Lost for 33 years, Bachredtin Khakimov, a former Soviet soldier presumed dead by Russia, was recently found working as an herbal healer in a remote Afghan village.
It was an extraordinary discovery for the Committee for the Affairs of Soldiers Abroad, the Russian agency charged with scouring Afghanistan for soldiers unaccounted for after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The fates of some 270 others remain unknown.
But for Khakimov, like other Soviet soldiers who took up new lives in Afghanistan after the decade-long war, the past was an unwelcome intruder.
Now in his mid-50s, the man, who is from the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan, calls himself Sheikh Abdullah.
Pictures show an older man with a crease-lined face, a long, shaggy beard and wearing a turban, looking a bit shy. Nothing in his appearance recalls the young soldier of bygone years.
“He is living in his own world,” said Alexander Lavrentyev, the man who found him.
Khakimov could hardly utter a word when he was discovered by Lavrentyev in the western province of Herat in February. In broken Russian, he quietly stammered “thanks very much” at the end of the encounter, Lavrentyev said.
Lavrentyev regularly combs the rugged terrain for missing soldiers. He singles out the village elders for tips about possible former soldiers, and then painstakingly follows up every trace he turns up.
But Khakimov’s story is an especially fantastic one. In September 1980 – nine months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – the young soldier was seriously wounded and captured by local Afghan soldiers.
“He was tremendously lucky,” Lavrentyev said. Usually, Afghan fighters would quickly kill their prisoners. During the nearly 10 years of war, about 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed. Khakimov, however, was healed of his wounds by the local village chief.
A possible factor in his favor was his ethnic background. About a tenth of Afghanistan’s population is, like Khakimov, of Uzbek origin.
At a time when any man looking like a European was held to be a mortal enemy, his appearance was an advantage that helped him to blend in with the local population.
There are also reports, however, of Slavic-background Soviet soldiers who survived.
“The mujaheddin captured me in 1982,” Gennadi Zevma, 48, a Ukrainian, said in the northern Afghan town of Kunduz. He was kept under house arrest for five years. “They treated me well and gave me a new name – Nek Mohammed – and ordered me to marry an Afghan woman.”
Last year, Zevma traveled back to his home country for the first time in 29 years – but only for a brief visit. “Afghanistan is a good place for me,” he said.