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Afghans Have Mixed Feelings about Russian Help, but Most Welcome It - 2002-02-18


Afghanistan's defense minister concluded a visit to Russia last week to discuss possible Russian assistance in rebuilding an Afghan national army. And interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is scheduled to visit Moscow next month.

Ten Russian doctors work in the Ibn-i-Sina hospital in central Kabul. Vera Kuznitsova is one of them. She's from Moscow and she's here as part of Russia's emergency relief effort.

She says the Russian doctors in this hospital have come here to help and she says they've received a warm welcome from the Afghans. "When you put on this doctor's coat," she says, "no one asks where you are from."

Ninety-year-old Mohammad Essan has come to the hospital for treatment of pneumonia and rheumatism. He seems pleased to have the Russian doctors here.

He says when the Russians were here in the past it was as part of the Soviet Union and he thinks they regret what they did then. Now, he says it's different. "The Russians are helping us and we're glad for that," he said.

Mohammed Essan says this is the kind of practical help that Afghanistan needs more of and he says other countries, including the United States, to do the same.

But not everyone feels this way about the Russians. When the first Russian medical team arrived here a few months ago, they stayed in an old U.N. compound. On the walls outside someone has written in big bold letters both in Russian and English "Russians go home" and "Russians, we don't want you."

Such mixed feelings about any sort of Russian presence come as no surprise. Just over 20 years ago, in 1979, the then-Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up a local Communist government that the Soviet Union had helped install. During the ensuing occupation, U.S.-backed Afghan guerilla fighters, the mujahedin, fought a bloody and costly war against the Soviet forces. The Soviets finally pulled their last troops out of Afghanistan February 15, 1989.

Thirty-six-year-old Abdul Jamil was one of those mujahedin. He says it was important to go and fight.

He says the Russians invaded Afghanistan as an aggressive force. That's why he and so many other Afghan men headed to the mountains to fight. "We wanted to free Afghanistan," he says.

But once they had driven the Soviets out, the mujahedin were unable to govern Afghanistan. Instead, they turned their guns on each other and plunged the country into civil war, eventually paving the way for a takeover by the Taleban six years ago.

The horrors of the civil war and the years of Taleban oppression have even left some Afghans with the view that the Soviet occupation was better than what followed. Sejiya once worked at Kabul University. She is now a widow and among those who suffered greatly at the hands of the Taleban because their restrictions against women.

She says when the Russians were here people said they were infidels. But she says "those non-believers were very kind to us. Women could work, we had freedom, I had a salary and coupons to buy food and we were happy."

Now the Taleban have been driven from power and the newly-installed interim government is looking to rebuild the country with international support. Last week interim Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim went to Russia to discuss possible Russian aid in refurbishing Afghanistan's military. Most of the equipment the various military factions here possess is of old Soviet stock. But there was even talk of training programs and having Russian military advisers in Afghanistan to help train the new army.

Some Afghans will likely balk at the prospect, but one time resistance fighter Abdul Jamil believes it would be acceptable.

He says things are different now. "Back then the Russians invaded," he says. "Now, they are coming to help us. That's good. He says it's important for Afghanistan to have relations with other people, even if they were once enemies. We need other countries," he says, "be it Russia, Pakistan or Iran."

Abdul Jamil is now a commander of a regiment serving under the ministry of interior. He belongs to the Jamiat Islami Party, which is part of the Northern Alliance and his troops were among the first to enter Kabul last November when the Taleban were driven out.

He says times have changed in Afghanistan. He believes the different factions are now more willing to cooperate than in the past. But, he says, some things have not changed and therein might lie a note of caution for the Russians or the Americans or the many other foreigners who now have security forces in Afghanistan.

Abdul Jamil says everyone knows the foreign troops are here to help keep the peace, and he says it's up to the central government to decide how long they should stay. But he adds that the people of Afghanistan are very sensitive to the presence of foreign troops, or foreigners, in their country and they generally don't like it.

Some Afghans want a stronger and longer international military presence so that security is firmly established throughout the country. And some Afghans are clearly happy to receive Russian assistance. But there are many Afghans who are saying "we're grateful for your help and we thank you, but don't overstay your welcome."

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