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Mountains never meet...

By Denis Allistone

In 1986, Valentin Dubina,a Soviet soldier, was taken prisoner by Afghan forces. Denis Allistone, an ICRC delegate, met with Dubina, also known as Hedayatullah, during his detention in a remote prison. Today, he recounts that visit and another one 13 years later with Dubina in Ukraine in May 2003.

Former Soviet soldier Valentin Dubina, while he was a prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Andarab Valley, 1990. On his left, ICRC visiting delegate Denis Allistone.

Yakovlian, Afghanistan -1990

I was based from 1989 to 1991 in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif as an ICRC delegate. At the time, the Soviet Union was supporting the government in a fight against local rebel groups. The ICRC had been working in Mazar-e Sharif since 1989.

In 1989, we learned that an ICRC visit to Soviet prisoners held in our region by an opposition group was imminent. Very little was known about the detainees. Where were they held? How many were there? When would we go?

Finally in October 1990, a visit to the prisoners, who were in a remote mountain region, was arranged. The prison was not far from the famous Salang tunnel in the Andarab valley. Our team, a doctor, a Dari translator and an ICRC delegate from Peshawar set off. In a country where cars and convoys rarely travelled unarmed, the ICRC's principle of moving around the country without a military escort caused a great deal of discussion at every checkpoint.

At the last government checkpoint, the soldiers knew of our arrival but did not fully understand the nature of our visit and our role in the conflict. They asked us, for instance, if we had any weapons. Following some improvised dissemination on international humanitarian law and the distribution of brochures in the local languages, approval to proceed was given.

The unpaved road, which wound up through the rugged countryside, merged into a dry riverbed under the shade of autumn leaves. The riverbed led to Yakovlian, the site of the prison. As is the tradition here, our first encounter with the local armed group began with greetings, tea, nuts and mulberries. We sat and talked for a long time with the commander and his deputy. Intrigued fighters sat around, also asking questions.

The commander's men showed us the underground dispensary where the wounded were given first aid. We gave them some basic medical supplies. Next, we visited the village's old power generator that often needed repair. As there was no engineer in the valley, the government sent one up when needed. Although a war was on and Scud missiles sometimes hit the valley, this was no excuse to let the precious machines fall into disuse. Afghans from both sides were fond of saying kollemaa Aughan asteem; we are all Afghans.

There was still no sign of the prisoners as the sun set. Nor was there anything that looked like a prison camp. Were the prisoners confined to a dark underground place? As always in Afghanistan, time was as plentiful as tea, enough of it had to be drunk for the right amount of mutual trust to set in.

Finally, the four Soviet captives appeared. They were from different parts of their vast homeland, including Ukraine, Russia and the Caucasus, but here they dressed like Afghans and spoke Dari. This was their first meeting with the ICRC. They did not appear surprised, relieved or impressed. We explained the ICRC's procedures in relation to detention visits. We registered their names, provided them with an ICRC identity card, facilitated the sending of a letter to their families, spoke with them privately and promised to return from time to time, if possible, until they were released. The commander had agreed to all this.

We decided that the best place to speak privately with the captives was inside the ICRC car. Beside their present detention conditions, they told us of their experiences, how they had survived, how long they had been there and what led them to adopt the ways and the religion of the country that had become their second home. Once the interviews were over we spent the evening under the mulberry trees, by the fire, taking the full measure of Afghan hospitality.



A touch of nostalgia when meeting again with the ICRC delegate at Valentin's house in Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine, May 2003.

Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine -2003

ICRC delegates sometimes meet again with detainees they have visited, either because the detainees need some documents attesting to their captivity, or because they wish to provide some feedback on the value of ICRC visits. These meetings are extremely useful, enabling the organization to improve its protection activities. Normally, these meetings take place when the prisoners are being released or some years later in the country where the conflict occurred. We were never able to meet with the Soviet captives again.

During a round table on tracing activities with the Ukrainian Red Cross earlier this year, ICRC visits to Soviet prisoners in Afghanistan were mentioned. The representative of the veteran's organization asked me if I remembered any names. I recalled only one, Dubina. They told me he was now living in Dniepropetrovsk. Everyone agreed it would be exciting to organize a reunion. Before getting in touch with him, we obtained some photos from the ICRC headquarters in Geneva of our visit with him in Afghanistan.

Valentin and I saw each other again, after 13 years, in front of the Tsentralna hotel in the centre of Dniepropetrovsk. I recognized Valentin immediately. He was quite reserved at first, and said he only had an hour to spend with us. We went into a small café where I gave him the copies of the pictures. He was delighted as he had very few mementoes from his years in Afghanistan, just a few faded photographs with tanks and armed men.

He had lost his ICRC identify card, together with his first Red Cross message that he wrote to his mother. But Valentin had not forgotten Dari, a language he knew almost as well as Russian. He said he hoped to go back one day to see his Afghan friends, as well as some fellow detainees who chose to remain in the country. Although he was fully accustomed now to living in Ukraine, he still signed with his Afghan name, Hedayatullah, "he who is guided by God", and said his years of detention were some of the most important in his life.

Hedayatullah-Valentin told me that in the mountains he had lived well with his co-prisoners. They were free to roam around the valley, fish, hunt and help with occasional work and seasonal repairs. To climb the unknown mountains of the Hindu Kush towering above the valley and attempt to escape was just not worth it. Ten years after being captured, the time had come to return home.

But his return home was not easy. The country that had sent him to war with Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, no longer existed. In its place was a newly independent Ukraine where people faced unusual problems, new opportunities as well as serious economic difficulties. Valentin was not given a hero's welcome, but as he had no documents he faced a bureaucracy that doubted his very existence.

After our talk at a local café, we met with Valentin's wife Svetlana and his son. As we spoke of meeting again, Valentin quoted a Dari proverb, koh ba koh namerasad, adam ba adam merasad, mountains never meet — only people do.


Denis Allistone
Denis Allistone, ICRC regional delegate in Kiev.

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