Toomas Sildam: Time to notice those who fought in Afghan war were our boys
The Estonian state recently noticed and gave repressed status to veterans of the Chernobyl disaster living in Estonia. It is high time to do the same for people the Soviet Union sent to fight in Afghanistan in 1979-1989, journalist Toomas Sildam writes.
Journalist Piret Kriivan talked to Lt. Col. Eero Kinnunen, who currently serves as the head of the Defense League's Harju district, on Vikerraadio's "Eesti lugu" program on February 15. However, they did not talk about the Estonian Defense Forces or the Defense League. Instead, Kinnunen and Kriivan talked about how the former fought in Afghanistan as a conscript in 1986 and 1987.
Two thoughts stayed with me.
Firstly, when Kinnunen – who has also fought for Estonia in Iraq and again in Afghanistan – said that he has not gotten over the first war to this day.
Secondly, his opinion that it is time for the Estonian state to notice and recognize the men who were sent to that war virtually as children. But it's like they don't exist, Kinnunen said, while people who participated in containing the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster are remembered.
An alien war, one might say regarding the previous Afghan conflict. It was a strange war and a strange time. But the boys who were put through it were ours. And the war was real, and people were killed for real, and simply because they came back without visible scars, it did not mean the young conscripts escaped unscathed.
Historian Küllo Arjakas suggests 1,652 men from Estonia participated in the Soviet-Afghan conflict in 1979-1989. Most were conscripted when they were 18-20 years of age. Around a thousand of them are estimated to be living in Estonia today, all aged 50-60. The list can be found at the National Archives.
Jüri Ratas' first government gave people who helped clean up the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 repressed status. They qualify for benefits for the repressed and can retire five years early under favorable conditions.
Our boys who were sent to fight in Afghanistan against their will get nothing, they hardly matter to Estonia. While it's true Estonia did not send them there, it also did not dispatch men to Chernobyl but still knew to recognize them a few years ago.
Therefore, it would be entirely proper – either on the level of the government, Riigikogu factions or the parliament's national defense committee – to supplement the law with a clause stating that people who were forcibly conscripted to the Soviet army and sent to areas that saw battles in Afghanistan in 1979-1989 could be given repressed status and be allowed to retire three years early, for example.
Why? Because they were repressed. Many have not escaped that strange war in their heart to this day, and scars we cannot always see will remain with them forever. It would be unfair not to notice that.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski