Fighting for recognition: Soviet-Afghan War veterans in Tajikistan

Dushanbe, Tajikstan (openDemocracy) – More than 27 years have passed since the Soviet Union pulled its forces out of Afghanistan, ending a blood-soaked intervention that left one million Afghans and fifteen thousand Soviets dead. In Tajikistan, a country that shares not only a 1300-kilometre border, but close linguistic and cultural ties with Afghanistan, the memory of the war has all but disappeared from the public space. History books make little mention of it, newspapers speak seldom of it and top government representatives stay away from public commemorations of the war.

Only the war veterans themselves keep the memory of the conflict alive. Yet they are often cold-shouldered by government institutions and their fellow Tajiks.

Around 15,000 residents of Soviet Tajikistan took part in the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. They served in a range of capacities, from snipers and riflemen to interpreters and signallers. As many as 366 of them lost their lives, with more than 1,000 listed as injured. It was the biggest military involvement of Tajikistanis since the Second World War, when some 200, 000 Tajik men and women from the Central Asian republic served on the battlefields of Europe and Asia.

Today, between 6,000-7,000 Afghan war veterans, or afgantsy, still live in Tajikistan. They are spread far and wide, from the heavily trafficked streets of Dushanbe to the high mountain plateaus of Murghob district. Many of them struggle to make a living in a country that is stricken with unemployment and ranks among the poorest in Asia.

Some have left, joining more than a million other Tajik migrant workers in Russia, from where they send home vital remittances to their families.

Scattered, poor and, in many cases, in ill health, the veterans receive little help from official quarters. A law from 1995 recognises them as “veterans of military action on the territory of other states” and entitles them to a limited number of benefits.

But many of those benefits are ludicrously small (one is a 50% discount on garbage removal services) and often not delivered in practice.

Afghan War veterans observing the Days of Remembrance at the World War II memorial in Dushanbe in May 2013. A bearded and well-decorated World War II veteran is given centre stage to the left of Shavkat Mirzoev, a prominent afgantsy leader.Instead, most of the former fighters have been left to fend for themselves. In Khorugh, a small town in the rugged Pamir Mountains, local veterans have no office or organisational budget and receive only meagre hand-outs and discounts on public services. Recently, they lost even their right to discounted electricity when the local electricity company was placed in private hands (although, on the upside, electricity has been more stable in the town since).

That situation has parallels in other parts of Tajikistan. Especially in rural areas,afgantsy have been largely abandoned by official bodies, who choose to spend their limited budgets on other things. Indeed, despite being Tajik citizens, many veterans say, they receive better support in Russia when they go there to work.

The afgantsy do what they can to improve their lot. Certainly, being a veteran has some perks: it can provide access to helpful social networks and act as a door-opener in some contexts. A former scout from the Wakhan Valley in south-eastern Tajikistan recalled being helped by former comrades-in-arms when he fled to Ekaterinburg during the civil war that gripped the country from 1992 to 1997. Another afganets found a good job in Ukraine thanks to the intervention of local veterans.

During my research in Tajikistan, many afgantsy spoke of the kindness and sense of camaraderie that they meet among fellow veterans in Russia today.

In Tajikistan, too, camaraderie plays an important role. In the absence of adequate state support, many former fighters look to each other for assistance.

A group of veterans that I came to know in Dushanbe were a tight-knit community who regularly met and spent time together, eating and drinking and helping each other in various ways, including with money, food and work around the house. It was a solidarity group that cut across family, regional and professional ties and provided additional security to its members in a context of precarity and hardship.

Afghan War veterans marking the Days of Remembrance in May 2013. This holiday was inherited from Soviet times and honours all soldiers from Tajikistan who died fighting for the Soviet Union at home or abroad. Mostly afgantsy take part in it.But if some veterans rely on each other for help, they also demand that the state ramp up its support. Frustrated by the paltry benefits provided by officialdom, Afghan War veterans’ associations have petitioned government bodies to increase assistance to the former soldiers.

The Committee on Soldier-Internationalists’ Affairs, one of the largest afgantsyorganisations in the country, has been conducting negotiations with the Tajik government about revising the current law on veterans. Its main request has been that Afghan War veterans be granted the same legal status as veterans of the Second World War, which would entail increased benefits as well as symbolic recognition.

To win the government’s ear, the veterans are trying to prove their worth to the independent Tajik state. Even as the government blind-sides them, the veterans miss few occasions to vaunt their patriotism. At public events, such as military celebrations and meetings with military conscripts, they cast themselves as loyal Tajik patriots, committed to defending their new post-Soviet motherland.

They push the same rhetoric in their public announcements. In a statement in its organ Internatsionalist bashardöst in February 2013, the Committee on Soldier-Internationalists’ Affairs said that “we aim, desire and wish for the stability and prosperity of the land… we are soldiers, workers and rear guards of the Constitution and are ready to support the policies of the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, the honourable Emomali Rahmon.”

Many veterans deliver on such talk. One district branch of the Committee on Soldier-Internationalists’ Affairs has inscribed into its statutes a commitment to assist the government in efforts to promote “military and patriotic values” among Tajik youth.

Several of its members take an active part in attempts to do so, including in meetings with school pupils. In the southern town of Qurghonteppa, meanwhile, veterans regularly visit all 19 schools in the town to hold events with pupils. This was said by the leader of the local afgantsy Yokub Nazarov, who added that: “We check their physical and mental readiness and talk to them about the need to defend their country.”

Such efforts do more than boost the Afghan War veterans’ patriotic credentials. They also fit into a broader narrative about the veterans as guardians of military tradition. These soldiers, who once fought for the Soviet Union and now declare their loyalty to the Tajik state, say they tie together pride in the Tajik motherland with the legacy of the Soviet past.

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Indeed, many of them even venture to say that they are the successors of those greatest of Soviet heroes: the veterans of the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Just like the men and women who defended their motherland on the battlefields of Europe, so the afgantsy, they insist, hearkened to the call of their country when they donned their uniforms and carried their rifles into battle with the Afghan Mujahaddin. The wars may have been different, but the loyalty and steadfastness that the soldiers displayed were the same.

Repeatedly, Afghan War veterans try to link the public memory of their own – much-scorned – struggle with the triumphalist discourse that surrounds the Great Patriotic War and other facets of Tajikistan’s military past. It is an attempt to boost their own social prestige and cast themselves as embodiments of military tradition.

Yet the government’s response has been tepid. In 2013, it declined the request from the Committee on Soldier-Internationalists’ Affairs for increased benefits, citing budgetary constraints. At the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan on 15 February 2014, it sent no top official to attend the event, even though it had sent delegates to similar events in earlier years.

On lower levels, some public officials reportedly refuse to honour even the spartan provisions of the current legislation, denying requests by veterans for benefits. At a time when Putin’s Russia is cozying up to its organised Afghan War veterans’ movement, which it uses as a partner in its state propaganda, the Tajik government seems intent on keeping its own afgantsy at arm’s length.

More than a quarter of a century after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the afgantsy are still struggling to carve out a place for themselves in post-Soviet Tajikistan.

The Tajik state has tried to cut the umbilical cord with the Soviet empire that birthed it and instead embarked on a nation-building drive that leaves little room for painful Soviet memories. But the afgantsy demand that their suffering and their exploits be heard and recognised.

Through public performances and rhetoric, they try to remind the Tajik public of the blood they shed in Afghanistan, while they also pose as guardians of military and patriotic principles inherited from Soviet times. They want to be brought into the public narrative about the Tajik past and receive the recognition and support they see as their due. Yet the government still turns them a blind eye.

This report prepared by MARKUS GÖRANSSON for openDemocracy.