A Soviet soldier who went missing in Afghanistan 33 years ago has been found, but it’s not as if Bakhretdin Khakimov was waiting for a search party.
Khakimov, who was wounded and went missing shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, is now known as Sheikh Abdulla. The ethnic Uzbek has adapted to Afghan ways by changing his name, practicing herbal medicine in Herat in the western portion of the country and living a semi-nomadic existence.
It’s unclear how old Khakimov was when he went missing, but he was described now as “an elderly-looking, impoverished widower with a wispy beard,” by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.
The soldier was found after a yearlong search by a Russian veterans’ committee that tracked down Sheikh Abdulla in the Shindand District of Afghanistan, RIA Novosti reported.
Alexander Lavrentyev, deputy chairman of the Moscow-based Warriors-Internationalists Affairs Committee, said it identified Khakimov by scars from his war wounds and a nervous tic.
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“Looking for missing soldiers is among our top priorities. And it’s a tough job,” said Ruslan Aushev, head of the committee and a soldier in the Russian invasion.
The committee was established in 1993, but the Afghan civil war hindered its efforts to find missing soldiers. Their work started in earnest after the Taliban lost power in the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
So far, the committee has found 29 missing soldiers who were living in Afghanistan. Only eight, including Khakimov, have chosen not to go back to their homeland.
Sheikh Abdulla never attempted to contact relatives in Uzbekistan, yet still remembered their names, and forgot whatever Russian he knew, according to RIA Novosti. He also married a local Afghan woman who has since died.
“He was just happy he survived,” Lavrentyev told the Russian news outlet.
While Afghans harbored deep animosity for Russians during the Soviet invasion, their attitude has changed – at least when it comes to getting information on missing soldiers, Lavrentyev said.
He said information on missing soldiers comes from Afghan warlords who were targeted by Soviet forces during the invasion. The Mujahedin who once pointed their guns at the Soviets are now also helping the committee find the soldiers.
“Those who were shooting at us are the only ones to have information – and they share it,” Lavrentyev said. “We get very good treatment. [The Afghans] tell us, ‘Come back, just without the firearms. We respect you.’”