The War's Outcasts

HISTORY HAS PLAYED A cruel trick on former Lt. Gen. Mohammed Akbar Salveri. A loyal communist, he studied rocket engineering in Odessa in the late 1960s as part of a Kremlin program to create an Afghan elite sympathetic to the Soviet Union. He welcomed the left-wing coup that ousted the monarchy in Kabul, and cheered when Leonid Brezhnev sent in the Red Army to turn Afghanistan into Moscow's ward. He then spent more than a decade in the Afghan Army's Department of Ideology, trying to convince officers and enlisted men alike that the Soviet occupiers were helping them fight for a better future.

Some future. Today, Salveri lives in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. He is one of the lucky ones. Most Afghan refugees live in squalid dormitory-style tenements, often five to a room. When the mujahedin overran Mohammed Najibullah's Soviet-installed regime in 1992, Salveri and many other pro-Soviet Afghans found that the country he had so faithfully promoted let him down. ""We looked to Russia to help us build a better life, but all they gave us was weapons, war and destruction,'' says Salveri, 54. ""When I had to flee, the Russian authorities had no sympathy. Even old [Russian] friends pretended they didn't know us.''

Salveri and an estimated 12,000 of his countrymen who fled to Russia are caught in a nightmare of indifference and bureaucracy. Russia refuses to acknowledge responsibility for the mistakes of the Soviet Union, and has rejected all but a handful of applications from Afghans for refugee status. Though many were once military officers or senior government officials, most Afghans in Russia scrape to make a living, working illegally fetching and carrying at local markets, or--like Salveri--running small-scale trading businesses. ""When the police see our dark skin, they stop us and fine us for not having a residence permit,'' says Said Mohammed Saber, 37, once a major general in the Afghan KGB. ""We don't want anything from the Russian government except to be given some kind of official status, so we can earn a living.''

Saber lives in a disused holiday camp outside Moscow--one of several occupied by homeless foreigners--with 1,200 other refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Kurdistan. Their rent is paid by a French refugee charity called Equilibre, which also provides food. But the immigration authorities want to deport many of the Afghan asylum-seekers, who are on their final appeal after a seven-year battle for refugee status. For people like Major Gul Omar, deportation could mean a death sentence. Omar, who was trained at Moscow's Police Academy, was deputy head of Afghanistan's anti-drug force until mujahedin rebels kidnapped and killed his brother in 1992. ""The mujahedin had strong links to the drug trade, and these are the people in power now,'' says Omar, sitting on the floor of the cramped, roach-infested camp room he shares with his wife and three daughters. ""What can I expect from them if I go back?''

What most troubles the refugees is the sense that they have been abandoned by a country they once saw as their savior--but which now no longer exists. They have received little sympathy from Russian vets. ""They have their own problems to worry about,'' says Omar. ""And politicians are reluctant to clean up the mess left by a war most Russians would prefer to forget.'' ""We fought together with the Russians,'' says Salveri. ""Why, then, do they pretend now that they owe us nothing?'' Perhaps it's because Russia has nothing left to give.