The Pain that Ukrainians and Afghans Carry with Them

Ukraine and Afghanistan are very different, but their people have similar wounds.

As wonky national security researchers by day, we’re in the business of objectively untangling strategic-level policy questions by soberly dissecting complex data. We are trained to keep our biases in check and leave our opinions at the door. But the shocking events unfolding in Ukraine serve as a vivid reminder of the profoundly human — and for us, deeply personal — consequences tied to the strategic level of decision-making we study and weigh in on each day.

Our families’ countries of origin — Ukraine and Afghanistan — are separated by thousands of kilometers. We live on opposite coasts of the US. Yet, we are bound by a connection that unites all of us whose families have suffered and endured at the hands of the Kremlin. Our stories stand as testaments that the societal and individual traumas inflicted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine today will echo for decades to come.

FROM ALYSSA DEMUS

Memories from my childhood are rich with dinner table discussions of the latest developments in Eastern European politics, somber chronicles of repression at the hands of the Soviets, and lively tales from the “old country.” As targets of the Soviet regime, my grandparents made the heart-wrenching decision to flee Ukraine and emigrate to the US with my father as refugees — the same choice facing millions of Ukrainians today. Though forever grateful for their adopted home, it was clear to me even as a child that the wounds my family carried for their decision to leave Ukraine had never fully healed. As a result, my grandparents lived out the remainder of their years deeply enmeshed in the Ukrainian diaspora in Chicago, where they supported Ukraine’s fight for independence and its struggles for democracy from afar.

We have continued to nurture our family’s ties to Ukraine, its people, and its culture. We speak Ukrainian at home. I grew up spending Saturdays at Ridna Shkola, a Ukrainian school. Each November, we gather at the Ukrainian genocide memorial (Holodomor, meaning “death by starvation”) to pay our respects to the victims, our forebears. They suffered at the hands of the Stalinist regime. And I’ve devoted my career to studying security and political issues tied to Eastern Europe and US foreign policy.

Now, anxious over the fate of family members still in Ukraine, I can’t help but view the war through my grandparents’ eyes. They would be heartbroken. They would lament, “hasn’t Ukraine suffered enough at the hands of the Kremlin?” They would see themselves and their friends in the anguished faces of the Ukrainian families deciding whether to remain in their homeland or flee. They would be haunted by the gruesome reports emerging from Mariupol, where the increasingly dire circumstances imposed on its residents, including starvation, disquietingly echo their own generation’s experience with the Holodomor.

But I know they would also smile every time they heard the western media say “Ukraine” instead of “the Ukraine,” “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev,” and “Volodymyr” instead of “Vladimir.” They would be moved by the widespread demonstrations of solidarity and support and by the courage of the Russian people who have risked persecution to speak out against the war. They would be heartened by the grit and patriotism of the Ukrainian public and its leaders. Above all, they would be proud to be Ukrainian Americans.

FROM OBAID YOUNOSSI

As Russian bombs rain over Ukraine and troops close in on Kyiv, met by Ukrainian military units, groups of volunteers, and ordinary citizens, it reminds me of Christmas Eve 1979. Then, I was a teenager in Kabul experiencing the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Early that day, my family and I began hearing the disquieting hum of large Russian-made transport aircraft hovering over the city and landing at Kabul Airport and Bagram military base. Soviet ground forces penetrated the long land border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the north. That evening, we learned that Afghanistan’s pro-Russian President Hafizullah Amin and his confidants had been assassinated by Soviet Special Forces.

Afghanistan and Ukraine are inexorably linked through their shared experience of enduring a Kremlin-led violation of their sovereignty and the tragedy of those invasions, even though they don’t share a common language, religion, or culture.

On Christmas morning, my father drove us to the main road that led to Kabul. We saw Soviet tanks and armored vehicles lining the streets. Stunned, Kabul’s citizens were out, trying to process what had just unfolded. There on Afghan lands stood young, visibly anxious Russian soldiers half emerged from their vehicles. In the days that followed, small groups of courageous men and women in Kabul gathered to protest. Cries of “Allah Akbar” ricocheted from every rooftop. Soon, my family learned that my uncle and cousins had joined the protests and were missing. The following morning their bloodied car was discovered near a police station. Soviet soldiers had murdered my uncle, shot a cousin who was moved to a military hospital, and took another cousin to the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison. Meanwhile, US president Jimmy Carter boycotted the Russian Olympics and announced sanctions targeting the Soviet Union. The international community condemned the invasion, and western intelligence services began arming Afghanistan’s insurgency. Militants began pouring in from Pakistan, the Gulf, and other parts of the world to join the Afghan mujahideen’s cause.

In 1980, my family and other relatives left and dispersed to different parts of the globe. After spending several months in Rome, I was granted political asylum in the United States with the support of the International Rescue Committee. Only after waiting in New Delhi, India, for a year was the rest of my family able to join me. Although the uncertainties of our new home in an unknown culture weighed on us heavily, the promise of new opportunities and the American dream gave us hope. Little did we know that 1980 would soon be seen as a turning point in history, linked to the 9/11 attacks and the decades-long presence of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Ukraine is not Afghanistan. It is a European state and a Slavic nation whose public overwhelmingly identifies as Christian. Ukraine’s military capability is vastly different than Afghanistan’s. These two countries are inexorably linked through their shared experience of enduring a Kremlin-led violation of their sovereignty and the tragedy of those invasions, even though they don’t share a common language, religion, or culture. But, unlike in our daily work, this is not an analysis of relative military strengths and weaknesses. We know better than to lean too heavily on historical analogies for lessons. Instead, this is a reminder — to ourselves as much as our fellow wonks and policymakers — of the deep and enduring imprints left by policy decisions that can seem like mere moves on a chessboard from inside our bubbles.

Ultimately, the Soviets’ brutal nine-year campaign in Afghanistan claimed the lives of nearly one million Afghan civilians, close to 100,000 mujahideen fighters, and almost 20,000 pro-government Afghan troops. Millions were displaced internally. Others sought safety in neighboring countries or beyond. Reverberations of the invasion continue to affect the Afghan people today. For its part, Moscow lost over 15,000 Soviet soldiers and, ultimately, its empire. The conflict in Afghanistan is widely seen as an important factor in the Soviet Union’s demise. Today, widespread demonstrations in Russia protesting the Ukrainian invasion and the mounting pressure of economic sanctions have Kremlinologists wondering whether President Vladimir Putin’s regime will suffer a similar fate. Moreover, given Ukraine’s geographic proximity to NATO and its role in global markets, Russia’s invasion has profound implications far beyond Ukrainian borders.

Now just over six weeks into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, NATO estimates the Russian military has already suffered somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 casualties. From early April, estimates of Western intelligence agencies are more conservative, citing figures closer to between 7,000–10,000 soldiers killed in action. The fog of war equally obscures figures on Ukrainian casualties. At this rate, however, Russian losses will soon eclipse those of the Afghan war if they haven’t already. Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced, including at least one out of every two Ukrainian children. We hope it does not take the bloodshed of millions — Ukrainians, Russians, or others — to convince the Kremlin to change course this time.

At first blush, the ties that unite us are not immediately apparent, given that the scars of conflict are often invisible. We don’t walk around the office wearing labels reading “Afghan refugee” or “Ukrainian American.” At work, it’s easy to forget that the colleagues we pass in the hallways or engage with daily carry their own traumas. Likewise, the recent global events that have reopened wounds in our personal histories serve as stark reminders that our work, no matter how pragmatic, impacts people — a lesson that the scientific nature of research can obscure, but we’ll both carry forward.

Alyssa Demus is an International/Defense Researcher at the RAND Corporation. 

Obaid Younossi is a Senior Policy Researcher and Director, Defense and Political Sciences Department at the RAND Corporation.