Recent news reports from Moscow highlighted that a Russian pilot shot down during the Soviet war in Afghanistan -1979 to 1989 – has been found alive and living in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region, writes Robert Shaw.
The downed pilot reportedly now wants to return home to Russia and his family. Is being missing in action (MIA) for so long usual and why hasn’t he been recovered before now?
Sergei Pantelyuk was stationed at Bagram airbase north of Kabul and was listed as missing in 1987. He has a 31 year old daughter, Larisa, who was born a few months after he went MIA. His mother and sister are also alive but his loss during the conflict devastated the family, his wife never remarried.
Soviet pilots were issued Survival and Escape & Evasion equipment but any aircrew that weren’t killed immediately during the loss of their aircraft would have had to make their way across very difficult terrain with an enemy that not only knew the ground well but was able to move over it at speed. As well as the threat from the mujahideen, the local population would also have been hostile and wouldn’t have provided any assistance so any aircrew trying to evade would have required dedicated Search and Rescue (SAR) forces to pick them up rapidly. It is remarkable that Sergei not only managed to survive capture (the Afghans were known to both torture prisoners and ask them to convert to Islam and keep them alive) but also live amongst the mujahideen for so long without word getting back to the Soviets or them doing more to find their MIA.
The Soviets lost 125 aircraft to ground fire (from captured Russian 23mm cannons, CIA provided Stinger missiles, and possibly also British-made Blowpipe missiles) and others to mechanical failure. By the end of the war the Russians had approximately 300 personnel MIA with about 30 being subsequently found and returned. MIA is nothing new in warfare and occurs because either friendly forces didn’t witness the person being killed or the body was never been found; occasionally also record of death and the location of field graves may have been lost during the conflict.
Prisoners being abandoned by their government is also unfortunately nothing new. After the Vietnam War, US aircrew were left behind as President Nixon refused to pay billions of dollars for food and reconstruction that he promised North Vietnam at the 1973 peace agreement in Paris. As a result, although 591 prisoners were subsequently released in Operation HOMECOMING in 1973 over 516 were left behind and some of their unique identification codes could be seen etched into fields until the 1990s.
Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin subsequently admitted they kept some of the US aircrew, especially F111 bomber crews, from Vietnam in labour camps; they were exploited and never returned. Sergei is lucky. He is alive, and will return to his homeland. Given past governments’ capacity to rapidly forget their MIA troops for political reasons, despite telling them they will bring them all home, it sometimes makes you wonder why people would voluntarily sign up knowing overseas service in a combat zone was a high possibility.
¤ Robert Shaw of Longbow Solutions is a former British Army ATO and IEDD/WIS Operator who is now a security and intelligence trainer and consultant.