He was one of the Soviet soldiers that entered Afghanistan in the war that began in 1979 and lasted for nine years; a rookie, knowing nothing about what was awaiting for him. He was captured by the Mujahedeen – but then he became their friend; even more, he became the personal bodyguard of one of their leaders. How did he manage to survive? Why did his enemies become his allies? Nikolay Bystrov, an ex-Afghan POW turned Mujahedeen bodyguard is on SophieCo today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Nikolay, welcome to the show, thank you for finding the time. Your story is amazing. I know you go by another name, Islamuddin.
Nikolay Bystrov: Yes, I have an Islamic name.
SS: Which you consider your home country, Afghanistan or Russia?
NB: I have two home nations. Russia is my first home, the real one. But I see Afghanistan as home now as well.
SS: You were only 18 when you were sent to Afghanistan. Did you realize where you were going and what you’d face there?
NB: I knew nothing until they sent us to a boot camp in Turkmenistan. After six months in the boot camp, they told us we were going to Afghanistan.
SS: When they told you that you were headed there, did you have any idea what it would be like?
NB: They told us there was war. We realized that Afghanistan was another country but we had no idea what real war was like. Of course, we were curious to see it with our own eyes. But when we got there it was like we were on a different planet, with all the mountains and gunfire around us. At first, we were intimidated. But still, we were curious to experience war first-hand, because prior to that everything we knew about war came from books.
SS: Like little boys.
NB: But I did not see any action. I was on guard duty at Bagram air base.
SS: So, you were at this base? For how long?
NB: About six months. We just guarded the airfield.
SS: If you were at the base the whole time, how did you get captured?
NB: We went on leave. We headed to a nearby village to get some fruit. We’d already been there a couple of times before, and it was fine, but on the fourth time we were caught in an ambush.
SS: Do you remember that day?
NB: Yes. We were walking along the street, and a few Afghan boys ran up to us, saying, ‘Shuravi, Shuravi’, which means Soviets. We asked them where the local store was where we could buy something. They said, ‘It’s over there, we can take you there’. And then, as we were walking, at some point they disappeared. We never imagined little kids could trick us into an ambush. We trusted them and ended up captured.
SS: How did it happen? There were three of you?
NB: Yes, there were three of us.
SS: And how many people did they have?
NB: They had many people. There were two groups in the area, Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami. Immediately, one of my friends was wounded in both legs, another one was wounded, and I was wounded as well. Immediately, they surrounded us with their assault rifles, and they kept shooting over our heads to keep us down. Then they started yelling at us, telling us to get up and walk. I could walk, and my friend could walk, but the other one, the one who was wounded in the legs, could not walk, and they killed him.
SS: Did you shoot back?
NB: Yes, we did, but there were so many, and we quickly ran out of ammo, so there was nothing we could do. The only reason they didn’t kill me was because I could walk.
SS: What did they say? Or did they just drag you away?
NB: They took us to a village. There were two groups there, so they divided us. Jamiat-e Islami took me, and Hezb-e Islami took my friend.
SS: So you were left all alone among Afghan mujahedeen, and they took you to their camp, and what happened next? What was it like? What does a mujahedeen camp look like?
NB: I was terrified. Fear was all I felt. They all had beards, turbans on their heads, armed with rifles, yelling at me in their language. The first thing they showed me in the village were the bodies of soldiers and officers they had executed, just lying there in the square. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I knew from their gestures that they were telling me the same would happen to me.
SS: The same would happen to you?
NB: Yes. I was scared. I thought I was going to die. But then they started moving me from village to village at night, and I started thinking that perhaps they wouldn’t kill me. Perhaps they would ask for a ransom.
SS: Where did they keep you?
NB: Initially, when they captured me in Parwan Province, they kept me in a shed. Sometimes, they would put me in a pit. And then they took me to Panjsher.
SS: And what happened after that?
NB: From Panjsher, they took me to a village called Dangalak. That’s where I met their leader, Massoud. They brought me to him. I was standing there exhausted, bleeding, with dirty and bloody bandages, my teeth broken. They took me into a yard. There were a lot of people sitting there. A lot of people. One of the mujahedeen, who used to be an engineer, spoke a little Russian. He told me, “Say hello to these people.” And I don’t know why but I saw one person there who looked different from others. There were about 30 or 35 people there. I don’t know how to explain this but he looked different. So I walked straight to this man, to greet him first.
SS: And this was Ahmad Shah Massoud?
NB: At that point, I didn’t know it was him. I just thought I should say hello to their leader first and then to others. When I approached him, they grabbed me and pulled me back. The guy who spoke Russian asked me, “Why did you go to him first?” So I said, “He seems to be the most important person here. I just thought I’d greet him first.” That’s when Massoud laughed and told them to let me go. They let me go, and I said hello to him, and then I went around the yard and greeted everybody.
SS: How were you treated? Did you eat decently? Or did they beat you, starve you? Did they treat you as a slave?
NB: I don’t know why but the beatings stopped after that incident. They let me get washed up, gave me some clothes, bandaged my wounds, fed me and took me to a house where I lived. It was only later that I figured out that this was the house of Massoud himself and all those people, 30 or 35 of them, were all Massoud’s guests.
SS: Why do you think they kept you there? What did they need you for?
NB: I don’t know. Maybe they hoped to exchange me for some of their prisoners or something.
SS: Well, what did they tell you? That you were going to die?
NB: They didn’t tell me anything. For the next six months, every day I thought they were going to kill me.
SS: Your life changed after you met Massoud, right?
NB: Well, it didn’t happen overnight. I was captured during the first Panjsher offensive. It was followed by the second offensive when Soviet troops and pro-government forces attempted to bring the Panjsher Valley under control. Massoud then called his field commanders from all the provinces and told them to bring their prisoners to Panjsher. There were six of them, and I was number seven. I was relieved to see some fellow Russians. It was good not to be alone, because we didn’t know what was going to happen next. Massoud told the prisoners (via a translator): “The war is about to start. I decided to set you free. You can go wherever you like – to the US, Iran, Pakistan, Switzerland or elsewhere. You are free”. Everyone was happy.
SS: He wanted to set you all free?
NB: He wanted us to go to other countries, not back home.
SS: Well, how would he know? You could have returned home. Or do you think he could have kept track of you?
NB: They sent everyone to Pakistan first, and then to other countries. So, all of us prisoners got together. There were Russians, Turkmen and Uzbeks. But we didn’t trust each other, we never revealed our real background. One guy told me his name was Sasha and he was from Ukraine but that wasn’t true. I am originally from the Krasnodar Region, but I told them I was from Ukraine and my name was Semyonov, not Bystrov. We didn’t trust each other. So all the guys said they were ready to go to Pakistan, some wanted to go to Switzerland and France. I was the only one who stayed.
SS: Why? Did you like being a prisoner in Afghanistan?
NB: In those days, Soviet POWs feared they would be treated as traitors if they came back home. So I was afraid. Anyway, I still had hope that one day I would return. That’s why I didn’t want to go to any foreign country. Our, Soviet troops were still fighting in Afghanistan.
SS: Were Massoud and the other mujahedeen surprised by your decision?
NB: Yes. It was when the second Panjsher offensive was launched, and Massoud told the local population in the Panjsher Valley to move to the north of Afghanistan. He followed them, and I went, too. He had five bodyguards, they were old Afghan men, I was his sixth bodyguard.
SS: Did he offer you the job? Or did it just happen that way?
NB: No. As we were approaching the mountain pass, he gave me a gun.
SS: Was it a show of confidence in you?
NB: Probably. So he gave me a gun and told me I would go with him. That was quite a long and steep pass. I was the first to climb it. And so I sat down on a rock and waited for them to catch up. They were going really slowly. They’d go about 20 steps and then rest for a while, and then continue. And suddenly an idea flashed in my mind. I decided to check the ammo. The magazine in the rifle and additional magazines were full, with a massive 120 cartridges. And the gun was in good condition. And then I saw the flares of signal guns, which meant Soviet troops or pro-government forces were near. And then I thought…
NB: I thought, ‘maybe I should kill them all right here, including Massoud, and run away’. But then I thought he had put his trust in me. So I just couldn’t do that.
SS: Massoud must have appreciated your move. Perhaps he gave you the rifle on purpose, to test your loyalty?
NB: And as they caught up with me, he sat down on the rock, took out a flask, poured a cup of tea for everyone. He kept looking at me smiling.
SS: How many years did you work with him?
NB: 10 or 11.
SS: So you became friends eventually?
SS: What was the average day with Massoud like?
NB: We were always on the move. Massoud was Commander-in-Chief of a large mujahiddeen group, We went from one province to another. We never stayed in the same location for more than 12 hours. We would always leave at night. We would go up the mountains, along dangerous and difficult paths.
SS: Were you ready to sacrifice your life for him? Surely that’s part of the job of a bodyguard...
NB: That was later when I got used to working for him...
SS: But you were ready to die for him?
NB: Yes. I was a bodyguard, my job was to protect his life.
SS: Did he pay you for that?
NB: Yes, although the pay was very small. I didn’t have a family so I didn’t need much. I shared the money with the other bodyguards, the Afghans, to cajole them because I was afraid they would frame me or speak badly about me behind my back. I was a bodyguard and a Muslim but I was still Russian, an alien to them.
SS: Nikolay, you said you converted to Islam. Did they force you to do it or was it your own decision?
NB: The mujahedeen suggested I should become a Muslim. They never forced anyone. It was my decision.
SS: How did it happen?
NB: As I had remained with Massoud, they told me: ‘Since you don’t want to leave, you’d better become a Muslim, you can then get married someday’. So, I became a Muslim. Several years later, after the Soviets had left, and the pro-Russian government of President Najibullah had been deposed, we settled in Kabul. Massoud then said: “You don’t want to go anywhere, neither home or abroad. You are such a strange man. You need to get married.”
SS: You had become a Muslim by then?
SS: Did you believe in God before being taken prisoner?
NB: Yes, I was baptized.
SS: Was it difficult to convert to a different faith?
NB: No, even today I am a Muslim and a Christian.
SS: You go to pray in church but also in a mosque, too?
NB: Yes, because there’s really only one God.
SS: Alright. But how did you get married? Did they find you a wife?
NB: Yes. The Afghans found me a bride, took me to her house. We met and I liked her.
SS: Did you see her face?
NB: Yes. Well, at first she wore a burka but then put on a hijab. She was told that I was Russian and asked whether she would marry me. She said: “He is a Muslim and he is one of us. I agree.” And so we got married. A mullah came and read the prayers. We had a sort of a wedding and there were even some guests! I fell in love with her and we now have three children.
SS: Before you returned to Russia, did you have any contact with the Taliban?
NB: Many of the friends I had at the time later joined the Taliban.
SS: Why did they join?
NB: Massoud fought against the Taliban when he was in Kabul. When Massoud died, and the foreign troops, the Americans, invaded Afghanistan, most of the Afghans who were loyal to Massoud, joined the Taliban.
SS: The mujahedeen joined the Taliban? Why?
NB: I spent many years in Afghanistan. Let me explain. The people of Afghanistan always say: ‘If someone comes to conquer us, we will never live peacefully, we will always fight against occupation. If you come to help us rebuild Afghanistan, you are welcome. But no weapons, please.’
SS: But the Soviet troops came to Afghanistan with weapons, right?
NB: Yes, and the Afghans fought against the Soviet Union.
SS: You regularly visit Afghanistan and you probably know the attitude of the Afghans to the Soviet troops and to the Americans. Is there a difference? Or are they both perceived as occupation forces?
NB: Well, there’s a big difference. True, both armies were occupiers. But I must say the Afghans really hate the Americans. They would tell me that the Soviet Union invested in Afghanistan and helped build schools, factories, roads and bridges. That’s what the people of Afghanistan I met told me. They said the Russians helped to improve life in Afghanistan. They now say that the Americans keep the situation under control, but it’s only getting worse.
SS: In your opinion, why? The Americans have been in Afghanistan for 12 years trying to bring some order. Have they managed to do that?
NB: I think the Afghans are invincible. They are too independent-minded, they love freedom. They don’t want to see foreigners in their country and will fight a guerilla war till the end.
SS: How can Taliban fighters who wage war on donkeys, so to speak, put up such strong resistance against NATO with its cutting edge military technology, but still can’t wipe out the Taliban? How do you explain it?
NB: The Afghans are very strong at guerilla warfare. They do these hit and run strikes which are always accurate. They get a lot of intelligence from ordinary people. They know the territory much better and because of all this they are always one step ahead.
SS: You mean Taliban fighters?
NB: Right. They strike and vanish. It’s extremely difficult to track them down. The Americans wage a bloody war against the Taliban. They kill a lot of fighters but their numbers are only increasing.
SS: Why? Is it the local population that bolsters their ranks?
NB: Yes. Most of the locals say they don’t want armed foreigners in their country and will fight to the end.
SS: Do they help the Taliban because of fear? Are they afraid?
NB: I don’t know. There’s one more thing. I think some countries are feeding them cash and arms to prolong this fight.
SS: Who are they? You must know because you are still in contact with those people. Where does the Taliban get the funds for weapons, equipment and technology to resist NATO?
NB: It must be some Muslim countries. Muslims always help each other.
SS: You also suggested before the interview that it could be Americans who sell them the weapons.
NB: Yes, there are many folks who would eagerly sell a grenade or anything else. The Taliban now has a big arsenal of American weapons. Where do they get them? I think some of it may indeed come from the Americans.
SS: What kind of technology do they use? Do they really have cutting edge technology? Or is it all outdated?
NB: Outdated, but they are still fighting well. When our troops were in Afghanistan, our convoys were attacked by mujahedeen. Today we have the Taliban who attack the Americans.
SS:You say the Afghans want all foreigners to leave their country. But aren’t there foreigners among the Taliban, too?
NB: Yes, they’ve got mercenaries. They are everywhere. They fight for money.
SS: What do ordinary Afghans think about these mercenaries? Do they support them just like the Taliban?
NB: They are from Muslim countries, they’ve come to help their brothers, as they say. And no-one cares that they are paid to fight.
SS: Does the Taliban have the backing of the majority of Afghans? Or are there only limited areas, like the border regions, where they enjoy the support?
NB: It is true, the majority of the nation supports the Taliban. But Afghanistan is such an unpredictable country. Who knows, there might be peace when foreigners leave...
SS: What part of the territory does the Taliban control today?
NB: It’s a large territory. The Taliban fighters operate in all the provinces, and they are a real force to be reckoned with.
SS: So the US has been in Afghanistan for 12 years trying to dismantle and destroy the Taliban, and now they are going to withdraw only to see the Taliban return to power. It appears the US has wasted their effort.
NB: Just like the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. The US has attempted to control the situation but despite that the number of Taliban fighters has been increasing. Until the Americans leave, the Afghans say the Taliban will continue fighting.
SS: But they thought the same about the Soviet soldiers, too?
NB: Many say that it’s better to have a close neighbor than a faraway friend. It means they regarded us as their neighbors. They say that Russians helped them and invested in Afghanistan. Now they say their country is heading towards disaster.
SS: What about those roads and schools that are being built?
NB: It was done by the Soviet Union.
SS: Well, the US is doing some construction there, too.
NB: Still, there are more Soviet buildings.
SS: The Soviet war in Afghanistan officially ended 25 years ago. Did it end for you at that point?
NB: No. Today, together with a special committee, we are still searching for prisoners and remains of former Soviet soldiers. I regularly travel to Afghanistan and carry out searches there. We’ve been able to return about 30 soldiers, both alive and dead.
SS: Soviet prisoners of war?
NB: Yes. Some of them died there, some were captured. There are many more people left there. Our job is to bring them home. The war is not over while our soldiers are still on Afghan soil.
SS: Are US troops more experienced, more organized?
NB: We were very young when the war started. But a war is a war; it always claims the lives of people.
SS: Do you have the feeling that Soviet soldiers were better able to understand the Afghans than the Americans today?
NB: I met with some former fighters. They say the Soviet troops fought better than the Americans, although they were young. They say the Soviets sent in troops first while the Americans bomb everything first.
SS: Does it mean they had more respect for the Soviets?
NB: They say a real soldier should be like that.
SS: Thank you, Nikolay, for sharing the amazing story of your life with us today. I wish you all the best, happiness and good health.
NB: Thank you.
SS: Thank you very much.