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Decades since Soviets left, war hangs heavy on Afghans

Afghans feel the West, Muslim world turned their back on them after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989

15.02.2019
Decades since Soviets left, war hangs heavy on Afghans

By Shadi Khan Saif

KABUL, Afghanistan

Afghans marked the 30th anniversary of the Russian army’s withdrawal on Friday as the country finds itself till trapped in a deadly cycle of war that was unleashed four decades ago.

Amid a strange sense of déjà vu, the people of Afghanistan are now anxiously following the buildup in diplomatic efforts aimed at paving the way for the withdrawal of foreign troops -- this time, American troops.

Scars unforgotten

A permanent exhibition of the war victims now stands in the heart of the capital Kabul, not far from the iconic Dar-ul-Aman Palace -- a 19th century edifice stormed by the Soviet Spetsnaz (Special Forces) on a chilling night in December 1979. It has on display memories of some 2 million Afghans killed and more than 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons since then.

The “Memory and Dialogue” museum, as it is dubbed, also has items on display such as schoolbags, shoes, and uniforms of children killed by the ravages of war. They brought tears to the eyes of many visitors, who relived the horrors of war through these memories.

It took activists of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization eight years to find family members and loved ones of the war victims across the country.

According to various accounts, during the war, 3 million men, women and children were left injured and disabled, and more than 5 million more were forced to migrate. For decades Afghans remained the largest group of refugees worldwide, surpassed only recently by the Syrians.

Mohammad Hussain, a local visitor at the exhibit, told Anadolu Agency that the horrors of the dark past do not seem to be over. “The haphazard way in which the U.S. and the rest of the world left us alone after the dreadful Soviet invasion seems to be repeating this time, with the parties only switching sides.”

Now Moscow has been urging Washington to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. It also hosted the Taliban earlier this month for a conference with a number of Afghan politicians -- excluding the Kabul-based government, which the Taliban still refuses to recognize.

Afghanistan plunged into brutal civil war when the Red Army left in 1989, followed by the hardline Taliban filling the leadership vacuum in the 1990s.

Sima Samar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told Anadolu Agency it is critical for justice and peace to remember the war victims and condemn the perpetrators.

“No peaceful future can be ensured without healing the wounds of the past,” she said, adding that support for the war victims is absolutely essential in this regard.

Due to the enormous number of landmines planted by various warring sides over the last 40 years, Afghanistan has one of the world’s largest populations of disabled persons.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that close to 5 percent of Afghanistan’s population is disabled.

Every year, close to 10,000 new Afghans are registered with the ICRC to receive limb-fitting and physical rehabilitation.

World ‘turned its back’

There has been a common resentment in Afghanistan that the West and the Muslim world turned their back on the war-ravaged country after it defeated the Soviet Union.

Now urging Washington not to abandon Afghanistan again, the Western-backed Kabul government is profoundly concerned over the sudden withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani noted in an audio message marking the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal that Afghanistan, again standing at a critical juncture in its history, longs for a sustainable peace.

“History has lessons for us to improve our present and past,” he said. “The invading Soviet soldiers were compelled to leave Afghanistan in the wake of the just resistance of our people. But our concerns over the future went unaddressed, which resulted in more wars and destruction.”

‘Genocide’

Many foreign and local scholars, such as Samuel Totten, Michael Reisman, and Mohammed Kakar, declared the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to be a genocide. Estimates suggest that starting with a population of some 13.2 million in 1980, up to 2 million Afghans were killed during the Soviet occupation of 1979-1989.

“The Afghans fought the Soviet to have independence, peace, and the right to have a say in the formation of government through voting. We never wanted to end one war to begin another one,” Ghani said, in clear reference to fears among the masses of a repeat of the vicious circle that engulfed the country after the Soviet withdrawal.

After 17 years of fighting the Kabul government, the Taliban rebels have close control or contest close to 50 percent of Afghanistan, according to the U.S. watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction or SIGAR.

Amid the evident rush on the part of Washington to bring its troops home, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for Afghan reconciliation, is set to meet the Taliban in Qatar later this month, even as the militant group continues to avoid meeting or recognizing the Kabul government as the true representative of the Afghan people.

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