Afghan rebels and Soviets trade bullets but not prisoners
The young Soviet soldier, sporting pale blue tribal clothing, closely cropped blond hair, and a wispy moustache, greeted everyone in the traditional Afghan manner as he entered the guerrilla tent.
''A salaam aleikum,'' he murmured, clasping outstretched hands with both his own. ''May peace be upon you.''
But when addressed in Russian by a visiting Western reporter, he glanced up suspiciously before turning to his ''hosts'' for approval. The Afghan interpreter explained that he should answer any questions put to him.
He nodded submissively but again turned to the Afghans when asked his name.
'My Muslim one?'' he queried.
'No, your Russian,'' the interpreter said.
'Basiev Matvi Ivanovich,'' he replied quietly.
According to the Afghans, the young Soviet, an intelligent, Slavic-featured conscript from the Volga region, had been given a Muslim name: Fazle Khoda (''by the grace of God'').
''He claims that he wants to join the resistance, but we are still not certain whether he is sincere,'' observed one of the guerrilla representatives. ''He will have to prove himself.''
Basiev, who had been stationed as a security guard at Kabul airport, was captured at the end of last year, barely a month after being sent to Afghanistan for military service. In a brutal war that has now dragged on for well over 31/2 years and where both sides often demonstrate harsh treatment of their prisoners, the young Soviet can consider himself fortunate to be alive.
During a three-hour interview in which he spoke Russian interspersed with the Farsi which he had picked up over the past eight months, Basiev maintained that he had willingly met with the resistance on the outskirts of the airbase. He made contact with them, he said, through a group of local villagers ''who invited me for tea.''
The guerrillas, members of the Pakistan-based Jamaat-i-Islami political party , then moved Basiev by foot from one safe area to another, finally bringing him to this hidden mountain base along the Afghan-Pakistan border where almost a score of Soviet captives are now being confined.
According to various Western and resistance sources, as many as several hundred Soviet POWs are being held by different guerrilla organizations in Afghanistan as well as along the frontier areas both inside and outside the Pakistan tribal areas. A small, undetermined number of Soviet deserters, mainly of Central Asian origin, are also known to be either actively operating with the resistance or living in relative freedom among the Afghans.
Eight Soviet prisoners are at present interned in Switzerland by the Berne government on behalf of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As part of a deal negotiated in early 1982 by the ICRC with the major Afghan resistance movements in Peshawar, Pakistan, and with the blessing of Moscow, the Swiss have agreed to hold the Soviets for two years or the duration of the war, whichever comes first.
In return, the ICRC promised the Afghan resistance that it would visit political dissidents incarcerated by the Soviet-backed Kabul regime and, if conditions permitted, facilitate the controlled exchange of prisoners.
For the moment, Red Cross officials have made it clear that they do not consider conditions good for an exchange. Furthermore, as part of its own traditional humanitarian role, the ICRC has set out to persuade all parties to follow international rules on treatment of prisoners of war and captured civilians.
Since the beginning of this year, however, Red Cross efforts to transfer more Soviet POWs have foundered despite the growing backlog of captured personnel. Confident earlier forecasts of more than 100 Soviets in Swiss internment by midsummer suddenly appeared ludicrous.
For a variety of reasons, the Afghan resistance feels the ICRC has completely failed in its obligations. ''We simply do not trust them any longer,'' said Abdul Haq, a Hezb-i-Islami (Younis Khales faction) commander. ''They have forfeited their right to hold our prisoners.''
As with many other resistance leaders, the bearded mujahid maintains that the Red Cross has favored Moscow in its dealings. The Swiss have acccepted Soviet POWs yet at the same time refuse to oversee the exchange of captured guerrillas. He also argues that the Swiss humanitarian organization has not been forceful enough in seeking improved detention conditions for jailed dissidents. Both charges are strenuously denied by the ICRC.
At Soviet behest, the Kabul authorities had initially allowed the ICRC to monitor conditions in government detention centers in the summer of 1982. A team of four Red Cross officials, three delegates and one doctor, managed to interview 338 alleged political detainees at Pul-i Charki, Kabul's infamous four-block prison. An estimated 8,000 to 15,000 prisoners are believed to be held there at any one time.
The Swiss were also able to visit the dozens of other jails where dissidents, living in intolerable conditions, are known to be detained and sometimes tortured.
Less than two months later, however, the authorities ordered the Swiss to leave. According to informed sources, Moscow was unhappy with the meager trickle of Soviet POWs being transferred by the resistance to the ICRC.
Former inmates who were in the prison at the time of the Red Cross visit claim that many of those seen by the Swiss were Communist Party members or informers planted as prisoners. While numerous bona fide political dissidents were transferred to other blocks, they said others were pressured by the government to misreport conditions or make false allegations in return for reduced sentences.
Red Cross officials are well aware of such attempts to pull the wool over their eyes. They also readily admit limited success in their 1982 Kabul venture but nevertheless considered the visits worthwhile and claim to be persisting in their efforts to regain entry to Afghan prisons.
The ICRC is clearly concerned by what is without doubt a highly complex and unconventional prisoner predicament. Not only are the lives of tens of thousands of imprisoned ordinary Afghan civilians involved, but also resistance fighters, government as well as Soviet troops, many of whom are mere conscripts.
Justifying their reasons for not seeking to initiate prisoner exchanges, Red Cross officials maintain that the situation in Afghanistan is still weighted down by continuing hostilities.
''We are reluctant to exchange prisoners so long as there is no cease-fire with stable fronts, such as was the case following the last Middle East conflict ,'' said ICRC field director Frank Delapraz in Peshawar. ''We also consider it immoral to haggle over exchange ratios when one is forced to decide how much each man is worth.''
Furthermore, the ICRC argues that prisoner exchanges would only encourage hostage-taking by the government to satisfy guerrilla demands. In one case last year, for example, the authorities summarily executed 50 Afghan prisoners after refusing to exchange them for the life of a Soviet geologist held by the resistance.
''Every Afghan is a potential hostage,'' added Delapraz. ''What is there to stop the Russians from simply moving into a village and taking everyone prisoner?''
The ICRC is now faced with the task of encouraging Soviet POW transfers in order to get the humanitarian ball rolling again. Although Red Cross officials feel that the mere fact the mujahideen are keeping more prisoners alive is already a major step forward, a gesture is now needed to nudge the Soviets.
Some observers argue that, because of this preference to operate discreetly, the ICRC has failed to exert sufficient pressure on the Soviets.
But there is also the feeling that mujahid obstinacy has denied the resistance an opportunity to fully exploit the prisoner issue. By maintaining a steady stream of POWs to Switzerland, the observers say, the guerrillas could draw greater public attention to the ugly little war Moscow would prefer the world to forget.
But even more conspicuous will be the planned repatriation next spring of the first Soviet prisoners to complete their two-year term in Switzerland.
Since early 1982, civil libertarian movements such as the Paris-based Resistance International have been pushing for the right of the ICRC prisoners to be informed by a neutral third party of their choice to seek political asylum in the West or to return to their own country.
Critics argue that as the ICRC is technically responsible for the prisoners (the Swiss government is only providing internment facilities), it is not in the position to act as this neutral third party.
So far, only Soviet diplomats are permitted access to the POWs once every two months, which, Red Cross officials stress, is in accordance with the Geneva convention. Independent bodies such as the International Commission of Jurists or Amnesty International have not been allowed to meet with the captives. Resistance sources maintain they are planning to confront the Red Cross over this issue in court.
For its part, the ICRC claims that in principle it will not force any human being to be repatriated against his will. At the same time, Red Cross officials point out that each POW was thoroughly informed at the time of his transfer at the Afghan-Pakistan border of the consequences entailing eventual return to the Soviets.
Whatever the outcome, each time a POW comes up for release, the Soviets will undoubtedly face a controversial resurgence of publicity over this issue.