When Ahmad was Alexander
Nekmuhammad is a perfectly ordinary Afghan. He studies Islam, has a wife and three beautiful children, and a good job as a driver for an international organisation. What sets up apart from his neighbours is his secret past life as a Ukrainian conscript, left behind when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan 15 years ago this week.
He lives on the outskirts of Kunduz, the Afghan city his unit was stationed in when it was attacked by mujahedin in the early Eighties. The young Gennady Tsevma, as he was then known, was captured and held prisoner for so long that he adapted fully to Afghan life.
By the time the Soviets cut their losses and left Afghanistan, Gennady was living as Nekmuhammad. He settled down and gave only passing thoughts to his family back home in the Ukrainian mining city of Donetsk. As the years went by, and news reached him of his parents’ death, he gradually gave up any hope of going back.
On February 15, 1989, General Boris Gromov was officially the last Soviet soldier to stand on Afghan soil before he crossed the Termez bridge into the USSR, drawing a close to the long and brutal campaign that Russian politicians were later to call “a tragic mistake”.
But Gennady, and more like him, were still there. As Russians, Ukrainians and the rest began shutting off from the Afghan war as a nightmare best forgotten, those who were left behind faded from memory, too.
Many would find it hard to go back – some were deserters, while others converted to Islam after being captured and held by the mujahedin. In the interim, the Soviet Union they had known collapsed into 15 different countries.
A few achieved some fame – notably the two Russian citizens known as Mohammadi and Islamuddin who served as bodyguards to the famous commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. As late as 1996, they were rumoured to be at the front line, fighting with Massoud’s Northern Alliance against the Taleban.
Since then the two men are said to have left Afghanistan, going back home to Russia. But others remain.
During a recent trip to Kunduz, a taxi driver tipped me off about someone called Ahmad, a former Soviet soldier now living as an Afghan.
This was far more than a rumour – I was given the address of the building where he rents a small room with his family.
Only half an hour later, I was sitting in a local store talking to a man in the typical flat “pakol” hat, with all the mannerisms and dialects of a native Afghan – but still looking like a Russian.
He looked so intimidating that I didn’t dare speak to him in Russian, switching over only after an initial conversation in Dari.
When I asked him what name his parents had given him, his face remained immobile as he whispered an Islamic invocation.
But after a long conversation in the dark, mud-walled room, Ahmad relaxed, and gradually revealed some of the characteristics of the young man he had once been – Private Alexander Levenets. The incongruousness of the situation was accentuated by the music he put on – Alexander Rosenbaum’s Soviet-era ballads of army life.
The 19-year-old Alexander, from the Ukrainian village of Melovadka, joined the Soviet army in April 1983. He thought his troubles were over, that he had a ticket out of a hard life of providing for his blind widowed mother and an elder brother with diabetes.
At first army life was good, as his unit was transferred around the USSR and eventually deployed at an airbase in Kunduz.
But things took a turn for the worse as – like many Soviet conscripts – he was subjected to beatings and other forms of humiliation by other, more senior soldiers in his unit. Eventually he could bear it no longer, and deserted.
One cold October night in 1984, Alexander fled into the night. His life was saved by a kindly old Afghan, who took pity on him and allowed him to hide at his house.
The man introduced the deserter to some mujahedin, who fortunately for him belonged to one of the more moderate factions. They listened sympathetically to his story, and treated him with a respect he had not had from his countrymen.
“I stayed in the group,” he said. “And after a month, I accepted Islam.”
So Alexander became Ahmad, serving under guerrilla commander Omir Ghulam – but not expected to take up arms against the army he had once served in. The Afghans’ acceptance of him grew into respect as he became a more observant Muslim than most of them.
In 1989, after the Soviet withdrawal, Alexander was able to send a letter home via the Red Crescent Society. He found out his mother and brother were alive, and they asked him to return – but he did not have the means to do so.
Alexander lost contact with home in the chaos that accompanied the end of the USSR and the emergence of an independent Ukraine. Meanwhile, his other life, the Afghan one, developed - he married in 1993, and now has two daughters, Hadicha and Soro. Neither his wife nor the children speak Russian.
In 1996, when the Taleban captured Kunduz, Alexander was working as a taxi driver. The fundamentalist regime left him alone, perhaps in recognition of his knowledge of Islam.
When the Taleban were toppled in the winter of 2001, United Nations personnel helped Alexander to get in touch with his homeland by telephone, but there was no good news waiting for him this time. His mother and brother had died over the long years of his exile.
He has since given up all hope of going back to Ukraine, saying, “Where would I go, and to whom? Anyway, my life back home was terrible – fatherless, with a blind mother and an ill brother, poverty and no prospects.
“Here I have relatives, my clan. Even if I am unemployed now, my wife’s brothers are helping me. They respect me; they need me. Who needs me back home?
“Mother passed away waiting for me. My eldest daughter Hadicha is the very image of her,” said Alexander sadly, hugging the child. “Now I want my children to get a good education and become teachers. God willing, if everything is settled, I’ll send them to Kabul to study when they grow up.”
As the interview drew to a close, and Ahmad took over from Alexander again, he said he was resigned to the way things had turned out, “I don’t blame anyone for what has happened to me. Everything is the will of Allah and apparently this is my destiny.”
Later, Alexander drove me from the centre of Kunduz to a suburb, where he was to introduce me to his friend Gennady Tsevma – Nekmuhammad – one of about ten former Soviet soldiers he knew of still living in northern Afghanistan.
Conditions worsened as we drove further out of the city, and the car eventually become stuck in the mud of an impassable road. Abandoning it, we trudged on foot toward a small village surrounded by graves. The narrow streets were dark and eerie, and the graveyard dogs – woken by the sound of our boots on the muddy road – howled into the night.
Alexander strode up to a large wooden gate and hammered on it, shouting, “Nekmuhammad! Open the gate, guests from the motherland have arrived!”
The gate opened to reveal a man lit by the flicker of a kerosene lamp, and looking for all the world like a Russian Cossack despite his Afghan dress.
Gennady was barely 18 years old when he was drafted into the Soviet army in the spring of 1983. His parents and younger brother Sergei waved him off at the Donetsk enlistment office.
After training, he was stationed in Soviet Uzbekistan and then transferred to Kunduz.
On his first night on sentry duty, Gennady’s unit was attacked by the mujahedin. He tried to shout out a warning, but one of the attackers put a knife to his throat. He was bundled into a sack and taken prisoner.
He gradually adopted the Muslim faith and soon lost all hope of seeing his homeland again.
“My parents died waiting for me to return. I feel guilty that they suffered because of me – because I was unable to escape from here,” he said.
Gennady has a good job working as a driver for an Italian non-government organisation.
But although he is younger than his friend Alexander, he looks much older. His health has recently begun failing as a result of a leg injury he sustained two decades ago while still in the Soviet military. His leg suddenly shortened last year and the pain has become chronic and almost intolerable.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to go to work, but I have to, as my daughters Sangimo and Malposha are still small, and my son Fazylo has not fully grown up yet,” he explained.
“Every morning, while it’s still dark, I limp over to our Kamaz truck with him to teach him to drive so that he can support his sisters and mother if something happens to me.
His wife Havo, who married Gennady when she was only 12 years old, told me, “Thanks be to Allah that I was married to him – he is kind, he doesn’t beat or curse me, and takes care of us all. But now he is getting sick.”
While Gennady has so far been able to hold his job, his life is not without other worries. His daughters are afraid to go out to play in the street because the neighbours’ children bully them, taunting them with the term “shuravi” or “Soviets” – an insult apparently learned from their parents.
Gennady worries about what future his daughters will have in this devastated country, with so few schools or job prospects. And as the days pass, his thoughts are increasingly turning to his homeland.
His younger brother Sergei – whom he last saw when he went off to the army – still lives in Ukraine, and Gennady was recently able to trace his telephone number.
It was a draining emotional experience for all concerned. The children couldn’t understand why their father was crying, or why he was talking to some far-off relative in a strange foreign language.
“Sergei, don’t cry, I will definitely come to you,” Gennady told the brother he hadn’t spoken to for two decades.
“I will come home for sure.”
Ilkhom Narziev is an independent journalist in Dushanbe.