Mountains never meet...
By Denis Allistone
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.
DIDIER BREGNARD / ICRC
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
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
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
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.
DENIS ALLISTONE / ICRC
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
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.
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, ICRC regional delegate in Kiev.
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