A Former Soviet Soldier Lives Among Afghans When the last Soviet general left Afghanistan in 1989, he declared that none of his soldiers were left behind. But at least one never went home. Gennady Tseuma was captured by mujahedeen fighters and forced to become a Muslim.
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A Former Soviet Soldier Lives Among Afghans

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A Former Soviet Soldier Lives Among Afghans

A Former Soviet Soldier Lives Among Afghans

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Afghanistan has been in a state of war for more than a quarter century. It began when the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. More than a million Afghans were killed, as well as around 15,000 Soviet troops. When the last Soviet general left the country in 1989, he famously said there is not a single Soviet soldier or officer left behind.

But as NPR's Ivan Watson reports, at least one Soviet soldier did stay behind.

IVAN WATSON: Last month a red-haired man with piercing blue eyes limped into the Kabul residence of a veteran British journalist named Peter Juvenal.

Mr. PETER JUVENAL (Journalist): (Speaking Foreign Language)

Mr. GENNADY TSEUMA (Former Soviet Soldier): (Speaking Foreign Language)

Mr. JUVENAL: How are you? Good?

WATSON: The man Juvenal called Gennady was dressed in the baggy shirt and trousers traditionally worn by Afghans, but he spoke fluent Russian. His name is Gennady Tseuma, born in the town of Ruzhychna in what is now Ukraine. Juvenal had a gift for him; it was a black and white photo of Gennady taken a quarter century ago. Gennady looked bewildered. He recognized several childhood friends in the photo, but he did not recognize himself.

Mr. TSEUMA: (Speaking Foreign Language)

Mr. JUVENAL: He's asking, who is that? Who is it?

Mr. TSEUMA: (Speaking Foreign Language)

Mr. JUVENAL: He says it has to be him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TSEUMA: (Speaking Foreign Language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUVENAL: It has to be him because he knows those two.

WATSON: He says this is definitely Anatoli and this is definitely his wife. So it's probably me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WATSON: Gennady's confusion is perhaps understandable. He first came to Afghanistan in 1983 as an 18-year-old conscript in the Soviet army. Less then a year later, Mujahideen fighters took Gennady prisoner and he has stayed here ever since.

The years in Afghanistan have been hard. Though only 41, Gennady's gaunt face looks 20 years older. Due to a mangled leg, he walks hunched over with a severe limp.

(Soundbite of traffic)

WATSON: In the truck stops and dusty bazaars of northern Afghanistan, Afghans know Gennady by his adopted Afghan name, Nik Mohammed. They treat him like a celebrity.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking Foreign Language)

Mr. TSEUMA: (Speaking Foreign Language)

WATSON: Gennady earns about $100 a month working as a driver for an Afghan gem dealer. When he stopped to fill up his boss' car at a gas station in the city of Kunduz, locals invited him to sit barefoot on a carpet with them and drink tea.

WATSON: I have known Nik Mohammed for 20 years, says a gray-bearded Afghan putting an arm around Gennady's thin shoulders. He was with the Mujahideen, he adds. He's one of us.

In the privacy of Gennady's humble two-room house, which in Afghan style has no furniture, only cushions, the former Soviet soldier tells about the fateful morning 23 years ago when he wandered away from the bridge he was guarding and fell into the hands of Afghan rebels.

Mr. TSEUMA: (Through Translator) They said, you have a choice. If you want to live, become a Muslim and stay here. If you don't, we'll kill you. I agreed to cooperate.

WATSON: Gennady converted, dyed his hair and beard black, and lived for years in the mountains with the Mujahideen, at times dodging Soviet air strikes. After the Soviets left, a Mujahideen commander gave Gennady a young Afghan wife. He started working as a truck driver.

Mr. JUVENAL: I met him initially in 1991.

WATSON: Peter Juvenal was one of the first Westerners to track Gennady down. He said the former prisoner was shocked to see him.

Mr. JUVENAL: Don't forget, the Berlin Wall had come down. We had to explain all these sort of things to him. And I got the impression that he didn't believe us and it was all some sort of elaborate trick to get him to go back home. And then for him to - because the Soviet Union had a very bad reputation with prisoners of war that went back home.

WATSON: In 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gennady met briefly with his father and a Russian government delegation at the Afghan border. He says they tried to convince him to go home.

Mr. TSEUMA: (Through Translator) My father explained everything to me, but I was still too scared. And I had a wife and baby son here. We couldn't travel then and my wife didn't want to leave, so I stayed here.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

WATSON: Gennady now has four children with his wife Bibi Awaa. During the years of warfare in Afghanistan they have at times become refugees, fleeing battlefields and nearly losing their eldest son in a rocket attack. In the meantime, Gennady's father and mother, whom he never got to see again, both passed away in Ukraine.

Mr. TSEUMA: (Speaking Foreign Language)

WATSON: Gennady sometimes talks on the phone with his surviving younger brother, Sergei. At the end of this call, Gennady says, don't worry, brother, I'll come home soon.

In a separate interview, from the Ukrainian town, Terrev(ph), Sergei explains that he hasn't seen his older brother since he was nine years old.

Mr. SERGEI TSEUMA (Brother of Gennady Tseuma): (Through Translator) Please help him come visit us in Ukraine for at least a month, just to show him how we are living here. I want to see my brother. I desperately want to see him.

WATSON: In 2002, Ukrainian diplomats made arrangements to bring Gennady home, but at the last minute he backed out. He appears torn between the land of his birth and the country that once imprisoned him.

Peter Juvenal says several other returning Soviet prisoners of war could not handle the culture shock of going home.

Mr. JUVENAL: They could never assimilate back in. They've been here too long.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: At his home in Kunduz, Gennady lays on his back and watches Russian pop music videos on satellite TV. His health is deteriorating. The cold weather locks up the joints in his bad leg, leaving him unable to walk or work during the winter. Come spring, however, Gennady says he wants to finally go home to visit his brother. He's waiting for the government in Kabul to issue him an Afghan passport so that he can travel.

Ivan Watson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see Ivan's video report on Gennady Tseuma's life in Afghanistan at NPR.org.

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