Canada in Afghanistan

Victoria, BC — I thought I had escaped my past, but Afghanistan caught up with me in Canada. Looking at the flag-draped casket of my wife’s first cousin, Andrew Eykelenboom, a Canadian medic killed in Afghanistan on August 11th, I was overwhelmed with feelings of grief and a surreal displacement of time and space. 


I was born in Russia, drafted into the Soviet army at the age of eighteen and sent to Afghanistan in 1980s.  Attending Andrew’s funeral, I stood with one foot in the present and one in the past.  I remembered my Russian friends, living and dead. Friends like Andrei, who lost his legs in Kandahar near the road, on which Andrew would die two decades later. I also remembered the suffering we visited on the people of this country.


I identified with the Canadian soldiers at the funeral mourning the loss of their friend. Like them, I went to Afghanistan believing in “fighting terrorism” and “liberating Afghans”.  During my first mission, we were protecting refugees escaping an area that was under mujahedin attack. I was deeply affected by their misery, and by the poverty and suffering of the Afghan people in general. In my mind, our presence was “helping Afghans” particularly with educating women and children. My combat unit participated in “humanitarian aid”: accompanying doctors and delivering food, fuel, clothing, school and other supplies to Afghan villages.


It was only later that I began to wonder: did that aid justify our aggression? 


It is hard to kill people without demonising them. In 1988, my unit accidentally hit an Afghan wedding party. My friend, whose mortar shells had killed innocent people, was shocked when he learned of it.  Some soldiers, however, were indifferent: “That village supports the resistance, anyway,” they said. Like NATO now, we didn’t count “their” casualties.  As another friend Alexander would later write, “We thought that all of them – old and young – were insurgents”.  Alexander who, to save his unit, had called in artillery that destroyed a village from which the mujahedin were attacking.  People of the villages hit by our air strikes became hostile and turned to the resistance. More attacks by insurgents led to more Soviet strikes.


And, after ten years of such a tragic cycle, a million and a half Afghans were dead and millions had fled their devastated country. Also, ignored by many, but, importantly, a powerful religious force of militant Islamic movements grew under the pressure of foreign aggression. In 1989, during negotiations between my regiment and the most radical militants from the area, who were also the most affected by Soviet bombings, a jihad fighter told my fried: “We’ll take our revenge to your country.” And they did. The backlash spilled out and hit not only the former USSR and Afghans themselves in 1990s, but also America on 9/11. The vicious cycle I witnessed in 1980s – violence causing violence – is continuing now.


At Andrew’s funeral, the shock and disbelief in the faces of his military friends was all too familiar. So were the official speeches. And the Canadian media coverage seemed like an echo of the Soviet press. “Positive changes are evident. However, it would be premature to say that Kandahar is not a “hot spot” anymore,” said the Soviets in the 1980’s.  “Things have improved,” writes a Canadian newspaper now, yet “significant problems” remain. It continues that “development is occurring,” just like a Soviet journalist observed in 1988 a “reconstruction work going on” in Kandahar.


Has nothing changed?


When a Canadian soldier dies, I’m reminded how much a soldier’s death fills people with respect, as perhaps it should.  But, it also makes them hesitant to question war. In 1989, I dug a grave for a Soviet medic killed in Afghanistan. He had dragged the wounded from the battlefield and was taking them to the hospital, when a mine hit his carrier. Everyone died. “He gave his life trying to save others,” said the official at the Russian cemetery.   Andrew “dedicated his life to preserving the lives of others,” came the Canadian echo seventeen years later. And nobody asked questions.


After twenty years of trying, I have failed to understand why my friends died in Afghanistan. Now I wonder what Canadians too, are dying for. 


At the May 2006 memorial for Bombardier Myles Mansell in Victoria, BC, the official statement told of a man who had put his life on the line “for the country he served”, and vowed that Canada would “never forget” her soldiers. But I have heard this all before. When my childhood friend Sergei was killed and then mutilated in Afghanistan, the military letter told his parents: “The memory of your son will live in our hearts forever”.  “He didn’t die in vain,” said our commander in 1989 about Aleksei, my unit mate and friend.


The similarities don’t end there. Like the Soviet-Afghan war, this one is fought in the name of state-security, a peaceful Afghanistan, and women’s rights. Canadians fight the same people the Soviets fought between1979-1989: “terrorists, extremists, insurgents, and bandits”.   This should make sense, except that, in the 1980’s, today’s Taliban were supported by the West as “freedom fighters”. 


So how do we stop the cycle? I kept asking myself this question after Andrew’s funeral. The Soviet people did not vote to send troops to Afghanistan. Neither did we in Canada. It was “unpatriotic” to criticize the Soviet role in Afghanistan. Questioning Canada’s mission now means being unsupportive of our soldiers. The Soviet slogan “Support our troops!” that I heard in the 1980s has become a Canadian one. Many Canadians choose not to educate themselves on this issue, and some still believe that our soldiers are peacekeepers in a country, in which many Afghans see us as a part of a US occupation and our soldiers die in active combat. If, in wilful or blind ignorance, we do not challenge our government to change the role of our troops from aggression to genuine peacekeeping and reconstruction, we are all responsible for the Afghan and Canadian lives about to be lost.


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