TIME: Even after three decades, Gennady Tseuma remembers the wavering call to prayer that went up clear over the hillside village. It floated out over the fields and river and pierced the early morning hush on the Bangi Bridge. Tseuma, then a Soviet soldier assigned to a small force guarding the river crossing in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province, recalls a feeling of dread when he heard the sound. Like many of the conscripts serving in the Red Army in Afghanistan, Tseuma was bored and undisciplined, and after 10 months of service, curiosity finally got the best of him.
The decision to investigate the call to prayer cost him the life he had known up to that point. “Our checkpoint was close to the village. Every morning the mullah did the call to prayer. It was totally new to me. I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought maybe they were killing people or something,” Tseuma tells TIME. “So, one day, early in the morning, I got off my base to take a look. When I got close to the mosque there was an old man sitting there. Then suddenly men with guns surrounded me and captured me. After that, the mujahedin told me to convert to Islam or they would kill me. I decided it was better to live than to die, so I became a Muslim.”
For the past 29 years, Tseuma and maybe around a hundred other Soviet POW/MIAs have lived through some of the most violent history of one of the most violent countries on earth. After serving in the European-style Soviet army, they lived and sometimes fought as Afghans. Those of them still alive have an extraordinary window into Afghan society combined with unique insight into the historical parallels between the Soviet defeat and the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces at the end of 2014.
Life has improved in the past 10 years but Tseuma — or Nek Mohammad as he was renamed after his conversion to Islam — senses grave danger ahead. “I’m afraid. Right now there are roads and there is light. But let’s see what happens down the road. Then there won’t be lights. Then the war will start,” he says. “People will be gobbled up everywhere. People will start killing each other. Then what will be here? Life will be here, but it will be bad.”
Mohammad switches off the TV set — he had been watching a Russian quiz show playing via satellite TV in the guest room of his mud-brick house on the edge of Kunduz city. He seems to be pondering both the past and the future with his quick, blue eyes — eyes that contrast with the white of his shalwar kameez — the traditional clothing of an Afghan man. “The Soviet government was looking for us, but I didn’t let them find me because I didn’t know what they would do to me,” says Mohammad in the soft-accented Russian of his native eastern Ukraine. The mujahedin pushed him to wage jihad against his former comrades, but “I have not shot one bullet since I became a Muslim,” he says.
Mohammad lived as a prisoner in the compound of a local mujahedin commander, which lies just a few miles from his old post with the Red Army. Many of the other shuravi — as the vets are known in the former Soviet Union — had similar experiences. “When they were captured, they became slaves. Psychologically, these guys are damaged,” Alexander Lavrentyev, the vice-chairman of Russia’s War Veterans Committee, tells TIME. “They are in their late 40s, but they all look like they are in their 60s.” MORE
RELATED: When I was drafted in July 1988, there were only 8 months remaining in the 9-year war in Afghanistan but no one knew it at the time. Luck of the draft could throw you into the Army for two years or in the Navy for three, you could end up in a 100-degree desert or somewhere inside the Arctic Circle, in a tank, on a submarine, parachute-jumping or digging ditches, but all of these were preferable to the hell-hole that was Afghanistan. There was never any official information about what was going on there but despite the fact that the government tried to hide the funerals everybody knew that people were coming back in the zinc caskets. Over 15 thousand of them during the course of war. Many people came home handicapped trying to rebuild their lives in the country where nothing was handicap accessible, many had to live with mental problems, many returned with bloody nightmares preventing them from leading anything resembling normal lives. They were 20 years old, in the army they didn’t volunteer for, in the country where they were despised, fighting for something no one believed in. MORE
NEW YORKER: Nasir recalled that when Afghanistan’s civil war broke out, in April, 1992, he was an agricultural student at Kabul University. He was from the sort of secular family that had flourished under the regime of Mohammad Najibullah, the country’s last Communist President. The Soviet Army had left in 1989, after ten years of fighting the American- and Saudi-backed guerrillas known as the mujahideen. Najibullah was a charismatic and ruthless leader, but, as the last of the Soviet troops departed, no one gave him much of a chance to remain in power. The Soviet Minister of Defense figured that Najibullah would last only a few months. The regime, sustained by a flow of food and ammunition from the Soviet Union, held firm. The Afghan Army fought well, routing the mujahideen in a decisive battle for the city of Jalalabad. But in late 1991 the Soviet Union fell apart, leaving Najibullah and his fellow-Communists to fend for themselves. With their supplies running out, soldiers began to desert the Afghan Army. On April 17, 1992, Najibullah sought refuge in the United Nations compound in Kabul. The mujahideen poured into the capital, wild and hollow-eyed after years in the countryside. “At first, the city was calm, there was hardly any fighting,” Nasir recalled. “It took me some time to realize that the city was calm because the militias were busy looting the government buildings. It took them a few days to get everything. When they finished, they came after everyone else.” MORE
FRESH AIR: This past weekend brought news of more violence in Afghanistan. Seven Western troops, five Afghan police officers and at least 18 civilians were killed in Afghanistan. The toll included six Americans killed by a single bomb in Wardak province, south of Kabul. Also over the weekend, The New York Times reported further details about a video that surfaced last month showing the Taliban’s public execution of a woman accused of adultery in Parwan province, north of Kabul. In the video, the Times reports, “Taliban members can be heard saying that the executioner is the woman’s husband, though Afghan officials offered conflicting accounts of what transpired in the village, Qol-i-Heer.” The ongoing violence and lawlessness within Afghanistan raise concerns about the future of the country after the planned U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014. On Tuesday’s Fresh Air, New Yorker reporter Dexter Filkins, who just returned from his latest reporting trip to Afghanistan, joins Terry Gross for a discussion about the many volatile factions within Afghanistan and explains why the future of the country looks so grim. MORE
RELATED: Bowe Robert Bergdahl (born March 28, 1986, in Sun Valley, Idaho) is a United States Army soldier who, since June 2009, is in the captivity of the Taliban-supporting Afghanistan Haqqani network. On July 18, 2009, the Taliban released a video showing they had captured Bergdahl. In the video, Bergdahl appeared downcast and frightened. A Department of Defense statement issued on July 19 confirmed that Bergdahl was declared “missing/whereabouts unknown” on July 1, and his status was changed to “missing/captured” on July 3. In the 28-minute video his captors hold up his dog tags to establish the captured man is Bergdahl. Bergdahl gives the date as July 14 and mentions an attack that occurred that day. Accounts of his capture differ. The version offered by Bergdahl, in the video, is that he was captured when he fell behind on a patrol. CNN, in its report, cites both Taliban and U.S. military sources, the former alleging he was ambushed after becoming drunk off base, and the latter denying that claim stating: “The Taliban are known for lying and what they are claiming (is) not true.” Other sources said Bergdahl walked off his base after his shift.
The Guardian quoted sources who speculated about the increased difficulty of a rescue mission if Bergdahl had been smuggled across the nearby border into Pakistan. CNN described two Pashto-language leaflets the U.S. military was distributing in seeking Bergdahl. One showed a smiling GI shaking hands with Afghan children, with a caption that called him a guest in Afghanistan. The other showed a door being broken down, and threatened that those holding Bergdahl would be hunted down. In December 2009, five months after Bergdahl’s disappearance, the media arm of the Afghan Taliban announced the release of a new video of “a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan,” titled “One of Their People Testified.” In the announcement the Taliban did not name the American, but the only U.S. soldier known to be in captivity is Bergdahl. U.S. military officials have been searching for Bergdahl, but it is not publicly known whether he is even being held in Afghanistan or in neighboring Pakistan, an area off-limits to U.S. forces based in Afghanistan. MORE