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The Way It Was

Exit from Afghanistan
Helen Womack, who many readers may know for her work as Moscow correspondent of The Independent and Moscow Times columnist in the 1990s, was working for Reuters in 1989. Here she gives a personal account of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which she and only a few other Western journalists were allowed to cover.
By Helen Womack

Hearing today’s debate about Afghanistan, I have flashbacks to another era when troops who had “fulfilled their international duty” thought the time was right to call it quits and start the long journey home. Indeed, when the first Soviet tank convoy left Jalalabad in May 1988, I was riding with them, an “embedded journalist”, although we didn’t use the word “embedded” in those days.

I was working for Reuters and had been sent to Kabul to cover the withdrawal, ordered by Mikhail Gorbachev. For most of the period of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Western reporters had only been able to get into the country by going over the mountains with the Mujahidin. Suddenly there was an opportunity for us to see Afghanistan alongside the Russians, through their eyes.

The army showed us their barracks and I remember the empty beds with black ribbons in memory of those who wouldn’t be going home. We also went to Mikrorayon, the officers’ suburb, which looked like any Soviet housing estate.

A few days into this visit, I was approached by my Soviet Foreign Ministry (MID) minder and told there was a chance to ride in the first convoy out of Afghanistan. It would set off from Jalalabad in the east. MID warned us that outside Kabul, they would be powerless to protect us. If we chose to go on the trip, we might face battle conditions because the rebels hadn’t accepted a ceasefire.

I thought about it. I was newly married and my then husband, Costya Gagarin, had been against me going to Kabul, let alone Jalalabad. For myself, I was afraid and excited in equal measure.

The chosen journalists, who included four women, were all assembled on the tarmac of Kabul airport, waiting for the military flight to Jalalabad. The officer in charge took one look at our group and said: “I’m not taking those women.” We girls protested, saying we had a job to do.

“Get on that plane then,” commanded the officer.

“Now what have we got ourselves into?” the four of us whispered.

The plane took off, shooting out flares to deflect the Mujahidin’s heat-seeking Stinger missiles. I found myself sitting next to Marco Politi of Italy’s Il Messaggero. He took my hand.

“I’m sorry, it’s a bit sweaty,” I said.

When we landed, the night air was full of the scent of flowers. We went straight into a press conference. Nearby, we could hear the sound of shelling. In Moscow, Costya read the wire reports and worried.

I spent the night in a small room, shared with Scandinavian colleagues. They offered me whisky to calm my nerves but I preferred fear and a clear head. Before dawn, I stood under a trickle of water from the rusty shower. I caressed my arms and legs, wondering if I would still have them the next day.

We attended a dawn ceremony on the parade ground after which we were taken to the convoy and allotted our vehicles. Marco and I were put on a personnel carrier manned by pro-Soviet Afghan soldiers.

We were told the road ahead, running through the mountains to Kabul, was mined and there might be snipers along the way. We could choose to sit inside the APC or on top. Inside, we would be safe from snipers but goners if we ran over a mine. On top, we could roll to safety from a mine blast but would be easy targets for snipers. We preferred the fresh air on top.

Crowds of Afghans waved us goodbye, some throwing flowers. Among the bouquets were other small gifts. I was hit in the mouth by a piece of dried camel dung. Nothing worse was to happen to me and the withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into a wonderful adventure holiday.

The ride, through spectacular mountain scenery, was exhilarating. Occasionally, the Mujahidin did shoot at us but they were in the distance and every time their little puffs of gun smoke came from the mountain-sides, Soviet helicopter gunships clattered up to protect us.

We relaxed. The movement of the APC was gentle—“like a gondola”, said Marco—and at one point, we even fell asleep. When we woke, the Afghan soldiers offered us packed lunches of flat bread and hard boiled eggs, washed down with water. Plenty of water…

Suddenly I understood why the officer at Kabul airport hadn’t wanted to take women. It had nothing to do with sexism. The men, you see, could urinate over the sides of the moving tanks but under Mujahidin fire, the convoy wasn’t making any comfort stops for ladies.

I crossed my legs and tried to imagine arid landscapes. All my previous thoughts of mortality were driven away by this desperation.

And then, for some reason, the whole convoy ground to a halt. I think one of the vehicles ahead of us must have broken down. I seized my chance, jumped down from the APC and hurried behind a rock. I prayed the convoy wouldn’t start up again, leaving me with my knickers down in rebelheld territory. Luckily, it didn’t.

We reached Kabul by evening. The next day, the soldiers had to listen to tedious speeches from the top brass at a farewell ceremony on the city’s main parade ground. We hacks stood to the side and at quite a distance from the men, who were lined up with their vehicles.

One soldier on a tank caught my eye and threw a bouquet in my direction. Normally, I am clumsy, myopic and hopeless at sport. But I was in such a state of flow that I stretched out my right arm and caught the bouquet in one hand, like an ace cricketer. The convoy erupted in applause.

After that, the convoy left to trundle on for a further four days to the Soviet border. MID didn’t waste the journalists’ time with this monotonous journey. Instead we were flown by military plane to Termez in Uzbekistan to prepare the welcoming party for the troops.

As on the flight to Jalalabad, we sat facing each other in two long rows. The central gangway was filled with red paper flags for the arrival ceremony. I felt we were in a flying waste paper basket, highly inflammable.

A Soviet officer opposite me lit a cigarette. I had been quite brave up to that point but now all my adrenaline had run out and I was my real, cowardly self. I started to cry.

“Please put that cigarette out,” I said.

Fortunately, without any display of machismo, he did and we landed safely.

With our load of red flags, we were ready to cheer when the convoy crossed the bridge over the Amu-Dar’ya River. In Termez, the Uzbek women had prepared a huge picnic of plov and water melon.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t sit around enjoying it for long because I had a story to file. Magic happened to me throughout my time in Afghanistan and it didn’t desert me at the end. I had a two-kopeck coin in my pocket. Unbelievably, I found a public telephone and got straight through to Moscow, breaking the news that the first Soviet soldiers were on home soil.

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