MOSCOW -- During the brutal Afghan war, thousands of children were shipped off to the Soviet Union to learn how to be good Communists. Now that Communism has been forgotten, so have the children.
Many, nearly grown, are still living in children's homes in the former Soviet Union, where they are trapped in time and history.
They don't quite fit in here, where they don't feel Russian. Yet they remember little of their homeland, and some don't even speak their own language. They are stateless, and alone.
"The Soviet regime committed a kind of double crime against these children," said Mohammad Azam Arsalai, the second-ranking Afghan diplomat in Moscow. "First they killed their parents, and then they brought them here, far from the arms of their country."
Here in Moscow, eight young Afghans live and study along with 200 Russians in Children's Home No. 24 in a bleak, industrial section of the city.
One 17-year-old, Said Shershah Zivari, remembers how relieved he was to come to Russia more than six years ago.
"When we came here we were very happy," he said. "There was fighting in Afghanistan, we couldn't go to school. Everything was ruined. When we came here, this was a perfect country. Now things are bad here. Now Russia is destroyed, too."
Said's father was a paratrooper for the Soviet-supported government. After his father was killed, the authorities sent him to the Soviet Union.
His mother is still alive, but Said can't imagine how he could be reunited with her.
"I can't help her," he said, "and she can't help me. I would only make it worse if I went there."
Darmal Hamedi, also 17, said he thinks his parents are alive, but he doesn't know where they are.
"Our house was destroyed," he said. "It is impossible to study there. The economy is destroyed. Life has no guarantees. We can't live, study or work there. How, then, can we go back?"
Several thousand sent
Mr. Arsalai estimates that several thousand children were sent to 12 homes across the Soviet Union during the war, which began in 1979 and ended only in 1992, though Soviet troops withdrew in 1989. Perhaps about 300 are still in children's homes in the former Soviet Union, he said.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan has been compared to the U.S. war in Vietnam. Both were conflicts aggravated by superpower struggles for influence during the Cold War, and both superpowers were defeated by guerrilla forces. Both wars left the smaller countries ravaged and the interfering countries traumatized.
Russians who are aware of the Afghan children tend to think of their presence here as a humanitarian gesture.
The anti-Soviet Afghans saw the children's departure as the ultimate strike at their society.
A 1984 magazine article reported that parents and relatives were held at gunpoint while 370 children were herded aboard a Soviet plane. Quoting anti-Soviet sources, the article said about 20,000 children had been sent to the Soviet Union.
For the young men at Home No. 24, the collapse of Communism spared them undue indoctrination. Sadly, it also left them without a deep understanding of their own country.
"Their situation is a real tragedy," Mr. Arsalai said. "Many don't even know their names. They can't read and write in their own language. They don't know their religion. They don't have any money.
"The country that brought them here is gone, and the Russian government because of its own problems can't help them.
"They are almost without nationality. Now it would be very difficult for them to live in Afghanistan."
Valentina Voyevodkina, deputy director of School 24, said appeals to the government to provide religious and language teachers have gone unheeded.
The young men know little about the war in their country.
"Now we're studying the history of the former Soviet Union," Said said. "Now we can speak better about that than about our own history."
The Afghans still living in children's homes are the better-off ones, Mr. Arsalai said. Many older ones who already have graduated are in deep trouble.
"Some appear in my office saying they have no food, no roof over their heads," he said. "And we have no money for them either."
He said he is trying to persuade the United Nations through UNICEF to set up a special school in Russia where the Afghans could be sent to learn the language and traditions that would allow them to reenter their own society.
"I don't try to push them to go back now," he said. "If they go back they need special care, and our government can't provide that now. We have to be realistic."
"The language is leaving our hearts," said Amu Azimi, 15, as the young men sat talking in a slowly darkening classroom. It was lunchtime, but outside their window, the December sky was already gray and dim.
Danger awaits them in Afghanistan, they said. They and their families are associated with the Soviet regime, and the anti-Soviet regime controls the country now.
"If they knew our families served the Communists," Said said, "they would shoot us without a second thought."
Money and will
Mr. Arsalai, the diplomat, said that the children were viewed as victims, but Afghanistan seems less than eager to help them now. Mr. Arsalai explains it as lack of money rather than lack of will.
At least in Russia, Said said, they can learn some sort of career. A tall, athletic young man, he hopes to enter a sports institute in Russia and become a volleyball coach.
For a few moments, the young men tussled with their feelings of nationality.
"We don't belong to Russia," said Said. "We don't belong to Afghanistan. We only feel ourselves human."
"No," said Haled Wak, 16, "we are Afghan. We feel like brothers."
"We aren't Communists or monarchists or anything else," said Darmal. "We only want peace."
On a bleak Moscow day, one thought brought pleased smiles to their faces.
"We are happy someone is interested in our fate," said Amu, who couldn't imagine anyone in far-off America worrying that he was lost.