A Soviet soldier who disappeared more than 30 years ago on the battlefield in Afghanistan has been found alive and well and living under the name of Sheikh Abdullah in the western Afghan city of Herat.
Russian officials attempting to trace soldiers still missing from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan said they had discovered Bakhretdin Khakimov, last seen in September 1980. Khakimov - then aged 20 - had been serving with the 101st motorised rifle unit, stationed near Herat. He was seriously wounded during a battle near the city and presumed dead.
A black-and-white photo from the time shows Khakimov as a fresh-faced draftee, dressed in Soviet army uniform and with the hammer and sickle badge on his furry hat. He now looks rather different, with a wispy beard, lined features and a large turban. A widower, he had been living as a nomadic sheikh and working as a traditional healer.
According to officials, local residents rescued Khakimov from the battlefield and treated his wounds with herbs. The Soviet soldier remained with the man who helped him, and acquired medical skills. Khakimov - an ethnic Uzbek, originally from Samarkand - married a local Afghan woman and settled in the Shindand district. His wife later died. The couple had no children.
The extraordinary story follows a dogged decades-long hunt by the Committee for International Soldiers, a Moscow-based organisation largely made up of Soviet Afghan war veterans. The organisation made little progress during the 1990s, when Afghanistan was convulsed by civil war, and then ruled by the Taliban. It resumed the search following the US-led invasion of Aghanistan in 2001, stepping up its efforts in recent years.
The committee's deputy chairman, Alexander Lavrentiev, said contact was made with Khakimov two weeks ago, on 23 February. "Helpers from the local community brought him to Herat," Lavrentiev said. Khakimov - who was born in 1960 - could still understand Russian but spoke it very badly. He had no identification documents, Lavrentiev said, and had been living under the assumed name of Sheikh Abdullah.
"He was just happy he survived," Lavrentiev said, who personally met Khakimov in Herat in late February.
The Soviet soldier could still recall the names of his mother, brothers and sisters, as well as the place where he was first drafted into the Red Army. "In the words of Khakimov, he would very much like to meet his relatives, if they want to and if this isn't damaging for them," Lavrentiev told a press conference in Moscow on Monday.
Khakimov - now in his early 50s - had reportedly been living a semi-nomadic life and still has a nervous tic from his head injury. Intriguingly, he also recognised a photo of two other Soviet veterans who disappeared in Herat without trace. Khakimov told Russian investigators that both were alive and that he had met them in Afghanistan, now occupied a quarter of a century after the Soviets left by US, British and Nato forces.
Some 264 Soviet soldiers who fought in the 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan are still missing. Half are from Russia, with the other half from now-independent former Soviet republics including Ukraine. Most are assumed dead. Over the past decade the Kremlin's Committee for International Soldiers has tracked down 29 former soldiers. 22 have gone back to Russia, while seven opted to stay in Afghanistan.
Ruslan Aushev, a decorated Afghan veteran who has been leading the hunt, said the search would continue until the last man had been accounted for, Russian news agencies reported. Representatives from his committee have made dozens of trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in the region, and have exhumed the graves of more than 15 soldiers. Forensic tests using DNA from relatives have identified five of them, including three in 2012, Aushev said.
Photo: A Soldier with the1st Squadron, 108th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Mountain Warrior, works with his Afghan National Army partners to secure a former Soviet military facility during what Task Force Rough Rider calls a contractor’s rodeo. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Tracy J. Smith, 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs)