, music, politics, even sex.
In this stoic, lonely, uber-conservative culture, Jan couldn’t help but wonder. “How did they handle sexual feelings? Or just plain desire for affections?” One 20-year-old freedom fighter shyly answered Jan’s questions about the nature of courtship and sex in Afghanistan:
“In my culture and in Jihad it is impossible to have a girlfriend. I would like one. If I think about a girlfriend, what do I do? I just go crazy. It will give me a headache. I can dream, and then I have to open my eyes. Here are the rocks, Mujahideen, here are guns. No girl. No, it is better I don’t dream.”
Another young man told Jan that he had been beaten severely by his father as a teenager for flirting with girls at school:
“I learned not to talk to girls. Of course, it doesn’t stop our feelings. We still have them. But as a good Muslim, I don’t make love to a woman until I am married. That may not be true for all of the Mujahideen, but it is true for the ones I know.”
Physical affection from women was a rarity for young, unmarried Afghan men. A fact Jan realized after one particularly death-defying Jeep ride around the edge of a mountain cliff. She’d been terrified the driver would roll the Jeep over the edge, but they managed to get where they were going without dying. As Jan wrote:
“I was so relieved that I bent over and kissed Omargul [the driver] on the cheek. The look of shock on his face told me I was probably the first female other than his mother and sisters to kiss him, not surprising in this land of arranged marriages, where grooms often only see their brides for the first time at the end of the marriage ceremony.”
As she traveled with the Mujahideen, Jan Goodwin saw that these die-hard warriors were capable of profound tenderness and introspection: “In this mostly oral culture, I found the Afghans loved nothing more than to talk”.One night, Jan listened to her new friend Tor recite poetry for a large group of freedom fighters:
I couldn’t understand a word, but his voice was as honeyed as Richard Burton’s at its best. He held his audience spellbound. “You want a poem about Jihad?” He asked the gathering of Mujahideen. “No about love!” came the response. “Ah don’t ask me about love, my heart is so full of love it will explode. You want to put mine’s in my heart. I am lovesick.” He quipped before launching into a Persian poem full of romantic imagery that would have put Byron to shame.
As they traveled throughout the valleys and villages, dodging Soviet patrols and evading artillery fire, the Mujahideen became fiercely protective of Jan. At 40 years old, she had a good 15 years on most of them, and they started calling her “Mommy” as a joke. The nickname stuck. One night, Jan’s friend Tor opened up to her. He had recently learned that a close friend of his had died while fighting against the Russians. The dead man was the last of six friends that Tor had joined the Jihad with at the outbreak of the war – and now they were all gone. He said:
“Mommy, I feel very sad. I loved him, loved all six like brothers. Now they’re all dead, and I’m left. I keep trying not to think about it; otherwise I will go crazy. But last night I dreamed about Sikander. In my dream, he came to me and put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘don’t be sad: I’m not dead’ But I knew he was. Then I woke up.”
“I think I will die in the Jihad. Why should I live? I have no parents, no home, no education. I was going to be big doctor, a surgeon. I was always the first in my class…Now I have no future.”
You know, Mommy, I’m never afraid in the Jihad, when we fight. I want to be martyered. [….] I died five years ago when I left Kabul. My soul has gone to Heaven; this is just my body. If it dies, it is finished. People will say, he was a brave freedom fighter, we can be proud of him.”
As complacent as they were about their own fates, Tor and the other freedom fighters worried about Jan’s safety all the time. They couldn’t understand why she would come here, to a country that wasn’t hers, to a war that didn’t involve her, to risk death at the hands of the Russian invaders:
“Why are you here? Why did you come? Me? I don’t have a good life. This is all my life. If I die, it’s okay. But you have good life. All the time I think I don’t want you to die.”
The Mujahideen had a very unique relationship with the concept of death. A way of coping and living with the constant threat of it. And it all flowed from their belief in an all-powerful God. The Mujahideen believed their deaths were predetermined. There was nothing they could do to change what God had in store for them. They might have their foot blown off by a landmine. They might be ripped apart by a Soviet gunship. They might be popped by a Spetsnaz sniper. Or they might die in their beds as old men.
Whether they died in five minutes or fifty years was completely out of their hands. Beyond their power or influence. So why worry? Why be afraid at all? The natural end point of that train of logic is that you are basically invincible, until God decides to take that invincibility away and call you back to Heaven. If you lived, it was because God wanted you to live.
“Islam” literally means “surrender” in Arabic. And the Mujahideen tapped into a bottomless reservoir of strength by surrendering control of their individual destinies to a creator who would keep them safe, keep them bulletproof, for as long as they had a purpose to serve.
As one Mujahideen confided to the British journalist Peregrine Hodson: “For me it is not important. It is my portion of destiny. I do not fear death, for it is already decided. I do not know the place or time, but God knows. That is why I am not afraid; because it is God’s will.
Hodson later reflected: “The struggle in Afghanistan was a battle between a dying political system and a living religion. The Russians were mad to think they could conquer a people who were under the protection of God.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, was why the Mujahideen eventually won. Why they were able to endure such mind-numbing hardship, hunger, pain, and misery. They believed with absolute, bone-deep conviction that God, time, and history, were on their side.
But in an unexpected twist of irony, many soldiers in the Soviet 40th Army developed this same kind of indifferent attitude to death and a placid acceptance of an unchangeable fate. As one soldier named Novikov said:
“Death is a bitch. Why should I be afraid of death? What happens will happen. For me, death is irrelevant. While I exist, there is no death. When it comes, I won’t exist.”
Another soldier named Belous quipped:
“My death, will grieve anyone but me.”
The prolific Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik, who had watched that young defector Aleksei sob into his living room couch in San Francisco, was amazed at how numb the soldiers of the 40th Army had become to the gruesome sights in Afghanistan:
“If Death had a mind, and such attributes of intelligence as pride and vanity, the old witch would certainly have been outraged that the soldiers had become so accustomed to her presence.”-
But as the war ground on and the body count climbed, the Russian soldiers of the 40th Army became indifferent to not only their own deaths, but those of innocent Afghan civilians. Women, children, old men. Anyone who got in their way, crossed their path, or looked at them funny. Before long, a tragic pattern of atrocity and criminal violence emerged that would scar the souls of reporters like Jan Goodwin for years to come.
In some ways, it was inevitable. This stuff seems to be hard-wired into human nature. It was a fact that the Prophet Muhammed had acknowledged 1.5 millennia earlier: ‘The devil flows in mankind as blood flows.”
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One day in 1985, Jan Goodwin was strolling through a village in Afghanistan. She walked past a small courtyard and saw two little kids playing. They were smiling and giggling, kicking a ball back and forth between them. Jan thought they were adorable, so she went to say hello. But then, this happened:
“The older child, a girl of about four, took one look at me and began to scream hysterically.”
Jan was taken aback; she didn’t understand why this little girl would be so terrified an unarmed, 40-year-old woman. Her Mujahideen friend who was with her, Wakil, explained:
“She thinks you’re Russian.”
The little girl had taken one look at Jan’s white skin and European features and instantly saw an enemy. Someone who was there to hurt her; to do bad things to her and her family.
Now if that’s not the most potent, succinct illustration of the Afghan civilian population’s relationship to the Red Army I don’t know what is. And the truth was, the Afghan civilian population had every reason to hate and fear the Soviet soldiers.
Now – before we get into this, I just want to add a little caveat. War crimes and atrocities get a lot of ink and attention in modern discussions of past wars. As they should – it’s very important to document, discuss, and revisit those crimes, in the hope that we can prevent them from happening in the future. But sometimes, we tend to focus on war crimes *so much* and *so often* that it almost becomes fetishistic. It becomes empty shock value. Misery porn for that gross, voyeuristic side of ourselves.
But that said, while we don’t need to belabor and wallow in it, we do have to talk about it. At least for a little bit. To ignore what the 40th Army did to the Afghan civilian population would be a disservice to the people who died, suffered, and carried those experiences like lead weight for the rest of their lives. Many of these people are still alive. Their kids are still alive. And the memory of what happened drives their perception, of not only the Soviets, but the Western world in general. And that includes us.
But it is also very important to acknowledge that the Mujahideen committed what would be considered war crimes too. Torture, mutilation, murder. And I’m absolutely not trying to say one side was better or worse than the other. I’m not trying to set the bar higher for the Soviets and lower for the Mujahideen. At all. Like I said in Part 1, there are no good guys in this story. Just people. But with that said, let’s rip the band-aid off and spend the last section of today’s episode talking about this stuff.
Suffering exists on a spectrum, obviously, but the Soviet war crimes in Afghanistan can be separated into a handful of distinct types. And they happened throughout the entirety of the 40th Army’s 9-year stay in Afghanistan.
The first of which, affected almost all of Afghanistan’s 19 million inhabitants, in some way. When the 40th Army decided to depopulate the countryside and deprive the Mujahideen of its civilian support networks, they deliberately and methodically unleashed an ungodly amount of firepower on the rural population. Even from a distance, it was staggering, as Peregrine Hodson remembered seeing on his trip inside with the Mujahideen: “There were explosions in the distance and the horizon was flickering like a candlelit room.”
Up close, it was horrifying. The mud brick buildings that made up the mainstay of Afghan villages melted and fell apart like wet tissue paper when bombarded with artillery ordinance, tank shells, and napalm. Not to mention all the human beings inside. One villager recalled a time when an artillery shell had burst near his house:
“Metal from a shell hit my son Jamal in the back and came out the other side. He didn’t say a word; he just sank to his knees and died.”
One Afghan civilian told a Western journalist:
This is our life now. Any day the jets can come, and more of us are killed.
From up in the sky, it just looked like a beige blur and a pretty lightshow. Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik wrestled with the conflicting feelings of guilt and exhilaration when he was allowed to ride along on a Soviet jet in a bombing run:
“The 39 minutes and 42 seconds I spent aboard a Mig-23 in June of 1986 cut into my memory like a sharp knife. At the time, the combat flight seemed strange, intoxicating, exhilarating – imagine riding a on a supersonic rollercoaster in hell. As time passed, however, the exhilaration wore off. It was replaced by a cold, gray emptiness that gradually gave way to a vague sensation of anguish and guilt.”
A mujahideen who Jan was close with simmered in anger over the bombing runs:
“I would like to capture one of these pilots and bring him here, and show him what he had done. I’d like to ask him do you have a child of your own, a mother of your own? What do you think of when you release the bombs.”
But the real horror happened when Soviet patrols and convoys went into the villages on foot. The bombings at least had the cold remove of distance. But eyeball-to-eyeball, face-to-face, the violence took on a stomach-churning intimacy.
One story that came out of the war was from a 29-year-old farmer named Shakeer Jamagul:
“We thought they had come to conscript the men, this had happened before, so I hid in the storage cave at the back of our house. I thought my wife and children would be safe. Seven Russians came into my house armed with machine guns. I could see they were laughing as they searched the house. Then without saying anything, they raised their guns and fired, shooting my wife and four children. My youngest was 16 days old, my oldest child 7 years old. It happened before I realized what they were doing. There was nothing I could do but pray. Before they left, the soldiers took my wife’s clothes and jewelry , our lanterns, They even took soap and candy. [….] I left. I couldn’t stay there. Outside I found our animals dead, the soldiers killed our villages’s cows, goats, ducks. Everything alive, they killed.
A man named Mohammed Fazeer told a similar story to Jan Goodwin. As she wrote in her book:
“His hands shook as he told the names of his five children, aged six months to ten years.” “They rounded up the villagers and said ‘If you believe in God, where is your god now? They they shot them. They shot my wife, my daughters, and they burned my two sons alive. […] I couldn’t bury my family; my relatives did it. I left my village.. I could never go back. At night I cannot sleep; the memories come. I am so lonely for my wife, my children. The Russians killed my soul that day.”
These kinds of village massacres were very common during the Soviet-Afghan war, but they evoked visceral memories of the much rarer, but equally shocking American atrocities in South Vietnam. A military analyst named David Ishy wrote that in Afghanistan: “Civilian massacres like the one at My Lai were the norm, rather than the aberration.”
But it was more than just the killing. It was the cruelty. Some men in the 40th Army developed a sadistic streak. They would toy with their victims and derive amusement from their pain. One Russian helicopter crewman named Pyshkov remembered a time where he and his crew had been flying a peasant informer to a Mujahideen base. The deal was simple; the peasant would point out the buildings where the Mujahideen were hiding, then he’d get paid. Along the way, the peasant saw his own house, and pointed it out the Soviets as a “hey look there’s my house” kinda thing. The chopper’s gunner, without thinking, destroyed the man’s home with rockets, and presumably all of his family inside. The peasant clutched his head and started screaming. The Russian soldiers just laughed and shoved him out of the helicopter.
Not to editorialize too much, but I hate that story. It puts a pit in my stomach just reading it.
Then there was the sexual violence. Which, as all students of history know, is inevitable in wartime. But that didn’t make it any less awful. One Islamic teacher named Abdul Rehman told Jan about when the Soviets had taken his sister away in a raid.
“We never saw her again, he said, “She was very beautiful. Do you know what happens to girls like that? When they are taken away by the soldiers? They are defiled, and then killed.”
On another occasion, Soviet soldiers abducted four girls from a village and took them away in helicopters. As Jan Goodwin writes:
“As the helicopters flew over a nearby village, the clothing of the girls was tossed out. Some time later, the girls’ naked bodies followed.”
The Soviet soldiers also took young boys away, although less for sexual gratification and more for conscription into the Afghan Communist army. A Mujahideen named Farouk told a Western journalist that he had been forcibly conscripted by the Communists when he was 17.
“I was grabbed on the main road. I told the soldiers that I was a high school student and showed them my exemption card. They laughed and tore it up. I was thrown in the back of a truck with other boys.”
Farouk eventually ran away and joined up with the Mujahideen, but while he was briefly a conscript, he saw things and heard stories that haunted him for years.
“While I was in the army, they brought in a forced recruit who had been press-ganged while his wife was in the hospital giving birth to their 3rd child. She needed blood, and he had been sent to go get it when he was stopped by soldiers. He pleaded with them to let him go. He explained that he had also left his two children age two and three at home alone because in the emergency, he hadn’t had time to find anyone to watch over them. For eight days, he kept telling the authorities why he needed to go home, but they watched him constantly. Finally, he fled. When he got back to Kabul, he found his wife had died in childbirth, and his two children were dead from dehydration. The authorities caught up with him later and brought him back to the base. He was almost out of his mind.”
As journalists like Jan Goodwin and Peregrine Hodson listened to stories like this from Afghan civilians, they sometimes encountered resentment from people who felt like the writers were making money off their misery. As one man sneered at Hodson:
There was a time when I thought that Europe and America would help us. Several foreigners have visited the town since the war began. They stay for a week or so, take photographs of planes and smoke, and then they leave. I know that you can receive a lot of money from the pictures you have taken. But what will we receive? Nothing. Each time we ask such people for doctors and medicine, we wait and no doctors come. Your people come and look at our suffering and sell it for money in their own countries.”
Despite the widespread pattern of atrocity unfolding across the countryside, many Soviet soldiers were repulsed by the cruelty they saw in the 40th Army. They didn’t want any part of it. One man named Garek Dzhamalberkov was so desperate to get away he went AWOL and surrendered to the Mujahideen. He was still a POW when Jan sat down with him for an interview. Garek told her:
“There are many ways to kill a man in war. The clean way, and our way. And from what I witnessed in my six months in the army, I knew I didn’t want to be a part of it. I was disgusted by what I saw. We were killing people, we were killing animals in Afghanistan, we were covering the country in blood
Garek told Jan about a time where he’d watched his fellow soldiers round up a group of Afghan villagers and run them over with tanks as they were tied up and prostrate on the ground:
“I watched them do it; I couldn’t move. It was an inhuman act. I couldn’t understand why they did it. They didn’t even know if they were freedom fighters; they could have just been men living in the village. I was ordered to bury them. But there wasn’t much left to bury.
Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik caught up with another defector named Koval’chuk in New York City. And he expressed a very similar feeling:
“In the course of two years, I carried out all the orders that I was given. Then I told myself, I can’t live like this anymore. I can’t live this lie. God, I thought, this lie will haunt me for the rest of my life. I can try, of course, to drown it in vodka, but I’ll never be able to find myself. [….] I decided to desert when there were only ten days left on my mobilization. [….] I spent four long years in a rebel detachment. Now I’m here. That’s it.
Another ex-Soviet soldier named Nikolai told Jan Goodwin:
“I couldn’t stand what we were doing. I saw villages destroyed with heavy bombardment. Everyone and everything was destroyed. I couldn’t stand it. When we caught Afghans, I saw an officer cut off a man’s nose, cut off his fingers. Somebody asked him what he was doing and he replied ‘I’m playing’. When I defected, I thought the freedom fighters would let me join them. I thought they would let me fight. Now all I do is sleep all day and think all night. Sometimes I think I will become an old man here. Other times I think I’ll be dead in three years or mentally deranged. I’ve thought of suicide. The nights are the worst; they’re the loneliest.” She asks, “Have you thought of escape? “Escape! Escape to where? If I escape in Afghanistan, I’ll only get caught again by the Mujahideen. There is no escape for us.”
But the most nuanced take on Soviet cruelty, came from a Russian soldier named Alexander Gergel:
‘I can’t answer for all of my fellow soldiers, but I myself never felt any hatred towards the Afghan people. Every now and again, when the conditions in which I was living became particularly unbearable, it seemed to me that it was the locals who were to blame for everything. I was irritated to the point when I wanted to mow down each and every one of them. But then I saw the people working in their barren fields and I felt sympathy for them all over again. Fury and hatred broke through only when I was in battle.”
At the beginning of this section, we talked about those two little kids Jan Goodwin had watched playing in the courtyard. How they had screamed hysterically when they saw her because they thought she was a Russian.
A few weeks after that incident, Jan learned from some local villagers that those two little kids had been killed in a Soviet bombing attack. In fact, nearly all the villages she had visited in recent weeks had been attacked and leveled by Soviet gunships. Any town that sheltered the Mujahideen suffered vicious reprisals from the 40th Army. And with a sickening sense of clarity, Jan realized she was leaving her own trail of death and destruction across Afghanistan. Just by traveling through it.
When Jan Goodwin eventually flew back to New York City, she did so irrevocably changed.
Like all the Western reporters who snuck in to cover the war, she had not emerged from Afghanistan unscathed. While she was there, she’d contracted dysentery and developed a corneal ulcer. The former from bad water. The latter from dust constantly getting under her contact lenses. But the real mileage was on her spirit. It broke her heart to have to leave friends like Tor and Wakil behind to an uncertain future. Because while Jan’s part in the story was finished, for the Mujahideen the ordeal was far from over.
But they would not be fighting alone.
All across the world, from Langley, Virginia to Saudi Arabia, the wheels of a colossal money machine were beginning to turn. The Soviets had many, many enemies. And those enemies wanted to see them go down in flames over the mountains of Afghanistan. In one of the most expensive covert ops in CIA history, in cooperation with the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and the Chinese, the American government would funnel billions of dollars of advanced, cutting-edge weaponry to the Mujahideen in an attempt to turn the tide of the war.
The Soviets didn’t know it yet, but their Empire’s days were numbered.
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Well guys, that is all the time we have for today. This was a long episode, and a bit of a depressing one, so if you’re still here, thanks for sticking it out.
This episode was, by my own admission, a bit of a mess, structurally. It was non-linear, with lots of jumbled accounts and evolving themes. But in some ways, that was by design. I wanted to at least try and convey the chaos and confusion of what it was like to live through the war. For everyone involved. For the Soviets, the Mujahideen, the Afghan civilians - and the journalists who courageously catalogued it all.
It’s a messy story. And sometimes telling it can get equally messy.
But next time, in the third and final part of this series, we’re going to completely switch things up. We’re going to zoom waaay out and shift our focus back to the realm of geopolitical intrigue and covert operations. More specifically, we’re going to be looking at America’s role in the Soviet-Afghan War. And let me tell ya, it is hugely consequential.
We’ll look at how the CIA became involved in the conflict. How they covertly funneled billions of dollars to the Mujahideen through Pakistan. And how those weapons eventually turned the tide against the Soviets. But all that money, flowing into an unstable part of the world had unintended consequences. The different factions within the Mujahideen had to compete against one another to get that funding. And that competition exacerbated tensions between two rising schools of thought within the guerilla leadership.
One faction simply wanted to free Afghanistan from the Soviets and form a government that would rule the country in peace. The other faction wanted to take the war far beyond the Soviets, beyond the Middle East, and conduct a transnational Jihad against Imperial powers the world over.
Two men, two Mujahideen commanders, would become locked in a bitter, existential rivalry. Only one of them is still alive today. And their clashing interpretations of what was best for their country shaped the present in ways that are still coming to light.
So long story short, we’ve got a big finale on the horizon. Look out for the third and final installment of Ghosts in the Mountains very soon. As always, thank you so much for spending your valuable time with me, and I hope you have an awesome day.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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