Moscow's Graveyard

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"They didn't all leave, you know," says Fida, the driver, now outfitted with a warm pair of gloves and in a far better mood.

"Who?" I ask.

"The Russians. A few army deserters are still here. They converted to Islam and stayed."

Fida knew of one, Rahmatullah, who worked as an electrician in a mountain village on the slopes of the Hindu Kush. So off we went. Not surprisingly, Russians are deeply hated by Afghans. I wondered how this one had survived. After a few inquiries we found Rahmatullah, who could easily have been mistaken for an Afghan with pale eyes. He was alone, sitting on a grassy riverbank, smoking hashish. And he ran when he saw us foreigners coming, probably thinking, in his stoned state, that we were U.S. special forces coming to arrest him or Russian officials who had finally hunted him down. We never found him, even though we found his house and—shamelessly, I admit—tried bribing his kid with an ice cream cone to tell us where his father was.

Fida, though, knew of another Soviet deserter: a Ukrainian, who had become a cop in the town of Pul-e-Khumri. And this one, Nikolai Vyrodov, a.k.a. Nasratullah, was willing to talk. He was a sad case, a man who had made the irreversible decision to join the enemy, isolating himself from his comrades, family and country. And he carried this burden on his conscience like a curse, punishing himself. We found Nikolai living in a police garrison and were told by neighbors that he, too, like his fellow deserter by the riverbank, was always stoned on hashish. Yuri, the Russian photographer, thought that speaking to Nikolai in his native language might loosen him up, but Nikolai stubbornly preferred Farsi. He told us why he switched sides. He was attached to a Soviet unit that went into a village and slayed 74 men, women and children. Afterward, he decided to desert. "It was lunchtime, I said goodbye to a few of my friends, picked up my Kalashnikov and left the barracks in my uniform to join the mujahedin." Nikolai says he wrote three notes to his officers later, pleading with them to "stop killing innocents." And when they didn't, he took up arms against his fellow Soviet troops. (Later, I asked Fida if Nikolai was much of a fighter. "He wasn't a tarooz—someone who would charge the enemy head on. But he was good with mortars," Fida replied.)

After the Soviets left, Nikolai's adventures became ever more bizarre. He ran an old radio-repair shop in Kabul and was persecuted by the Taliban. Then the Taliban seized on the p.r. opportunities of an ex-Soviet soldier who'd converted to Islam. They arranged a marriage for him to a spirited 14-year-old Afghan girl (she's now 19). With the fall of the Taliban, Nikolai's luck faded. He spent nine months in jail as a suspected al-Qaeda fighter, barely escaping a one-way trip to Gitmo. Released by the Afghans with apologies because he'd been a born-again muj, he was then offered a job in the police force.

As we speak, Nikolai's wife asks him to go pick up their 2-year-old daughter so that Yuri could shoot a family portrait. Nikolai, who is anxious to smoke more hashish, is only too happy to escape the house. With her husband gone, the pretty teenage Shauzia pleads with us to convince Nikolai that he should take his family to Ukraine. She explained how he gets homesick and melancholy when he watches Russian videos. "You don't understand," she says. "The police chief sends Nikolai away and then he comes here and makes advances on me. He waits in the shadows outside my apartment. Nikolai has no one here, he's an outsider. He has nobody who can protect us." Nikolai returns with his sleepy daughter, his eyes reddened by hashish. Yuri explains that if Nikolai went back to Ukraine, he would not be charged for desertion, that jobs and greater liberty awaited him. "I can't go back," Nikolai says, shaking his head. I left wondering what would happen when, inevitably, some local Afghan in a position of power rapes Nikolai's young wife. Will Nikolai kill him in revenge—which would be the Afghan thing to do—or will that finally goad him into leaving Afghanistan with his wife and daughter?

His loving young wife brought the only cheer in Nikolai's life, and in a strange way, I guess he owed it to the Taliban. There's no denying it, the Taliban were an odd bunch. Barbaric, medieval, and zealous beyond belief, they were full of contradictions. However much they hated infidels like me, they were bound by their Pashtun code of chivalry to give me hospitality—they were always quick to offer a cup of tea. Some didn't even take their own laws that seriously. They secretly watched TV and loved having their pictures taken; when a photographer approached, the Talibs would whip out a comb and primp before posing for their picture.

From my Kabul friend Azim, who hated the Taliban and had fought them, I heard of one great act of kindness. The two types of men most revered in Afghanistan are the Kuchi nomads and the dervishes because Afghans respect their far-out independence, their liberty of spirit. Azim is a dervish; he seldom cuts his hair and he lives in a bombed-out building in Kabul, playing a flute; his companions are mastiff dogs the size of lions, and hundreds of pigeons. For Azim, God is to be found in man's heart—not in the edicts of grim mullahs. When the Taliban were on the rise, Azim rode into battle on a horse, like Don Quixote, to fight them.

"My horse stepped on a land mine," says Azim. "I was badly hurt. But the Taliban came and saw I was a dervish. And, even though I was their enemy, they drove me to the military hospital in Kabul and told the doctor they would shoot him if he let me die," recalls Azim. "I had the best treatment." This act of kindness didn't stop Azim from celebrating the Taliban's defeat. "When the American bombs started falling on Kabul, I went out and danced in the streets. I saw Talibs fleeing and I told them, 'Why are you running? Don't you want your virgins in paradise?'"

It was Azim who gave me the clue as to why Afghanistan had unleashed such a whirlwind of change in the late 20th century. The soil in Afghanistan, he explained, was magic. "How so?" I asked. "If you plant something good, like grapes, you get the sweetest grapes in the world. But if you plant the seeds of something bad, as many have, you will have the worst kind of evil growing in Afghanistan. And it will spread," Azim said. He was referring to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but it got me thinking about Commander Daoud and his Japanese plant cuttings and how he wanted to bring beauty to Afghanistan. Maybe his trip to Japan wasn't a total loss.

A dust storm was blowing into Kabul as I left Azim. He was walking through the rubble of his bombed-out house, playing his flute with sad wildness. The dogs began to bark and hundreds of pigeons flew into the dust storm like leaves scattering from a tree. And Azim played on, even as the dark clouds swirled in.

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