There are more than 150,000 Afghans living in Russia. Most of them left their homeland after Najibullah, the last communist leader of Afghanistan, was overthrown by the mujahedin in 1992. The head of Moscow's Afghan diaspora says his community comprises well-educated Afghans, including a number of military specialists, who are all willing to take an active part in rebuilding peace back home. But many Russian Afghans do not feel welcome to return to Afghanistan, where they say the interim government looks at them as still sympathizing with communist ideals. At the same time, Russia has little to offer the Afghan exiles, many of whom live in the country with no rights or privileges.
Moscow, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the decades of war that have ravaged Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled the country seeking a more secure life. Today, after Palestinians, Afghans make up the largest refugee group in the world.
Some 150,000 Afghans now live in Russia, a third of them in Moscow. Ghulam Mohammed, the head of Moscow's Afghan diaspora, says many members of the Afghan intelligentsia chose to move to Russia after Najibullah, Afghanistan's last communist leader, was overthrown by the mujahedin in 1992. Many of them had studied in the Soviet Union and were already fluent in Russia. Moreover, Mohammed says, Russia was one of the few countries at the time maintaining contacts with Afghanistan.
Mohammed, a former leader from Afghanistan's eastern Kunar Province, says the Russia diaspora is home to some 100 former provincial leaders, government ministers, and nearly 15,000 military professionals, including some 200 army generals.
In Moscow, life in the Afghan community centers around the Sevastopol Hotel complex -- four gray, Soviet-era buildings on the city's southern outskirts. The Sevastopol complex functions as both a residence and a market, with many of the hotel's small rooms transformed into shops selling everything from jewelry and brightly colored tablecloths to a wide variety of Afghan spices and rice. Many Muscovites visit the market, which is popular for its low prices.
Televisions at the Sevastopol complex show 20-year-old video clips of famous Afghan singers. Khazan Aref, a 44-year-old poet from Kabul, watches one such clip, by Nagma, an Afghan singer who now lives in Canada. "Women at the time were not forced to cover their face and body," Aref says, pointing to the Nagma's low-cut dress as she sings "Life is an interesting game, when two hearts come closer and become friends" -- "Something that's unknown to Afghans now."
Mohammed says the Sevastopol Hotel complex is home to 6,000 Afghans comprising all the country's ethnic groups. Mohammed says Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks, Hazars, Nuristanis, Aimaqs, and Balochis have learned to live together in harmony and refer to themselves simply as Afghans. He says the Moscow community has been living under the 1964 Afghan Constitution -- recently re-adopted for Afghanistan during the December Bonn conference -- for five years already.
"No matter who we were in Afghanistan -- minister, general, governors, or soldiers -- here we work to feed our families. All of Afghanistan's [nationalities] live and work here in agreement. There are people from all the Afghan provinces here. Now, for example, the interim government has restored the  constitution -- the constitution of [the former Afghan] King [Zahir Shah]. [Moscow Afghans have always] understood that it was impossible for us to unite under the constitutions of either the [communist] revolution or the mujahedins, much less the Taliban. This is why we chose to live under the  constitution."
Poet Aref works at the Afghan Business Center, located in the Sevastopol Hotel. In his spare time, he is the editor of an Afghan literary and cultural magazine published in Moscow. He says that life in Moscow is very hard for Afghan exiles, because Russia has refused to grant them refugee status. Aref says that most people living in the Sevastopol work as vendors or porters, but that their non-legal status makes things difficult.
"Many [Afghans] that work in the Sevastopol Hotel are business people. But they have problems with the tax police, because we don't live legally. [By that I mean] we don't have legal documents."
Without legal status, many in the Afghan diaspora have no access to legitimate jobs, health care, or education. Mohammed says even women in labor have been turned away from the city's hospitals. The Afghans' non-legal status also makes them easy targets for the Moscow militia, who use bribes from non-citizens to supplement their incomes. On any given day, the road leading to the Sevastopol Hotel is lined with police officers.
Mohammed says many Moscow Afghans are homesick and ready to return to Afghanistan. He notes that the well-educated Afghans who make up the majority of the Russian diaspora have a lot of offer their country, but says they have yet to be invited to return.
"We are ready to go back [to Afghanistan]. If other diaspora groups ask for help from the government, we are offering the government our help. We can offer well-educated people. After we left, the people [in Afghanistan] were left without education. We are the only Afghan diaspora that has scholars, military [officials]. This is the reason why we think [the interim administration] should have asked us to come back. But so far we don't feel [that they want to]."
This week, Afghan interim Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim traveled to Moscow for talks with senior Russian officials. But he did not meet with the Moscow diaspora or invite them to return to Afghanistan, despite his stated goal of building a national army -- a task the community leader says his group, with its 15,000 former military personnel, is well-equipped to aid.
Mohammed says the interim administration's call to Afghan citizens all over the world to return home should extend to Russia's Afghans as well. But, he adds, he believes the administration fears that because of its original links to Afghanistan's former communist system, the Russian diaspora may organize a new coup.
"[The Moscow diaspora] is already a national army. It is not a group of [ethnically] allied officers. They are people from all over the country and representatives of all ethnic groups. Unfortunately, these people were linked to the past period of revolution the world has chosen to refer to as a 'communist regime.' People think those who lived and worked in [Afghanistan] at the time have been [ruined]. But communism doesn't exist anymore. When we used to work in Afghanistan, we knew that it was an unreachable goal, particularly in Afghanistan. We back the interim [government], since there is no other way out. But the interim government shouldn't be afraid of the intelligentsia. Now is not the time to be afraid of coups, since with the presence of the international community the possibility is remote."
The United Nations and Afghanistan's interim administration have developed a program to promote voluntary repatriation of qualified Afghan specialists to help rebuild the war-torn country. According to the Moscow bureau of the International Organization for Migration, only 46 Afghans have requested to be repatriated to their country so far.
For the time being, Mohammed says, Russian Afghans are continuing to work at building a better life in Moscow. In the Sevastopol complex, the Afghans have their own mosque, doctors, and -- since last September -- their own school and kindergarten. The school, opened with the help of a grant from the United Nations, now teaches 106 Afghan children.
According to Lada Vekua, the school coordinator, children study subjects in Russian as well as in Dari and Pashtu, the two main Afghan languages. The aim of the school, Vekua says, is to give children a good knowledge of the Russian language as well as the languages and culture of Afghanistan so that they can easily return home in the future.
Bakhadur Khaledah used to teach Dari in Afghanistan, but came to Moscow in 1993 because of the difficult situation at home. Now she volunteers her time at the school because, she says, she believes the future of her country depends on its youngest generation.
"We are volunteer workers. We teach for free. We only get money for transportation. [But] we teach these children with pleasure, since they are our future. And the future of Afghanistan."
Shafik Lemar is a professional musician who arrived in Moscow in 1997. "Music was forbidden under both the mujahedin and the Taliban, so I decided to leave the country," he says. Now Lemar plays at the Afghan weddings in Moscow and teaches ethnic Afghan music at the school. At one music class, the children sing a song about their homeland: "Afghanistan, Afghanistan, it is our nation, it is our country. We are the children of this country."