|Some 14,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in the nine-year occupation of Afghanistan [AP]|
As millions of Russians mark the 20th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Ervand Ilynsky, a Kazakh mountaineer, recounts a dangerous secret mission he led in the first days of the occupation.
On February 15, 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev, the premier of the Soviet Union, ordered the complete pullout of troops from Afghanistan.
Nearly two million Afghans – a vast majority of them civilians – and 14,000 Soviet soldiers died during the nine-year occupation.
Many of the Soviets were killed in battle, but some died even before getting to Kabul.
In late December, 1979, two days before the Soviet invasion was made official, a military aeroplane carrying 67 paratroopers crashed in the Hindu Kush mountain range, some 80km from the Afghan capital.
The ill-fated IL-76 had also been on a top secret mission, transporting a black leather briefcase containing the plans for the upcoming invasion.
And that briefcase had to be retrieved, at any price.
Seek and retrieve
On December 26, 1979, a group of eight Soviet mountaineers in bright red parkas were told they would be on a routine civilian rescue operation from the Kazakh capital Almaty to the neighbouring Pamir Mountains.
Video: Russia’s Afghan legacy
One month in Kabul
A young general in Soviet air force uniform came forward to meet them.
“We’re going to make an exchange,” he said. “You give me your passports and I give you your pistols.”
“Pistols?” someone from the group said. “Why?”
But the general did not elaborate.
Once up in the air, they were flying over countless snowy mountain ridges when the pilot announced they were crossing the state border.
“What’s going on? Where are we going?” asked Ervand Ilynsky, the team’s leader.
The answer was short, but clear: “Afghanistan.”
Thirty years later Ilynsky, now 68, talks about the trip as if it had just happened.
“We had no idea what was happening. We didn’t yet know about the Soviet invasion, no one did, it was officially announced only the next day,” he told Al Jazeera, sitting in his office in Almaty, in the Central Army Sports Club where he has worked as a mountaineering instructor for almost two decades.
“But when our plane was getting ready to land in Kabul, we saw hundreds of Soviet troops down there on the ground and we began to wonder.”
Soviet forces had started crossing the border months before, at a request of the pro-Soviet Afghan government asking for help in its conflict with anti-communist Mujahideen rebels, supported by the United States.
First, helicopters arrived, followed by tanks, air force and, finally, infantry.
Hafizullah Amin, the Afghan president, knew of the movements, but what he didn’t know was that he was on the Soviets’ death list.
As Ilynsky and his team got off the plane in the Kabul airport, the Soviet special forces’ Alpha group was preparing to storm Amin’s palace.
On December 27, 1979, Amin was killed.
The war had started.
Tricked into service
Ilynsky said that when he and his people learnt that they, civilian sportsmen with no army training except for a few mandatory university military courses, were tricked and brought to a military conflict, they couldn’t believe it.
|Ilinsky a few years before his secret mission [Courtesy: www.mountain.ru]|
But they knew there was no turning back.
“We were told that a Soviet plane had crashed somewhere in the mountains and that we had to get there to begin rescue operations,” he said. “But even getting there was dangerous.”
They saw Mujahideen fighters firing at Soviet tanks and helicopters, a few hundred metres from where they were passing in their BMP, an infantry fighting vehicle.
Luckily, the Mujahideen didn’t fire at Ilynsky’s team. “I guess when they saw eight guys dressed in strange, bright red parkas, they must have thought we were from some kind of a peacekeeping organisation,” he said.
“Those parkas might have saved us there, but we began to fear for our lives, so we asked the military to give us proper arms. They exchanged our pistols for Kalashnikov’s and told us to make them visible even when we went to the market to buy food, this way we’d be safe,” said Ilynsky.
The rescuers were taken to the crash site by helicopter, but the pilot wasn’t able to land in Hindu Kush and had to turn back.
Ilynsky suggested bringing civilian sports pilots from Kyrgyzstan, those who had years of experience flying in the mountains.
When they arrived, the team was finally able to get down and start digging.
“It was very cold up there, at some 4,680m, and snowing very heavily,” recalled Ilynsky. “Before it crashed, the plane was going over the Nowshak Peak of Hindu Kush when it touched it and went down.
“The wreckage was buried in the snow and the bodies, or rather body parts of our paratroopers were scattered all over.
“If we felt something under our feet, we started digging. We dug out legs, arms, torsos. We also found the black box; it was of orange colour, by the way.
Black leather briefcase
They spent New Year’s Eve there, among human remains in the Afghan mountains, and on the following day were able to locate and retrieve the black leather briefcase.
When they handed it to the supervisor, the “rescue operation” was over.
They had to leave the site, even though it meant leaving behind the many bodies they didn’t have time to dig out and give a proper burial.
But it seemed like it didn’t matter anymore.
The eight mountaineers returned home on January 6, 1980. They continued with their lives, conquering new peaks around the world, but they have yet to receive any official recognition from the Soviet leaders.
The Soviet military archives make no mention of the mountaineers or their top-secret rescue operation in Afghanistan.
The mountaineers weren’t paid for their efforts nor have they received any honours.
“There is no mention of us nowhere,” said Ilynsky, who is now retired and gets an equivalent of some $200 in monthly pension.
“I could be receiving at least two times that if I had a document confirming I am a veteran of the Afghan war,” he added.
In 2000, the Kazakhstan Union of the Veterans of Afghanistan decided to award them medals.
Ukraine honoured them too, after having found documents that they signed when they were given arms during the operation.
Only five of them were still alive to receive the honours – Ilynsky, Kazbek Valiev, Nikolay Panteleev, Sergei Fomin and Yury Popenko.
Three others, Gregory Lunyakov, Vadim Smirnov and Valery Khrishchaty had perished in climbing expeditions some years after the secret mission.
After 30 years, there still hasn’t been a word from Moscow.
So what was in there, in those secret invasion plans locked away safely in the black leather briefcase, that was so important to the Soviet leaders?
Ilynsky has asked himself this question a thousand times.
He wonders if he will ever get an answer.