Former Soviet soldier Bakhretdin Khakimov came to Afghanistan to fight the mujahideen more than three decades ago. Today he has a new life as caretaker of a museum celebrating the jihadists’ victory over the Red Army.
Khakimov, who now goes by the name Sheikh Abdullah, says he will never return to Russia.
On a wall of the museum in the western city of Herat, one black and white photo stands out from the portraits of jihadi heroes — Abdullah as a young man in a Russian shapka hat adorned with Soviet military insignia.
The bearded 50-something, who today prefers the traditional Afghan pakol hat, has worked at Herat’s Jihad Museum since 2013. Before that he worked as a healer, prescribing medicinal herbs to locals.
He arrived in Afghanistan as an officer in the military intelligence of the Soviet army, which occupied the country for 10 years after invading in 1979.
Around 1985 he was injured in battle and suffered a serious head wound. He says he owes his life to his Afghan enemies who found him and treated him.
When he woke from a coma, most of his comrades were dead or had fled. He was alone among the Afghan fighters.
‘I am Afghan’
Thirty years on, he has converted to Islam and remade his life among the mujahideen.
“I came to Afghanistan because of my duty in military services — I was voluntarily fighting against former Afghan mujahideen,” Abdullah recalls.
“I stayed in Afghanistan because Afghans are very kind and hospitable people.
“They have spent all their lives serving me, they have huge respect for me, and they love me very much.”
Sayed Abdul Wahab Qattali, a former mujahideen fighter and now the museum’s director, took Abdullah under his wing as he was recovering from his wounds.
“He got me married, gave me a house, gave me a salary, now I am deputy of this museum,” Abdullah explained, saying he regards Russia as a foreign country now.
Abdullah was included — under his former name Khakimov — on a list of 417 soldiers missing in Afghanistan that Moscow handed over to Kabul in 2011.
But while Abdullah has got in touch with his family, who live in Russia and Uzbekistan, he does not want to rejoin them.
He says he remembers “a little” Russian, but Dari is his main language now.
“I am Afghan now. When I die I will be buried here in this museum, here I am serving and will be buried here when I die,” he said proudly.
The garden of the museum is home to various bits of military hardware adorned with the Soviet red star, captured by the mujahideen or abandoned in the withdrawal — a fighter jet, tanks and helicopters, artillery pieces.
‘We won’t let him go’
Inside the museum, Qattali proudly shows off battle scenes recreated in plaster — mujahideen launching an attack on a column of Soviet tanks or defending a village from Red Army bombardment.
Once a fighter, now a prosperous businessman, Qattali is very attached to his protégé Abdullah.
“We have a responsibility to take care of him, he is part of our museum, we feel very proud to have him with us,” Qattali said as a deafening recording of a bombardment echoed around the exhibition halls.
The mujahideen commander Ismail Khan, still a powerful figure in Herat, described Abdullah as “a brother”.
“Many times his family asked him to come back to Moscow but he refused to go, and we will not let him leave Afghanistan,” the old warlord told AFP.
In the living room of his modest house in the town, next door to his patron Qattali’s, Abdullah reclines on cushions.
“I feel very ashamed because I damaged this country, caused losses to people,” he said.
“Now I am staying with them, serving them, trying to to compensate the past damages and atrocities that I committed.”
He refuses to elaborate on these “atrocities”, describing them as part of his work as a soldier.
“I didn’t come here to attend a wedding party. I was serving in the intelligence of the Soviet Union,” he said.