The forgotten war. Latvian soldiers in Soviet-Afghan war 1979-1989

Official awards given for service in Afghan-Soviet war. Little to redeem the scars of war

Today the Latvian TV and press regularly pays attention to our soldiers fulfilling their duty at NATO mission at Afghanistan. Documentaries, official greetings at home and rehabilitation programs for returning soldiers are made. But there was another war in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Latvian soldiers were sent there under the Soviet banner, they were sent as conscripts not as professional auxiliaries as today. Their battles were not reported and kept secret from the public. On return these men received little help from the government and kept in shadows. Even after the regain of independence these veterans still has not received enough relief from the state. Latvian society has forgotten this war along with its veterans. The story needs to be reopened and told to the public.

These are live accounts of Afghan war veterans, gathered and written down by Latvian military historian Oskars Krīgers. His text from Latvian has been translated under his permission.

At the beginning of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan 1979. 25 December, one of the first soviet soldiers who arrived there was junior sergeant Gunārs Rusiņš, whose specialty was chemist – scout. Now he is a chairman of Latvian veteran of Afghan war and other military conflict association. About his dispatch to Afghanistan Rusiņš recalls: “I was involved in the Afghan conflict from 25. December 1979. to 26. December. We with help of the helicopter were literally dropped in the Afghan land, already armed to wait for Soviet armed vehicles and move to dislocated place. We did not have any clue that we would be dispatched to Afghanistan or any other hotspot. Before we were gathered in distribution points, where we did not receive any information, and after two weeks we were waken up by alarm at night and was told that we will be sent to Afghanistan. When I got there my place of dislocation was the province of Kunduz.”

During his tour of duty Rusiņš went to many different Afghan provinces, where he performed various tasks, that got to do with fighting the mujahedin insurgents. He remembers his duty with such words: “I fought in many different regions, for there was no two front war, it was a guerrilla war. We were sent to many combat operations and usually these operations took place in high grounds. I moved around in columns and separated combat vehicles from one town to another, in result there were frequent fire ambushes against us. We had one combat operation in summer of 1980, where we almost lost the whole company unit. It was another raid in Kunduz province highland area, where we were sent to combat mission to defined point with a defined goal. The raiding forces were encircled and in the result of firefight a large casualties were suffered until the reinforcements came. I was one of those who came to help and was wounded in result”. Rusiņš left Afghanistan on May 1981, as senior sergeant.  

Latvian soldiers in Afghanistan

On April 14, 1983 junior sergeant Aivars Krūmiņš was dispatched to Afghanistan. Before that for half-year he was on air defense forces namely the air defense missile unit. When he was sent to Afghanistan he was entrusted of commanding the missile vehicle in Kabul, that was to be defended  or fired in the case of need. He and his group’s main task was to defend the headquarters of Soviet 40th. Army.

Krūmiņš spent his whole time of duty in Kabul. But even in Afghan capitol the situation was not stable, for as Krūmiņš points out – they were already attacked on their landing at Kabul airport. And he had to face fire attacks from the enemy every evening during his whole duty. Afghan mujaheddin’s fired with mortars and automatic rifles from the hills. Usually they used snipers so it was impossible to determine their location. There were killed and wounded among the Soviet soldiers. Krūmiņš recalls that a bullet missed 10 centimeters from his head.

There were many cases when Afghans fired “Stinger” rockets at Soviet airplanes from the hills. Krūmiņš remembers: “I saw with my own eyes, how two helicopters were shot down. Afghan mujaheddin’s took cover well in the hills, so it was very hard to defend helicopters and airplanes from the attacks”. 

Afghans also used another ways to fight against the Soviet forces. Krūmiņš tells about it: “There were cases when Afghan shepherds pushed their cattle forward and then suddenly attacked the Soviet soldiers. These shepherds were usually twelve-year-old boys. They also tried to lay mines. Little Afghan boys also tried to influence us with drugs to lower our combat abilities. For not many could mentally survive this hard situation and therefore they used weed to calm down, that lead to dire consequences.”

Krūmiņš left Afghanistan on 16. November 1984. He remembers it such: “I felt happy. For long time we did not believe it. And we did not believe that we would be able to leave for planes were shot down. There were many times when those who were on their way home were shot down. We were lucky”.

Junior sergeant Vents Veinbergs, whose specialty was mortar team commander was sent to Afghanistan in 1985 by driving in along with the column of armed vehicles. He remembers: “We went to new dislocation some 150 kilometers from the soviet border, passing trough the second largest Afghan city Herat. And then 30 kilometers more along the concrete highway forward. At the edge of the highway we started to build new base camp, where 12. Armored infantry regiment was to be dislocated. I served at 1. Battalion at separate scout platoon. We were in charge in keeping the security at this sector”.

Scout platoon were Veibergs served took part in many minor armed struggles with the mujaheddin. He recalls these events: “We did not took part in any strategical advances, but there was a constant intelligence actions with small battles, for we were small combat units. We had to delay the movement the movement of mujaheddin armed groups from one place to another. We had to delay the arm delivery from Iran that regularly took place between various mountain paces. In all time of duty I fought there”.

But large battles took place when 12. Motorized infantry regiment made strategical cleansing in village areas. But the scout platoon did not took direct frontal action there. It had to take place if one of the combat unit falls in encirclement or was at a tactically bad situation.  Then the scout platoon had to find a way to approach enemy from the behind and turn its forces against them, so that troubled unit can get free movement. Veinbergs tells one of such stories: “In the winter of 1985/86 we made an unexpected attack, in which result the part of mujahedin attention was to be directed as, so the soviet infantry and tanks who were stuck in narrow streets could win time to withdraw.” 

Sergeant Veinbergs tells an interesting story about the true mujaheddin tactics against the soviet forces: “In my years of fighting, the Afghan mujahedin fully moved to guerrilla combat tactics. They did not move in large units. Their tactic was to attack the supply columns or idle combat vehicles.  Sometimes they carried out attacks on bridge defense posts. Idle tanks and combat vehicles mujaheddin tried to destroy in number of ways. They vastly used mines sometimes grenade launchers, but mainly mines. In my years of service Afghan mujaheddin were supplied with NATO weapons and these NATO mines were hard to find with mine detectors, because they were made from plastic not metal anti-tank mines, which mujahedin could turn in so-called “fugas” (high demolition bombs). Mining was serious to even destroy a tank. Because only anti-tank mine could only stop the tank (by destroying its track), but it cannot break trough its armor. mujaheddin put 10-20 kilogram TNT box below the mine, and then laid the mine and put another 10-20 TNT box on it. In result the power of anti-tank mine was improved many times. With such strength the tank could be destroyed. Even the tank turret could fly up in the air after such explosion.”

Veinbergs spent all his duty fighting around Herat and was awarded with the Medal of Courage. He was demobilized from Afghanistan at the end of April 1986, and left this land in same rank as junior sergeant. 

  3640 men from Latvia were sent Afghanistan, 177 were wounded.  63 were lost in action and one is still missing. It was tragic time in Latvian history as nobody asked these man if they wanted to go to this hostile strange land, where they could lost their lives and never return home. Latvian veterans who were forced to take place in Soviet military invasions disguised as “international duties” should be recognized as the victims of Soviet regime and receive the same treatment as other victims of soviet government. Many of these man suffer from war injuries both physical and psychological. Lack of public support draws them to separation and alcoholism. Latvia must take responsibilities for their soldiers no matter in which side their fought for their battle was tragedy for whole Latvian nation.


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