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When No Place Is Really Home

Migration: Ethnic Russian is seen as a foreigner in Kabul, as are her half-Afghan children. But Moscow refuses to claim her.


KABUL, Afghanistan — In the dank stairwell of apartment block 2 in the suburban Kabul neighborhood of Blakhay Qasaba Kargari, you are transported a world away: This soulless concrete box could be in Moscow, or any other Russian city.

Eight flights up, a Russian woman named Galina Margoyeva, 35, yearns for just such a place. Anywhere in Russia.

She came more than 14 years ago from the Soviet Union, when its war to occupy Afghanistan was coming to its failed conclusion. She was trapped here, survived war and outlasted the Taliban, only to be told that Russia would not claim her, and that she was a citizen of nowhere.

Her children are treated as enemies. And her family's spartan two-room apartment has been like a prison where she hid Russian fairy tales and classics like "Anna Karenina" under the stove during the Taliban era.

Her ability to speak Russian is beginning to trickle away, with Dari seeping into her dreams, drowning out her mother tongue.

All this is the price of her love for an Afghan man.

An ethnic Russian born in Tajikistan, a Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan that is now an independent country, she married Haji Hussein in the mid-1980s, and the couple planned a life in the Soviet Union. But he had to return to Afghanistan after completing his studies, and when he could not go back to the Soviet Union, she joined him in Kabul, the Afghan capital, in 1987. Tears flooded her eyes when the pilot announced that the plane had left Soviet airspace. The same day, Islamic guerrillas unleashed a fierce rocket attack on Kabul.

Still stranded in an alien land years later, Margoyeva is afraid to go far from her apartment. She knows a handful of people, has few friends and is spooked by rumors of violence against women who go out without burkas, the garment women wear to cover their faces and bodies.

Her life reflects the fears, antipathies and suspicions common in Afghanistan, a country she has never liked enough to call home.

Her world is the apartment block, and after years of being cooped up, she resents and even despises some of her neighbors. Some of them, she says, leave piles of rubbish at her door and taunt her four children as shuravi, as the Soviets, who occupied the country for a decade, were called.

With children who speak little Russian and an Afghan husband, Margoyeva might find her dreams of a radiant homecoming to Russia disappointed. Russia too is a country suspicious of outsiders, particularly people from southern regions and republics.

Last October, 250 neo-Nazi skinheads targeted Afghans and other foreigners at the Sevastopol Hotel in Moscow and a nearby market. In the riot, a 40-year-old Afghan refugee was beaten and then hospitalized in a coma. Three people were killed: a Tajik, an Indian and an Armenian. Despite such violence, Margoyeva is convinced that her family would be better off in Russia, and her husband has always wanted to live there too.

"I don't think Russian children are like Afghan children. Afghan children are envious and cruel," she said.

Her two sons, Farid, 15, and Khomed, 8, look Russian like their mother, but her husband gave them Afghan names. Daughters Lina, 12, and Marina, 11, look more Afghan but have Russian names.

Margoyeva met her husband, who is now 41, in Tajikistan, where he was training as a building engineer. Forced to return to Afghanistan when his studies ended, he was drafted by the pro-Soviet government into the military and his term was extended for several years.

He fought the anti-Soviet moujahedeen. He despises them and the Taliban equally.

The family's efforts to return to the Soviet Union were frustrated first by lack of money, then by the closure of the embassy after the Soviet army withdrew in 1989, and by the expiration of Margoyeva's Soviet passport.

"The most difficult day was the day when we saw the last Soviet plane leave, and with that our last hope died," said Margoyeva, who lives close to Kabul's main airport--a prime target in the civil war that raged after the retreat of the Russians.

Airport Always a Target

Whether it was fighting among moujahedeen factions in the early 1990s, or the Taliban pushing toward Kabul in the mid-1990s, the airport was always a strategic target.

"The moujahedeen were like terrorists. They used to come here at night and kill people. Everyone was afraid of them," Margoyeva said, describing how a neighbor was dragged away in the early 1990s. Her family was afraid someone would denounce her as a Russian and an enemy.

"If I'd know what it was going to be like, I would never have come. Who wants to live in a slaughterhouse? Every day you worry, every day bad news. No freedom.

"I've been in prison for 14 years. It goes on and on, even today."

Life under the Taliban was particularly severe, but even now she feels repressed. She has nothing to do but sweep the floors and wash the dishes and clothes. She used to spend the days reading Russian stories to the children, but they are now in school.

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