Russians thrown into Tajik breach

Russian soldiers in Tajikistan on the Afghan, border. (Photo by Maria Korolov.)

ON THE other side of the electrified barbed-wire fence is a mine field, a couple of hundred yards of brush, the Pyanj river, and Afghanistan.

All along the 620-mile border, Russian soldiers peer nervously through binoculars and night scopes, from observation towers, out of trenches, and from behind artillery equipment.

The Commonwealth of Independent States now has 15,000 servicemen in Tajikistan, after two dozen deaths in a July attack by opposition fighters based in northern Afghanistan. Even so, there is fear at the border that it will be difficult, if not impossible, permanently to hold off rebel forces.

In the Pyanj border district, where several servicemen were wounded in attempted border crossings in the past fortnight, the most common vegetation is the pistachio tree.

Soldiers from the 201st mobile infantry division, recently arrived to bolster up border defences, say that spies and snipers often disguise themselves as pistachio pickers.

On a drive through the surrounding hills on an eight-wheeled armoured personnel carrier, Captain Sergei Koloshov went out with a team to re-evaluate defences.

Hill after hill was charred black, set on fire by tracer bullets, but the pistachio trees still stood. A few minutes out of the base camp, Capt Koloshov spotted two men on motorcycles moving fast on a dirt road on the other side of a field crisscrossed by trenches and dotted by firing range warning signs.

‘Maybe we should stop them?’ asked one soldier, ‘why bother? They’re going to have all the paperwork proving they’re pistachio pickers. We’ll just have to let them go.’

Further out from base, towards one of the more outlying border posts, the soldiers became more nervous. They wore bullet-proof jackets and held automatic rifles ready, watching the trees, caves, hilltops, ravines, and abandoned farmhouses for potential snipers.

It took almost an hour to arrive at their destination, a remote border post in the Pyanj district where approximately 30 men guard about 40 miles of territory. Cut off from the outside world for weeks or months at a time, the men often turn to drink to combat the feelings of fear and isolation.

‘I can’t count on anyone to come help us,’ said the commander at the post. He joked that the length of time he could hold off an attack depended completely on the amount of ammunition he had next to him when the moment came.

The one mountain road leading back from his post, a sandy, pitted winding track manageable only by the armoured personnel carriers, could be easily blocked off, he said, and the radio link often goes down.

Attacks are expected within the next couple of months, when early snows will close off the passes in the Pamir mountains to the east, the mojahedin’s most reliable route into the republic.

And the threat is not just from across the border, according to Russian officers. There is widespread support for the Islamic opposition among the people living in the south of Tajikistan. Nonetheless, soldiers keep arriving. Some are drafted, some coerced, and some volunteer.

‘All of Russia is here,’ said Fedya, a suntanned soldier in his early twenties at the 201 infantry training camp on a bluff overlooking the Afghan-Tajik border. ‘This is not my republic,’ said Captain Viktor Grankin, commander of the 11th border post in the Pyanj district, ‘but it’s my duty. Everyone will stay here as long as needed.’

‘This isn’t limited to Tajikistan,’ he said. ‘If we remove Russian troops, then our next problem will be Uzbekistan . . . The same way we stand here, we will be standing on our own doorstep.’

According to both Russian and Tajik sources, the Russians are needed here because Tajikistan is not able to guard the border on its own.

‘We are unable to give any guarantees,’ said Major Izatlo Kuganov, commander of the 11th brigade of the Tajik army.

According to Maj Kuganov, all the equipment his brigade had was given by the 201st, as the Tajik government could not provide for the army. ‘They feed us with words,’ he said. And soldiers were volunteers because the Tajik government had no money for salaries, he added, and many men left to provide for their families.

According to Corporal Yevgeny Merkulov, of the 191st garrison of the 201st division in Kurgan-Tyube, Russia was the only hope for stability in the region.

‘Otherwise,’ he said, ‘Tajikistan would vanish as a country.’ He laughed at Tajikistan’s attempts to help guard the border with Afghanistan. ‘They throw naked untrained soldiers out there. As a result, there’s an ocean of corpses. They’re all cannon fodder,’ he said.