Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The "Kandahar captives"

Recently a big Russian film has been released, which dramatizes the until now rather forgotten story about a Russian cargo plane crew that was held hostage for more than a year by the Taliban in 1995, but managed to escape with their own plane, after convincing their captors that this expensive plane, a great asset for the Taliban, needed regular maintenance.
The film stars some of the most popular Russian actors today, and seems to avoid as much of the back story as possible, instead focusing on individual crew members and their heroic feat. Which is kind of frustrating, because it's very interesting.

Some of the back story can be read in the book Merchant of death by Douglas Farah and Stephen Brown.

The plane was an air freighter owned by the Kazan-based company Aerostan, that had been leased by the company Transavia, owned by a man by the name of Viktor Bout. The secretive Bout, presumably born 1967 near Dushanbe, Tajik SSR, and a former Soviet military translator, was making "a significant amount of money" through his many air transport companies. In the 1990's he became the top private supplier and transporter of arms, with the reputation of one who would deliver no matter the circumstances. His clients have included both UNITA rebels and government forces in Angola, several sides in the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnian Muslim forces, both government forces/Northern Alliance and the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as US army and private contractors in Iraq, while also carrying relief supplies for the UN to alleviate the same conflicts. He has always been careful to stay on the technically legal side, albeit frequently violating UN arms embargoes. (However, Bout was arrested in Bangkok 2008 and has been in prison until this day.)

Bout's cargo planes would very often have to land and take off from airstrips so crude that they would have been impossible for modern freighters, and with no maintenance facilities whatsoever. But he used tough old Soviet planes - Antonovs, Ilyushins and Yakovlevs, some of them 40 year old models - for which such conditions were not a problem. The crews were just as tough, and able to do any necessary maintenance and repair by themselves. Mobutu Sese Seko, who in 1997 took off from Zaire into exile on an Antonov owned by Bout, as pursuing rebel forces fired a hail of bullets at the plane's fuselage, later commented: "We were lucky it was a Russian plane. If it had been a Boeing, it would have exploded."

The Ilyushin Il-76 that was forced to land in Kandahar in 1995 was piloted by Vladimir Sharpatov, a decorated former Soviet Air Force pilot, who had been working on and off for Bout for years. This particular flight was just one of many routine runs Sharpatov flew shipping weapons from Tirana, Albania, to the government forces (later Northern Alliance) in Kabul, Afghanistan. At the time, Kandahar was controlled by the Taliban, who patrolled the air space around the city with a single MiG-21. Usually Sharpatov had no problems with the Taliban MiG if he just kept his plane at a safe distance, but this time he was apparently not so lucky.

The plane was forced to land, and the crew of seven was held hostage by the Taliban for over a year. As they had been shipping weapons to the government forces, the Taliban assumed that Russia was providing military support to the Afghan government, and tried to pressure Moscow into releasing prisoners captured during the Soviet Union's war with Afghanistan. Since Bout operated independently, and the Russian government had no interest in getting mixed up in Afghanistan again, this was not true. Negotiations dragged on, and the crew was promised to be released many times, but nothing happened. Meanwhile, apparently Viktor Bout saw the situation as an opportunity, and established business relations with the Taliban while negotiating for the release of his plane and crew. There are suspicions that the Taliban "let" the crew escape after reaching a sweet deal with Bout.

When they returned to Russia, the crew was received as heroes, and certainly their ordeal and their daredevil escape should not be belittled, as they in any case probably did not know what deals were possibly being made about them, and planned and carried out their escape all by themselves.

However, this film is a bit disturbing not only in that it avoids telling most of the back story.

The crew of seven is reduced to five and given different names in the film - in which process the Tatar names of some of the crew members are changed into more Slavonic-sounding names: second pilot Gazinur Hairullin (played by the handsome Vladimir Mashkov) becomes "Seryoga", and flight engineer Askhat Abbyazov (played by bright-eyed Bogdan Benyuk) gets the Ukrainian name Vakulenko. The Aerostan plane, which originally had decals with the Tatarstan flag, gets "RusTransAviaExport" decals with Russian flags. And when religion comes up, the crew members are either practising Christians (Abbyazov/Vakulenko is one of them) or don't care - none of them shows any signs of a Muslim background.

The real story might have been much more about international arms dealing and the political situation in the mid-1990's. But in a St. Petersburg Times interview, director Andrei Kavun said: “My film is about the fact that it is possible to love your country, regardless of its attitude toward you.” Indeed, it focuses (tries to, at least) on the individual crew members and how they react to their imprisonment and the seeming indifference towards them from Russia. The tone is set in the beginning, when Seryoga escapes from the Turkish police (in the film the plane takes off from Istanbul, not Tirana) after engaging in shady dealings on the beach, and his partner shouts: "We Russians don't abandon our people!" Basically the message is about "individual patrotism", solidarity with your countrymen in spite of how much your nation might screw you over.

In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Kavun explains further:
"My main moral thread was not about Afghanistan, but about contemporary Russia. In the Great Patriotic War, we were all Russians whether we were Jews, Chechens, Tatars, Georgians, Ukrainians, Russians or others. When Nazis captured a Soviet soldier who was a Chechen, they called him a Russian and they killed him as a Russian.
Now we have grown very particular about our ethnic, confessional and other differences to the point that we can no longer exist next to each other. My movie is about five different people who are caught up in a tragic situation which aggravates their differences. Each one thinks that he is right and each one has a right to his truth. But only when they put their differences aside do they manage to survive together and make a heroic escape. It is about coming to terms with each other, making allowances and compromises."
So why did he have to erase the Tatar elements in the story? Is Kavun talking about a "Russianness" where ethnic minorities can easily find their culture "assimilated to death", while the majorities might have problems realising that their culture is actually not the norm for everyone who calls themselves Russian?
Another explanation could be that this film was made in 2010. After all, while the Tatar elements have been removed, there is plenty of anti-Islamism. Most of the Afghans are portrayed as idiots, emotional, aggressive, fanatical, uncultured, and easily diverted with games and bribed with watches and jewelry.

Enough rambling, and on to the screencaps!
Click to enlarge:

Turkish policemen

The crew of the Il-76

Commotion as the plane lands in Kandahar. The film was shot in Morocco, and I seriously doubt they bothered to fly in Afghan people to play any of the Afghan roles. But in any case, there are lots of handsome men in the crowds of stereotypically "angry and violent Orientals" ...

The interpreter - "Misha", as he calls himself. Played by Imomberdy Mingbaev (his name sounds Tajik).

Adil, the Russian-speaking MiG-21 pilot, is played by the Tatar Ramil Sabitov: yet another role in his long career of "swarthy bandits" ... And particularly ironic in this film, where some of the "heroes" in real life were Tatars like him.

Sabitov has a large fanbase of people who appreciate his manliness.

More handsome extras.

Some of the guards.

Vityek tries to get on the guards' good side by gambling with them (!).

Then he speaks to Misha about converting to Islam and joining the Taliban, and the possible benefits he would get from it. When the other crew members find out they kick his ass.

The pilot is forced to teach the Taliban how to fly the Ilyushin.

The youngest of the guards.


Doing "maintenance" on the plane ...

Vityek convinces this cute guy to let him ride his bicycle, so he can maybe ride way out along the air strip and check out the anti-aircraft gun positioned there.

It's Friday, and most of the guys guarding them have gone off to do their prayers. Now is the chance ...

And for comparison, here are some authentic photos, taken by a Russian doctor who was with a team who was allowed to visit the hostages - again, click to enlarge:

The MiG-21 pilot in front of the Aerostan Ilyushin

Crew members eating

One of them is clearly sporting a "Tatarfro" ...

The doctors also treated some locals while they were in Kandahar.

Street scene

There are more authentic photos at EnglishRussia.


Rozmin said...

The white-washing (I guess Slav-washing is a more accurate phrase here, but it sounds funny!) is indeed disturbing. It would be interesting to see a film that would show not only this story, but would include the dynamic between fundamentalist Muslim captors and a non-extremist Muslim hostage.

sitevisitor said...

I agree with Rozmin. The Slav-washing is disturbing. It is also a typical manifestation of Russians' chronic senses of insecurity. Yes, a chance to make a great movie is wasted. A well-made movie contrasting two groups of Muslims could plausibly win an Oscar or a Palm D'Or.

BTW, Mr. Mingbaev may very well be a Tajik but his name doesn't sound Tajik at all. It's 100% Turkic. It's made up of words that are probably common to all Turkic languages. Ming = "thousand", Bay = Bey = Bek = Beg = "title for chieftain, traditionally applied to the leaders of small tribal groups." Nope, I'm not trying to incite Pan-Turkic sentiment around here. Or anti-Russian one for that matter.

Tinet said...

Ah, yes, that is true about the name Mingbaev. I know of another person with the first name Imomberdy, and he is Tajik, so that's what I was thinking of. But then again I don't know if Imomberdy is a purely Tajik name ...