Sherefovic Hakimov fought alongside Communist Soviet forces against Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s, but his life changed fundamentally after becoming a prisoner of war.

The 56-year-old Sherefovic Hakimov, a former Soviet military personnel, no longer identifies himself as Russian. He lives in Afghanistan’s Herat city as a Muslim and an Afghan. 

In 1987, as part of the invading forces of the Soviet Union, he became a war prisoner.

His brother, Alexandre, was a Russian deputy in the country’s parliament, and his sister, Mabuba, worked as an adviser for the Soviet military. His parents were also high-ranking officials in the Soviet army. His father, an ethnic Armenian, was a general and his mother, a Ukrainian Jew, worked for Soviet intelligence. 

In 1984, Hakimov was deployed to Afghanistan as a Soviet military intelligence officer. After three years, he was severely wounded during a gun battle with the Afghan mujahidin. Injured and demoralised, he eventually became a prisoner of war. 

“There were about 120 lost Soviet soldiers, and Hakimov is one of them,” said Bilal Guler, Anadolu Agency’s Kabul correspondent, who conducted an extensive interview with Hakimov in Herat, western Afghanistan. 

“There is no concrete information on those lost Soviet soldiers, and none of them appear to be able to go back to either the Soviets or current Russia. It’s not clear what happened to them,” Guler tells TRT World. Among others, Hakimov has a unique story. 

"They were telling me to become a Muslim. They also encouraged me to say 'La ilaha illallah Muhammedun Rasulullah,'" said Hakimov, who also goes by his adopted name, Sheikh Abdullah, given to him by Haji Sayyid Abdulvahab Katali, one of the mujahidin leaders. 

“La ilaha illallah Muhammedun Rasulullah”, which means “there is no god but God and Muhammad is His prophet,” is considered as the declaration of belief in Islam. By uttering these words, a non-Muslim can enter Islam and become a Muslim. 

“I thought that Muhammad would come and determine what to do with me, and that he was a judge or leader of these [Mujahidin],” Hakimov told Anadolu Agency’s Guler, remembering his feelings back in the day. Anadolu Agency interviewed Hakimov on February 15, the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Dreaming Islam 

Hakimov did not become a Muslim until he had a dream in which a white-bearded man also advised him to convert to Islam. After that, he decided to adopt both the Muslim faith and the Afghan culture. 

"I have been in Afghanistan for nearly 40 years. I'm Afghan now. I have Afghan citizenship. I am now a Muslim. I'm not Russian. I don't belong to the Russians," Hakimov said. The former Soviet soldier dresses like an Afghan and is fluent in both Pashto and Persian, the two dominant languages of Afghanistan.

Sherefovic Hakimov looks at the pictures of lost Soviet soldiers during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the War Museum in Herat, Afghanistan.
Sherefovic Hakimov looks at the pictures of lost Soviet soldiers during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the War Museum in Herat, Afghanistan. (AA)

Hakimov also became good friends with his former enemy, Katali. 

"He was our enemy back then. We were his enemies too. If we had caught him, we would have executed him. If we had fallen into his hands, maybe he would have executed us," Hakimov said. 

"We became friends after I converted to Islam…I became both his employee and his son. He got me married. He gave [me] a house," he added. 

When he was 25, Hakimov married an Afghan woman, who died giving birth to a girl named Menice. His second wife also passed away due to stomach cancer last year.

With the loss of his second wife, Hakimov grew disillusioned with life. "After my wife died, I couldn't do anything anymore." He visits his wife’s grave every day to pray for her. 

Russia: a foreign land

Hakimov, who is suffering from memory loss and other ailments from his past injury, has lost his Soviet passport and belongings, including photographs of his family members.

His Russian has become rusty with time, and due to his health condition, he has forgotten many words and phrases. He still has a good hold on his native Armenian language, however. 

Both his parents are dead. Being away from his siblings for decades has taken a mental toll on him. He misses his brother and sister a lot. 

"We are human beings. It's impossible not to miss [them],” he said, expressing his desire to see them. The last time he talked to his sister over the phone was two years ago. 

While he's aware that many of his ailments could be treated in Russia, he's still not sure how the government would treat him if he ever went back. 

But Guler believes that if one of his siblings visited him in Afghanistan, he might feel encouraged to go to Russia. “I think that he feels left behind by the family,” Guler says. 

“Russia's policy is different. It is true, they say they forgive us. But one of us went to Russia and was arrested. He escaped from there and came back to Afghanistan. If the Russians hadn't arrested him, we'd all be gone," Hakimov said. 

Military veterans drink vodka in memory of their fellows near the graves of Soviet Army soldiers killed during the fighting in Afghanistan outside Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 15, 2009.
Military veterans drink vodka in memory of their fellows near the graves of Soviet Army soldiers killed during the fighting in Afghanistan outside Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 15, 2009. (AP Archive)

Hakimov fears that if he goes back to Russia, he might face retribution too. 

"I'm not under arrest here. They [Russians] say why you surrendered. We say that we didn't surrender. We were wounded and remained. We fell into the hands of the mujahidin ,” Hakimov said. 

“It takes a long time to realise that we were prisoners and did not surrender," he added. 

Different delegations from the UN to Uzbekistan and Russia visited him many times to help him leave Afghanistan, but he refused to do so.

Hakimov is not sure if the Russian government can understand the circumstances that led to his capture. On some occasions, Hakimov even trained the mujahidin to fight against the Soviets. 

“I had to, I was afraid. For my life, to survive, I was showing every skill I could to the mujahidin .” 

A neutral ‘Afghan’

In 1989, two years after Hakimov’s captivity, the Soviets left Afghanistan in disgrace. But after that, an internal power struggle gripped Afghanistan until the Taliban emerged victorious in 1995. However, Taliban rule was also interrupted in 2001 following the September 11 attacks in the US with the American invasion. 

“Since the Soviet withdrawal, Hakimov has pulled out from armed conflict not fighting for any Afghan group,” Guler says. “His health also does not allow him to get involved in any fighting,” Guler adds. 

Hakimov has worked for Herat’s war museum, where former Soviet armaments like tanks and other weapons are exhibited alongside the pictures of lost Soviet soldiers. During the Anadolu Agency’s interview with him in the museum, Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban members lined up to take photos with Hakimov. 

But when it comes to the Soviets, Hakimov returns to his former position. 

"I am from Afghanistan. If the Soviets [Russians] attack and occupy Afghanistan again, I will attack them with this Russian-made tank from the Soviet Union,” he said, pointing to one of the Soviet-era tanks in the museum. 

“I will attack them with their own weapons."

Source: TRT World