By Peter Shadbolt, for CNN
(CNN) — A former Red Army soldier who went missing in action (MIA) in 1980 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has been found alive almost 33 years after he was rescued by Afghan tribesmen.
Now living under the name of Sheikh Abdullah and working as a traditional healer in the Shinand District of Afghanistan, the former Soviet soldier Bakhredtin Khakimov, an ethnic Uzbek, was tracked down by a team from Warriors-Internationalists Affairs Committee, a nonprofit, Moscow-based organization that leads the search for the former Soviet Union’s MIAs in Afghanistan.
“He received a heavy wound to the head in the course of a battle in Shanind district in September 1980 when he was picked up by local residents,” the organization said in a statement posted on its website. “He now leads a semi-nomadic life with the people who sheltered him.”
The organization said it made contact with the man two weeks ago and, while he had no identity papers, he was able to positively identify photos of other Soviet servicemen who served at the time.
“He could understand Russian a little bit, but spoke it poorly, although he remembers his Uzbek language,” the organization said. “The effects of his wounds were clearly manifested: His hand trembles and there is a visible tic in his shoulder.”
The deputy head of the organistation, Alexander Lavrentyev, told a news conference on Monday that Khakimov, originally from Samarkand, was nursed back to health by a village elder, a herbal healer, who taught him his trade.
“He was just happy he survived,” Lavrentyev, who personally met with Khakimov in the city of Herat in western Afghanistan in late February, was reported as saying by Russia’s RIA news agency.
But the former soldier — who married in Afghanistan, but is now a childless widower — was keen to meet his relatives, something the committee is working to arrange, Lavrentyev told reporters.
A local chief of police in Ghor province, Dilwar Dilawar, told CNN Khakimov converted to Islam in 1993.
Local reports, however, conflict with the Russian version of events. A local journalist, Sharafudin Stanekzai, who spoke with Khakimov told CNN that Khakimov separated from his unit after stealing a gun and then handed the weapon over to Mujahedeen Islamic guerilla fighters.
The Warriors-Internationalists Affairs Committee is working to track down 263 Soviet soldiers whose fate is unknown following the bloody nine-year campaign in Afghanistan. So far, it says it has tracked down 29 missing Soviet soldiers in the country.
Lavrentyev said 22 chose to be repatriated to their homes while seven elected to stay on in Afghanistan.
About 15,000 of the 600,000 Soviet soldiers who served in the near decade-long war were killed, according to figures cited by RIA from the Soviet General Staff.
Regarded as one of the last Cold War confrontations, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 to protect a Soviet-backed government against the Mujahedeen, who were armed and trained by Western and Islamic countries.