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Afghanistan Veterans in Belarus: Soldiers of Forgotten War

Few people from the West know that tens of thousands of Belarusians fought in Afghanistan.

The war has long been over, but its legacy remains. The Afghan war brought not only death, physical disabilities and material losses. It also made drug...


Afghanistan War Memorial on the Island of Tears in Minsk

Few people from the West know that tens of thousands of Belarusians fought in Afghanistan.

The war has long been over, but its legacy remains. The Afghan war brought not only death, physical disabilities and material losses. It also made drug addiction a widespread occurrence in the former USSR. 

On 15 February, the Belarusian warrior-internationalists celebrated their professional holiday. 24 years ago, on 15 February 1989, the Soviet troops left Afghanistan for good.

During 10 years of the war, the Belarusian military enlistment offices sent nearly 30,000 people to Afghanistan. Two-thirds of them still live in Belarus. In everyday life, these people are called Afgantsy, a Russian word for those who participated in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

The Afgantsy in Belarus have strained relations with the authorities. Although the Belarusian government has deprived the veterans of almost all benefits, some remain loyal to the authorities. Others openly oppose the regime, for example, political prisoner Mikalaj Autukhovich and human rights defender Aleh Vouchak.

Belarusian society never looks back on those events that transpired, and any moral estimations of that war are rare in the public sphere. Only the independent community’s representatives openly speak about the shame of particpating in the war for Belarus.

Afgantsy in Belarus 

The war in Afghanistan still causes pain in Belarusians' memories. This war remains the last in which they took part in and in which the Belarusian military involvement was very prominent. According to the number of human losses, Belarus is fourth after Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The Afghan Memory Foundation provides information that the Soviet authorities sent 28,832 Belarusians to Afghanistan during the war. 732 of them died, nearly as much were maimed and are now disabled. 12 Belarusians are still missing, three received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, two of them – posthumously. On average, the Afgantsy did not live long after the war – making it only to their 45th birthdays. More than half of the military casualties were under 20.

According to Radio Liberty about 21,000 participants of the Afghan war live in Belarus today. Approximately half of the Belarusian Afgantsy became members of the Belarusian Union of Afghan war veterans. A more specialised organisation – Association of People Disabled in the Afghan War is helping these warrior-internationalists. These kinds of organisations exist all over the former USSR.

There are certain separations in the relations between the Belarusian Afghan veterans. First of all, between those soldiers who were located at a base, the political ideologists and those who played the part of “cannon fodder” during the Soviet invasion. Children of high-ranking communist officials did not go to war, while the military actions were conducted at the expense of young soldiers from ordinary families.

The current discussion in the Afghan soldiers’ circles often comes to defining who are the real Afgantsy. Moreover, the veterans also are become divided by their attitude to the current Belarusian regime.

Why Do the Afgantsy Have Bad Relations with the Regime?

People who witnessed deaths of their 18-year-old friends have less fear towards the present authorities than ordinary Belarusians. However, not many Afghans are interested in the fight for their rights. 

The Belarusian authorities’ attitude to the Afgantsy grows colder and colder. The regime deprived them of benefits, leaving only an opportunity to apply for “targeted aid”. Some Afgantsy never applied for help. They think it will be a strike against their dignity.

In 2009, the Afghan war veterans human rights defender Aleh Vouchak, retired Lieutenant Colonel Alyaksandr Kamarouski and political prisoner Mikalaj Autukhovich sent a letter to Lukashenka, in which they declined to accept their awards dedicated to the 20th anniversary of withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the territory of Afghanistan. Many veterans supported their initiative and handed in their medals for participation in that war.

In addition, Vouchak and Kamarouski managed to defend free travel in the public transport for the veterans. Kamarouski says that the former soldiers “have nothing else”, except this meager benefit.

The Belarusian authorities dislike the most active Afgantsy for the support they have rendered to one of the persons who signed that famous letter – Mikalaj Autukhovich. The Supreme Court sentenced Autukhovich to five years and two months of imprisonment for the illegal storage of gun cartridges. Belarusian and foreign human rights defenders considered Autukhovich a political prisoner.

Many Afghan veterans think that all accusations against Autukhovich were nothing more than “empty words”, and his arrest looked like an attempt to discredit the whole movement of the Afghan war veterans.

Previously, the Belarusian Afgantsy had several small businesses, and they forwarded their incomes to the activity of the organisation and to support for their fellow veterans who are unemployed, disabled, or even for their funerals. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Kamarouski said, "there soon started claims being filed for no reason, and as a result three directors ran off, and the businesses became bankrupt”.

What Was the War for Belarus?

The war in Afghanistan brought not only numerous deaths and disabilities to Belarusians, but after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 1979 drug addiction in the Soviet Union grew enormously.  Soviet soldiers en masse became drug addicts — and they brought this habit back home with them.

Although drugs were produced in some Asian republics of the Soviet Union, like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, the mass addiction came to Belarus and other former USSR countries from Afghanistan. Afghanistan still remains to this day the biggest illicit drug exporter to Europe.

For many people, that Soviet invasion was a point of shame and disgrace. Many former soldiers refused to accept medals as they consider the war to be alien to Belarus as a nation.

Famous Belarusian artist Ales Pushkin, who served a year and a half in Afghanistan, says that “they forced Belarus to send its sons to defend the imperial interests of the Soviet Union, and we should never forget – we were occupiers there”.

Many of the Afgantsy agree with these words, but the members of the veteran organisations still do not speak up  whether the war was just. The Soviet war in Afghanistan is rarely discussed in public. The freezing of all civil and political processes in the country may partially explain this. However, even the Afgantsy themselves do not care about remembering the war itself or bringing it into the public spotlight. For them helping their former comrades-in-arms is more important that thinking about the reasons that the war happened. 

Ryhor Astapenia

Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia is the founder of the Centre for New Ideas and an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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