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News for Sociology of Religion -- Tue Feb 18 03:50:24 EST 1997

  • AFGHAN JOURNAL: DISPLACED RUSSIAN HAS NEW FAITH BUT NO HOME
    c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service KHINJAN, Afghanistan _ The troubles of Alexei Ivanovich Oleninbegan on a snowy day in November 1982. In the morning, commanderssummoned Soviet troops in Afghanistan to tell them that Leonid . . .


    AFGHAN JOURNAL: DISPLACED RUSSIAN HAS NEW FAITH BUT NO HOME

    JOHN F. BURNS
    c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service

    KHINJAN, Afghanistan _ The troubles of Alexei Ivanovich Oleninbegan on a snowy day in November 1982. In the morning, commanderssummoned Soviet troops in Afghanistan to tell them that LeonidBrezhnev, the Soviet dictator, had died at the age of 75.

    For many of the men, the news was not unwelcome, since Brezhnevhad committed Soviet troops to their Afghan venture three wintersearlier, with results that were already becoming a disaster. Butfor Olenin, the news from Moscow proved to be a false dawn on a daythat was to change his life in more fundamental ways.

    Toward dusk, he had driven his fuel tanker north from Kabul, thecapital, over the Salang Pass through the Hindu Kush, and down thenorthern slopes of the mountains on the last leg of the run to avast Soviet military camp. But the truck motor was misfiring, andhe fell behind the military convoy. Alone on a deserted road, hewas ambushed.

    His captors were members of one of the many Muslim guerrillagroups that had tied down a Soviet occupation force of 110,000 men,drawing Moscow ever deeper into a morass that was hastening thedemise of the Soviet Union, which finally collapsed in 1991. Theguerrillas fired rockets into Olenin's truck, then led him off,hands roped, into the mountains that were to be his home for thenext 10 years.

    After a few weeks, hungry and frightened, he made a deal. Inreturn for better treatment, he followed other young Russianscaptured by the guerrilla groups and agreed to convert to theMuslim faith of his captors. For months, he took instructions froma mullah, who was the son of the guerrilla group's commander. Soon,the young Russian was treated as a member of the guerrilla group,and assigned to work as a paramedic.

    When the guerrillas arranged prisoner exchanges with Sovietcommanders, or accepted Soviet bounties for releasing theirprisoners, Olenin chose not to go back. When one of the other youngRussians who had converted to Islam was exchanged, he heard thatthe man had been taken to a Soviet camp, paraded before the troops,then run over by a tank. Olenin decided that he was safer with theguerrillas, and, anyway, he felt comfortable as a Muslim.

    ``I saw something sacred in Islam that I had not found incommunism, or for that matter, in Orthodoxy,'' he said on a recentafternoon, referring to the Russian Orthodox faith of his forebearsin Kuibyshev, the Volga River city, now renamed Samara, where hewas raised.

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    After capturing Kabul in September, then stalling in theiradvance against the remnants of the anti-Soviet guerrilla groups,the Taliban have broken the impasse in recent weeks, sweepingnorthward to the Hindu Kush and threatening to break through themountains to the north. If they sweep through a narrow gateway inthe mountains west of Khinjan, as many northerners expect, theTaliban will be onto the northern plains, and in a position tofight for the 11 Afghan provinces, out of 32, they do not alreadycontrol.

    Olenin said nothing as the Afghans murmured their thoughts.

    First, they spoke dismissively of the Taliban, as fanatics whowould suppress the freedoms northerners have enjoyed under theformer guerrilla commanders who rule in the north. Then, as theybecame more relaxed, the men offered different opinions, sayingthat the Taliban could not be worse than the northern warlords, whohave taken arms and money from Iran, Russia and India to sustaintheir cause, and still allowed large numbers of people to gohungry.

    ``Look around you here,'' said a former guerrilla fighter namedNadir Khan. ``What do you see? All we know is destruction anddarkness. Could the Taliban be worse?''

    Olenin waited until the foreigners bade their farewells in thekebab house, then followed them into the street. Introducinghimself by his Afghan name, Rahmatullah, loosely translated as``God's grace,'' he asked if he could hitch a ride northward toPul-i-Khumri, an hour's drive to the north, where he recentlymarried an Afghan woman.

    His only luggage, he said apologetically, would be what he heldin his hands _ a cloth-wrapped copy of the Koran, the Muslim holybook _ and a plastic bag of oranges.

    The journey placed Olenin on the road where he was captured bythe guerrillas, with reminders every few hundred yards of whatbecame of the Soviet occupation, in the form of wrecked Soviettanks and armored carriers pushed to the side of the road andabandoned.

    Once, the car stopped, for a photograph of Olenin beside a tank.Quickly, he was surrounded by Afghan children and villagers.``Shuravi!'' they said, laughing, using the word Afghans use forRussians.

    ``No,'' he said, ``Not Russian. Afghan.''

    When the Soviet Union collapsed, Olenin went home. In 1993, withan Afghan passport, he obtained a Russian visa, and made anoverland journey to Samara. Within weeks, an article appeared in alocal newspaper, describing him as a deserter.

    Friends with contacts in the local police told him, he said,that if he applied for Russian documents, he would be arrested,despite a proclamation when Mikhail Gorbachev was Soviet leaderdeclaring an amnesty for deserters.

    Olenin headed back to Afghanistan, where he opened small storetrading in groceries in Pul-i-Khumri. When it was robbed, he tookto the road, buying and selling commodities like oranges in thetowns that dot the northern plains, earning the equivalent of adollar or two a day.

    Now, with his marriage failing, he faces the possibility of theTaliban sweeping north, with attitudes that night not be friendlyto any remnant of the Soviet occupation.

    His solution, Olenin said, might be to head west to Iran,another Muslim state with a militant government, but one he thinksmight give him a home. Although the Muslim-ruled country he hastaken as his own has proven to be a place of violence and disorder,he offers a similar rationale to the one that, toward the end ofcommunist rule, many Russians offered about communism.

    ``The fault in Afghanistan is not with Islam,'' he said. ``Thefault is in the way that Islam has been corrupted here.''

    Asked if he thought matters would be better in Iran, he laughedmirthlessly. ``I can hope so,'' he said.

    And what of the choice he made to turn his back on his homelandand embrace Afghanistan?

    ``Russia is my country, and my family is there,'' he said. ``ButGod has put something in my heart, something that makes me want togo on searching, searching for honesty and justice and humanity. Ihaven't found it here, but God has given me an ocean of patience.Perhaps, in Iran, my luck will change.''

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