Opium for the world
by Lutz C. Kleveman

published in DIE ZEIT in November 2002 (excerpts)

Late in the afternoon we arrive in Faizabad, the province’s largest town. Here, some 50.000 people live in pre-modern buildings, interspersed with groves of poplars and mulberry trees, on the shores of the thundering Kokcha river. Old Russian UAS off-roaders try to plough a way through the medieval chaos of horse-drawn carts and pack-mules. The women at the bazaar all wear white or blue burqas. Those who are held in sufficiently high esteem by their husband ride on a donkey that the men drag through the streets - in this part of the country which never came under Taliban rule the power of the mullahs and mujahideen is as unbroken as in Herat. There is hardly any electrical light at night: the small water-driven power plant upriver has been broken for years, only a few privately-owned generators provide power. It seems that no Badakhi warlord has as yet allowed himself to be disarmed by the government in Kabul - the fighters openly flaunt their rifles in the streets.

Our first visit is to Said Amin Tareq, the all-powerful governor of Badakhshan. This is as much a matter of politeness as of caution: I figure that in a place as lawless as Faizabad it is good idea to let the man with the biggest gun know that you are around. Luckily, my travel companion and interpreter Baqi is carrying a letter of introduction for the governor in his pocket, written for us by a powerful friend back in Kabul. Medieval as this laisse-passer might seem, in the absence of formal authority in rural Afghanistan it all comes down to whom you know and trust. In brief, I hope that the letter might increase our chances of a tolerant welcome. Instead, when we are allowed into his office, Governor Tareq pays barely any attention to the envelope. Nor does he seem to be terribly happy about the purpose of our visit. Nervously clicking plastic green worry beads, he grunts at us: “You have come a long way to see us - but you will not find any poppy fields here, except maybe one or two way up in the mountains.”

In fact, the village of Bymalacy lies less than ten kilometres from the governor’s splendid residence - directly by the side of the road to Kabul. In summer, locals tell me, the red poppy fields were impossible to overlook. As we enter the village, the male inhabitants, rough-hewn men with weather-beaten faces, step out of their mud huts to welcome us. They are very friendly. Three old rugs are spread out on the village square and we are invited to sit down for a cup of tea. After some polite chit-chat, my interpreter Baqi gets to the point: opium. Big smiles all around, nobody seems to feel a need for hush-hushing. One of the farmers by the name of Kamil By looks over to the bearded elders seated around him. When they nod, Kamil By reaches under his shalwar kameez and fishes out a brownish, sticky lump: recently harvested and dried opium. With circular movements of his index finger, the haggard man crushes several crumbs in his palm. The resulting powder fills up his deeply-cracked calluses, making them look like the branches of a tree. “This stuff is good - the dealers on the bazaar are wild about it, they give me 350 dollars per kilo,” the 65-year-old whispers excitedly. One hectare yields about 40-45 kilograms of opium, at the going rate worth about 15,000 dollars. It is a mind-boggling sum for any Afghan even after subtracting the salaries for the many workers who during the poppy bloom lance the stems before sunrise and collect the discharged liquid in the evening. “The harvest was very good. The dealers are already paying us advances on next year’s crop,” Kamil By says wryly. A defiant smile creeps over his sun-parched face, wrinkled like a walnut shell.

“What are we supposed to cultivate instead? There is not enough rain for wheat or corn,” the farmers on the village square complain. Four years of drought have dried out the earth, leaving entire regions desolate. Unless irrigated, the soil sustains nothing but the robust poppy plants. They have long been grown for medical purposes: in a well-cooked soup the stem has an antibiotic effect. “Anyway, we have no seeds other than poppy. When the rain did not come many of us died,” adds Kamil By. Rather than starving, five of his sixteen children moved away - Bymalacy lost half of its inhabitants. “In some villages, there are only scorpions and cobras left.” The suffering was terrible, even though the Afghan civil war largely spared Badakhshan, with the anti-Taliban warlords led by General Ahmed Shah Massud successfully defending the province. Both sides used the drug trade to finance their struggle.

The situation was no different in the 1980s when the Afghan mujahideen waged the jihad against the Soviet troops. It is an open secret that back then the CIA clandestinely helped with the cultivation of opium and its processing to heroin in backyard laboratories, in the hope that the Russian soldier would fall prey to the stuff. The calculation worked, thousands of soldiers became addicted. At the same time, many holy warriors became rich as drug barons: The donkeys carrying the Stinger missiles and assault rifles, arranged by the CIA to be smuggled from Pakistan into the country, rarely returned unladen. Thus, Afghanistan soon surpassed the “golden triangle” in South East Asia as the world’s biggest heroin exporter - in Washington’s view this was a necessary evil in pursuit of victory in the Cold War. In the 1990s, the warlords had no desire to give up war as a smokescreen for their murky business deals. The Taliban and the so-called Northern Alliance, feted as “freedom fighters” after 11 September 2001, increased opium production. Badakhshan in particular, the fiefdom of the former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, degenerated into one giant poppy field.

“And still, though the war is long over, we have to pay one tenth of our profits to the warlords of the region,” complains the peasant Kamil By. One tenth, that is the ushr which the Koran obliges every Muslim to pay to the community. Some of the men in the group look around nervously. Hesitatingly, they tell me of a farmer in a neighbouring village who had refused to give money to the local commander. “That same day, his bodyguards took care of the man, for several hours…” If a poppy farmer decides to quit growing the crop he is in for trouble with the warlords. Death threats are not unusual, say the villagers. After all, the commanders also have to pass on the ushr to their superiors. The farmers fall into a sombre silence until Kamil By remarks, glaring at me: “In the West, you are upset about the opium we produce. I ask you: where do the weapons come from that the warlords use to suppress us here?”
On the way back into town I notice an official graffito on a wall that reads, in English: “Production Sale and Use of Opium is strongly forbidden by Islam.”

Strictly speaking, it would be inaccurate to call Hamdullah Daneshie a warlord. He leads no raucous bunch of guerrilla fighters, nor does he wear a turban - and yet the slight black-bearded man is one of the chiefs of Badakhshan. Mr. Daneshie is the top police chief of the entire province, commanding some 4000 men. In Badakhshan where there is no formal law to enforce, this equates to enormous personal power - and very little willingness to tolerate unpleasant questions in his Faizabad headquarters. “That is all rubbish, propaganda and lies! Nobody takes the ushr from poppy farmers,” Mr. Daneshie, dressed in a field grey uniform, claims in an indignant voice. The knuckles of his fingers begin to turn white with tension. Nervously, the police chief rearranges the bouquet of garish plastic flowers in a vase on his desk. “The Koran states very clearly that opium is haram, i.e. forbidden. No commander in Badakhshan would try and make money from it.”

If opium production is illegal, I ask Mr. Daneshie, what is he doing against it? Without a thought he blurts out: “Nothing!” He had merely informed the population that the government in Kabul had outlawed poppy growing. The police would leave it up to the farmers either to obey or ignore the new law. Laconically, Mr. Daneshie justifies his policy: “Laws have to serve the human being, not the other way around. I will not have poppy fields burned down and the farmers driven to starvation.” The powerful police chief hails from a village in the Jurm district, some two hours drive cross-country from Faizabad, which is said to be a major opium producing area. He knows the people’s concerns there. “During the drought they ate tree bark and human flesh. At the same time, they gave up the best of their sons to the Jihad - so we will not desert them now.” My objection that it is not primarily the farmers but the smugglers and mafia dealers who profit from the drug business leaves Mr. Daneshie unimpressed: “We have set up police checkpoints on the roads to combat the smuggling. The mafia is helpless against us.”

In early 2002, the UN mission in Kabul announced an action plan to combat the opium problem: Poppy farmers who voluntarily agreed to their fields being burned would receive 1750 dollars per hectare in compensation. So-called “eradication teams” swarmed out into the provinces, protected by British elite soldiers. But the plan backfired. “When the farmers heard that the UN would not punish them but instead practically wanted to buy poppy plants from them, they grew us much as they could,” a local NGO employee tells me. “The whole of Badakhshan was covered with one red poppy carpet, even in gardens and on the roofs of houses.” Although the promised compensation was only a fraction of what a farmer could earn by selling a hectare’s worth of opium but frequently the predominantly Afghan members of the UN teams were open to bribery. The trick was to collect money twice: a farmer who had one acre of poppy plants destroyed would claim damage compensation for four hectares. In return for a juicy share of the additional compensation, UN workers were prepared to condone the fraud.
Even teams that took their job seriously caused more harm than good, as the NGO worker recalls. “When the UN people did not manage to set fire to the green poppy plants on fire they merely kinked the flower heads - but, of course, that did not stop the flow of opium juice, and the harvest went on.”

For a long time, Badakhis exported only raw opium to the neighbouring countries where it was processed to heroin. In the late 1980s, profit-conscious Afghans began to produce the ready-to-use powder themselves. Again, the Western secret services are said to have provided the necessary know-how and equipment. Today, a dozen such backyard laboratories are assumed to be hidden in Badakhshan where the opium is mixed with limestone and brought to the boil in old oil drums. Adding the acetic anhydride turns the creamed-off mass into brownish heroin powder. At this point, the smugglers enter the game. They carry the stuff to the nearby border with Tajikistan. The most important transports are planned and prepared at the bazaar in Faizabad, the province’s commercial centre. A muddy track which locals call the “main road” is lined with squalid wooden stands where traders sell their wares: mountains of pears, grapes, pomegranates, and fresh figs. Skinned lambs, slaughtered down by the river at sunrise, dangle from hooks, hundreds of blood-crazed wasps whizzing around them. The arms dealers ply their trade with scarce discretion: in backrooms they sell anything from landmines to rocket-propelled grenades. One dealer even promises he could get me a functioning T-54 tank for 100.000 dollars. Shipping time: overnight.

The big bosses in the drug business, however, are rather inconspicuous gentlemen: the moneychangers. At first sight, their stark offices near the mosque do not betray any criminal wealth. What is startling, though, is that the moneychangers are able to cough up a million dollars overnight. In this bitterly poor region, so much cash can only come from one source: drug profits. In fact, the moneychangers have come up with a great way to launder the dirty money: by conducting currency transfers from abroad. As no functioning bank system has yet been set up in Afghanistan, foreign aid organisations in particular rely on what is called the hawala system: in Dubai or Karachi, the organisation pays a certain amount into an account owned by a family member of a moneychanger. The two men communicate by satellite phone upon which the moneychanger pays the same amount, minus a fee, to the organisation’s representatives in Faizabad. That way, it is the humanitarian aid workers of all people who unwillingly, albeit knowingly, help the drug mafia launder their dirty profits.

The shop of Qadir M. lies right next to the moneychangers’ offices. The question whether the burly, middle-aged man is active in the drug trade himself is taboo - and superfluous anyway. Few people on the Faizabad bazaar manage never to keep totally out of “the business”. Things are difficult to hide in a small town. “Smuggling is easy: with donkeys or jeeps you take the stuff to the commanders near the border,” says Qadir, after locking the door. They would then get in touch with their accomplices on the Tajik side: Russian officers. Both parties arrange a suitable time and place for an undisturbed exchange of drugs and money, Qadir reports. He knows of occasional problems with young Russian officers who are still over-zealous and incorruptible. “But most of them change their mind after some time. Then only those smugglers who do not ‘officially’ declare a transport risk getting caught by the Russian border guards,” Qadir tells me. “Usually, the Russians kill those ‘uncooperative’ smugglers, as a warning to others.”

In Qadir’s view, the drug trade is a grave threat to peace in Afghanistan. “The highest political leaders of this country are behind the heroin business. And they will need more war in the future to make their deals under the cloak of Islam.” In fact, for some time rumours have been going around that the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has found refuge in Badakhshan. The radical Islamist who bombed large parts of Kabul to ashes in the mid-1990s, has called for a jihad against the U.S. forces in the country. Some people claim that the Pashtun has repeatedly met up with ex-President Rabbani, the provincial ruler of Badakhshan, for discussions on how to regain power in Kabul together. Associates of Juma Namangani, the leader of the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who was killed during an American air strike in Afghanistan, are reported to have been present at the meetings. “The lust for power and the drug business bring old enemies together,” believes Qadir. “Soon, we could see fighting in Badakhshan again. Peace is bad for business.”

That evening, a man who works at the governor’s palace sneaks into the guesthouse where we are staying to deliver an urgent warning. “You are in danger, you must leave the town as soon as you can - some people in Faizabad are getting very angry with you.” The man whom my interpreter has befriended appears extremely worried. “Do not take a car because they might have something prepared for you to make it look like an accident.” After the man vanishes into the darkness of the night I ask my interpreter who is from Kabul how credible this tip-off is. “Very,” he says. “I can feel the danger.” I decide not to take chances. First thing next morning, we drive to the UN mission in Faizabad and ask for transport. Luckily, a flight from Islamabad to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, is scheduled to stop over at the airfield near Faizabad later that day. Two seats are available, at $220 per person. It is a small price to pay for security and a direct airlift to what is my next destination anyway.

The headquarters of the Russian border troops in Tajikistan are located in a white 19th century villa, hidden behind tall chenars right in the centre of Dushanbe. Above the imposing pillars, hallmarks of Tsarist colonial architecture in Central Asia, flies the flag of the Russian Federation. To be sure, the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan has since 1992 been a nominally independent state but the influence of the one-time imperial centre Moscow is still quite palpable. More than 20,000 Russian border guards and regular army troops are stationed in the mountainous country. As Moscow’s largest military force outside the Russian borders, the troops constitute a counter-weight to the increasing American presence in Central Asia. Most of them were sent here as CIS peacekeepers in 1997 after a disastrous five-year civil war had turned Tajikistan into a failed nation.

More than 50,000 people, mostly civilians, had died in the fighting between the post-communist government and Islamic factions. Today, the pro-Moscow government of President Imamali Rakhmanov has made some progress towards a more stable situation and national reconciliation but Moscow rejects any idea of withdrawing its troops. The 201st Motorised Division would stay for at least another 15 years, the Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov recently announced. In fact, the Russians are currently constructing new divisional headquarters in Dushanbe. The border guards stationed along the 1400-km border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan are unlikely to pull out any sooner.

“We are protecting the southern flank of the CIS against Afghan terrorists, arms dealers and, most importantly, drug smugglers,” says Lieutenant Colonel Pjotr Pjotrovic. “In a sense we are the first bulwark of Western Europe where most of the heroin ends up after all.” Mr. Pjotrovic, a short, plump man with cropped hair, extinguishes his cigarette between his thumb and index finger. His secretary, a buxom 20-year-old girl in tight jeans and a fairly minimalist t-shirt, pours more coffee into his cup. “The drug smuggling has got much worse. They must have had a bumper harvest over there,” the officer goes on to say. In the first six months of 2002 alone, his colleagues have confiscated 1500 kilogram of heroin, compared with 1200 kilogram in all of 2001. This year, the dealers in Tajikistan pay up to 3000 dollars per kilogram - a price that later rises dramatically along the transport routes to the European market. In London, one kilogram of heroin can fetch up to 100,000 dollars.

In fact, the smuggling routes for Afghan drugs have shifted markedly in the recent past. Only a few years ago, most of the Afghan heroin and opium was taken to the other two countries of the “Golden Crescent”: Pakistan and Iran. From the Pakistani port of Karachi the pernicious powder reached Europe by ship, less often by airoplane. From Iran, lorry drivers in particular smuggled the narcotics through Turkey and the Balkan countries of Bulgaria, Albania and the ex-Yugoslav republics to Western Europe. However, the large-scale heroin traffic led to catastrophic drug problems in the transit countries of Pakistan and Iran themselves. Millions of young people have become addicted, tens of thousands die every year. According to UN statistics, Iran has the highest proportion of drug-addicts in the world. As a result, the governments in Islamabad and Tehran have massively stepped up their controls at their respective borders with Afghanistan.

The smuggling gangs have therefore moved elsewhere: to the so-called „silk routes“ through the former Soviet Union, starting in Tajikistan. Feeble state structures, porous borders and underpaid, corrupt security forces have created ideal conditions for an undisturbed traffic in drugs. Two routes lead northwards to Russia: either via Dushanbe and Ubzekistan or via the Pamir highway and the Kyrgyz city of Osh in the Fergana valley, the reloading point for heroin in Central Asia. The few Russian security forces along the Pamir highway do not always take their job seriously. On one journey on the magnificent 780-km road, I was made to stop at only one Russian checkpoint where bored soldiers just briefly glanced into the boot. They did not use any sniffer dogs.

With Kazakhstan getting more serious about combating the drugs trade, smugglers have begun to take a new detour from Osh via the western Chinese province of Xingjiang to Russia. Moscow, the mafia capital, is the main hub from where couriers take the narcotics by car, train or lorry through Belarus and Ukraine to Western Europe. In the transit country of Russia itself, the wave of Afghan drugs has caused a social catastrophe: the number of drug-addicts has grown from three to five million. In the first half of 2002 alone, the Russian authorities have registered more than 100,000 cases of drug-related crimes - an increase of 19 percent to the previous year. As many of the impoverished drug-users share their needles, Russia is also struggling with one of the world’s highest growth rates in HIV infections.

In the Russian government’s view, the root of these problems lies in Tajikistan. One third of all drug smugglers arrested in Russia in 2002 were Tajiks. “Just the day before yesterday we detained two kontrabandisti and confiscated 32 kilograms of heroin,” Lieutenant Colonel Pjotrovic tells me. Detained? The brief news item in the papers had sounded differently. Shrugging his shoulders, Mr. Pjotrovic replies: “Oh, well. There appears to have been an exchange of fire. In the course of that, the criminals were killed, I believe.” On the wall behind the Russian officer, several photographs show Afghan prisoners being led away on a field - shackled and blindfolded. The Russian soldiers guarding them look terribly indifferent. I ask Mr. Pjotrovic how many smugglers were shot dead at the border this year? “I cannot tell you, these statistics are not public.” Only after much prodding and the repeated offer of cigarettes, he discloses that the number exceeded 30 - in the course of 55 illegal border crossings. The Russians obviously do not play around much. “But one border guard was killed, too,” Mr. Pjotrovic is quick to add.

I decide to travel down to the border to get a picture on the ground. The flight from Dushanbe to the border town of Khorog in Tajik Badakhshan turns out to be the most hair-raising of my life. It used to be the only one in the entire Soviet Union where Aeroflot pilots were entitled to a danger bonus. During some 60 spine-chilling minutes in the air, I can clearly see why: the small Fokker plane flies through the narrow gorges and right past the snowy peaks of the Pamir range, the tips of the wings nearly touching the rocky cliffs. The view over the “roof of the world”, as the Pamir is called, is no less magnificent: to north lie its two highest peaks still bearing their Soviet-era names: Pik Kommunizma (7495m) and Pik Lenina (7134m). Below us is the Badakhshan region, divided into an Afghan and a Tajik part. The artificial border was finally drawn in the early 20th century as part of a compromise between the British and the Russians to end the “Great Game”. As a buffer zone, the diplomats carved out the eastern extension of Badakhshan, a long narrow stretch of territory known as the Wakhan Corridor. Today, it also borders China and Pakistan. For the sake of keeping the two empires apart, the Badakhis were separated and hence drawn into two very different orbits. Ironically, only the post-Soviet chaos in both Tajikistan and Afghanistan has allowed Badakhis on both sides to reach out to each other again, restoring long-lost kinship ties. This has contributed to the cross-border flow of drugs. After the shaky landing on Khorog’s airfield even the locals on the plane seem relieved.

Khorog is a weird place. It lies on a narrow high plateau at a height of 2000 metres, squeezed between craggy and snow-covered mountains. Almost all of its 20,000 inhabitants are unemployed for the infertile alpine wasteland is unsuitable for agriculture. The only factory in town, a textile plant, was shut down years ago. The university, however, whose excellent reputation in Soviet days lured settlers to this bleak spot, is still open. That is why even bazaar vendors speak several foreign languages and keep academic diplomas in their pockets. Because so many young men died during the civil war or moved away in search of jobs, the gender ratio in Khorog is dramatically tilted: for each man, there are eight women.

“And they are very beautiful, too - this makes life a bit more tolerable,” my driver Ruslan grins ambiguously. The tall young man is one of the lucky few to have found a part-time job at a Western aid organisation in town. Asked about the Russian border guards, however, his face darkens instantly: “They behave like colonial rulers, they want to suppress us Tajiks.” In Ruslan’s view, the struggle against drugs is but a pretext for their military presence, because it is a fact that the Russians themselves are deeply implicated in the drug smuggling. Only a few weeks previously, a Russian general was arrested in Tajikistan with 80 kilograms of pure heroin in his bags.

Then Ruslan brings up a tragic incident in June that has occupied the people of Khorog for the entire summer: the violent death of five locals at a Russian checkpoint. Border guards shot them dead in their Lada after they were allegedly caught smuggling heroin. “That was murder,” the Tajik says. “I grew up with those guys. They were no drug smugglers, no way. The Russians are lying.” Ruslan believes that the young men, members of a sports club, returned from a picnic in the mountains. Ruslan is convinced that “the Russian border guards were drunk, as always. They just killed the guys for fun.” The families of the dead demanded an investigation of the tragedy, but to no avail. “The packs of heroin presented by the Russian authorities to the public after the shooting were planted in the men’s pockets after they were killed. After all, the Russians have got plenty of that stuff.”

The barracks of the unit responsible for the killing lie an hour’s drive south of Khorog, along the thundering Pjanj river marking the official border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It is strewn with enormous boulders, which would make it easy to cross from one country to the other dry-foot. Bleak mountain slopes rising on both sides, the narrow valley is dotted only with a few poplar trees.
At the base’s main gate, the Russian soldiers look at me askance. To enter the premises, an officer informs me, I would need an official letter of permission from the ministry in Moscow. I know that already. The problem is that this document is about as difficult to obtain as a private bedroom audience with the Pope. The countless faxes I sent to the ministry before my journey never elicited any response at all. The good news is that Russian soldiers on the ground, unlike the robot-like Chinese, go by the book only when they really have to. So it takes a few minutes of pleading and joking, and I am in.

Walking through the gate, I hear loud orders being barked across the courtyard. Twenty newly arrived recruits from Russia undergo the first drill: again and again, an officer orders them to stand upright and then drop to the ground. They practice disassembling and reassembling AK-47 assault rifles. Afterwards, the men move on their bellies across the concrete courtyard, past a new monument commemorating the barracks’ existence from 1918 till 2001 - above the dates chiselled into the stone and painted red the outline of the Soviet empire. It still stretches from Vilnius to Vladivostok, as if the newly independent republics such as Tajikistan did not even exist.

Through a window in the officers’ barrack, Captain Oleg H. observes the training. The blond man from Moscow whose face turns scarlet after just a single glass of vodka joined the border guards eight years ago. For some time now, he has been fed up with his job. Life in the barracks is rough and the salary is measly. The 34-year-old wants to go “damoi”, back to his Moscow home. For months he has neither seen his wife nor their daughter, he says.
At the mention of the deadly incident during his patrol in June, Oleg smirks briefly. “It was shortly before midnight when I received a radio call from a patrol a few kilometres downriver that they had spotted two Afghan men who carried a rope and a tractor tyre.” This is typical smuggling gear with which the drugs are transported across the river. On the Tajik side, accomplices take over the load. “They could not be far,” Oleg goes on to say. “Suddenly, this white Lada appeared on the road in front of us.” The situation reminded the Russian of an ambush by Afghan kontrabandisti that he and his comrades had got into on that same road years earlier. The attackers fired hundreds of rounds from their AK-47s and fled. When Oleg lifted his head he saw his eight comrades lying next to him in their own blood, all dead. Miraculously, he was the only survivor, with only one bullet stuck in his thigh. Noticing that his gory story leaves me slightly incredulous, Oleg pulls up his trousers to show me the scar where the bullet went in.

“Back in June, we acted in accordance with the rules: we asked the passengers of the car twice to get out with their hands up,” Oleg tells me. “But then we saw their guns. In such a situation we shoot to kill. That is the way it is.” His right hand tenderly strokes the dark fur of his Doberman “Deutscher”. The dog is his closest friend at the base. It owes its name to the fact that as a young man Oleg served in an army unit in Magdeburg, Germany, where he picked up some German phrases. He likes to practice these on his dog, but for some obscure reason his favourite is “goodbye!”.
I ask Oleg about the rumours going around in nearby Khorog that corrupt Russian officers were in cahoots with Afghan drug smugglers. For a while the captain remains silent. He lights a cigarette and exhales the smoke. “Of course, a few soldiers here and there might stuff a few grams into their pockets, one cannot prevent that. As for officers, though, the KGB makes sure that it does not happen. We are all being strictly controlled.”

Oleg and I walk out to the courtyard. We pass a large plaque proclaiming: “To the heroes of the Soviet Union who gave their lives in the fulfilment of their internationalist duty.” Many of the black and white photographs with the faces of fallen Red Army men bear the caption “Afghanistan” and a date in the 1980s. “We have added a few heroes from Chechnya,” remarks Oleg before climbing up onto a watchtower at the far end of the base. Up there, a guard behind a machine gun watches the narrow river valley. On the Afghan side, I make out a man driving a donkey along a mountain path. A little further, right on the shore, two men are busy felling a young poplar. With every strike of the axe yellow leaves drop into the river. Oleg stares across the river. ”I want to go home, damoi,” he says. “This is not a nice place.”