PYANDZH, Tajikistan — What could they do? Their military duty required them to defend the border and open fire on anyone who violated it. But these were women and children and old people, fleeing across the Pyandzh River to escape the bloodshed afflicting their homeland in Tajikistan.
"We were caught in a very complex position," said Lt. Col. Vladimir Zhernakov, deputy commander of the Russian guards who man the border with Afghanistan here. "It was happening before our very eyes, but you can't fire when it's women and children."
And so, what was once a tightly controlled boundry between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan turned in late December into a partly open gateway, allowing tens of thousands of refugees and retreating militants through. The crowds simply broke down the elaborate system of fencing and alarms at the frontier, and the guards were powerless to stop them.
In recent days, the mass crossings into Afghanistan have stopped, but an estimated 80,000 refugees in the border region linger, and Russian guards continue to face frequent clashes with Afghan fighters slipping across to sell arms or their own services.
The Pyandzh River is becoming a powerful symbol of a problem threatening not only this remote former Soviet republic, but much of a fast-changing Central Asia: a mixture of clan and ideological warfare that can spread at any time across the new national borders of the region.
Eight months of civil war among Tajikistan's 5 million people have left at least 20,000 people believed dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees on the road.
The turmoil has neighboring Central Asian states doubly worried. The Tajik conflict appears to be bringing mass, Afghanistan-style violence into former Soviet territory. And it could be a frightening harbinger of what awaits them all.
"In the geopolitical sense, Tajikistan was the most vulnerable point of the former Soviet Union," presidential adviser Rustam Mirzoyev said. "It's a small republic that has an enormous border with an unstable country--Afghanistan.
"Iranian extremism came to us through Afghanistan," Mirzoyev said, referring to the Islamic fundamentalist opposition that Tajikistan's current pro-Communist government now appears to have vanquished.
Many see the arbitrary internal borders of the former Soviet Union as another cause of the Tajik conflict. The boundaries created by the Bolsheviks on the maps of the early 1920s were often carelessly drawn and left entities like Tajikistan with weak internal fault lines likely to give way under tension.
Much of the recent fighting is simple clan warfare among traditional rivals or enemies in regions that Soviet authorities somewhat arbitrarily lumped together into Tajikistan.
In this too Tajikistan mirrors Afghanistan--a patchwork country where Tajiks, Pushtuns and Uzbeks are slugging it out for control. If Afghanistan's ethnic Tajiks lose control of Kabul, the capital, some analysts foresee an attempt to set up a Tajik state in northern Afghanistan at the risk of further destabilizing the region by attempting to do away with the old Soviet border altogether and uniting Tajiks from both sides.
The hundreds of thousands of Afghan Tajiks have natural ties with their once-Soviet brethren across the 600-mile border, and ex-Soviet Tajiks also communicate easily with the Pushtun, whose language, like Tajik, is Persian-based.
In a way, said Habib Rabiyev, head of the Tajik government's committee on religion, today's mishmash really began "when England and Russia divided Central Asia on the River Pyandzh" in 1885.
For years, tough Soviet border controls kept the two sides of the Pyandzh well separated. But recent months have found Russian guards--leftovers from the Soviet era with a mission to keep turmoil at arm's length from home--overwhelmed by the pressure from both sides of the international boundary. It does not help that their border base has suffered cutoffs of cooking gas, breakdowns of electricity and bread shortages.
A unit of young Russian marines, pure joy on their faces as they waited to board a helicopter on their way home after four months of service on the border near Pyandzh, told harrowing tales of the frequent firefights near their isolated outposts.
"There were four of us marines, and we ran into six dushmani, " Sgt. Alexander Semenyutin recalled, referring to Afghan resistance fighters. "They opened fire on us, we fired at them, then they started to chase us, then we turned it around and started to chase them," finally losing them in the high reeds of the Pyandzh River.
Valery Romantsov, a blond sergeant with aquamarine eyes, displayed the medal he won when his group of six men managed to capture 11 Afghan arms smugglers just as they were trying to install a large underground pipe to let them slither under the border's alarm system.
"We weren't even armed but we took them anyway," he said, his chest puffing. "We're marines."