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10 Feb, 2010 03:38

Russian pilots prisoners of the Taliban: the movie

With Afghanistan occupying global headlines, a new film about the war torn country is taking the Russian box office by storm.

Based on true events, it chronicles the story of a Russian cargo plane crew captured by Afghan’s Taliban, who were a little-known militant group at the time and held prisoner for over a year.

For 378 days they were tortured, starved and subjected to constant attempts to convert them to Islam. Now their saga has been turned into a major motion picture.

“In this situation when you, a peaceful person, are imprisoned, at this moment all the best and worst features of the human character are revealed,” said actor Vladimir Mashkov, who played the co-pilot in the movie. “For them it was the hardest test to pass: 378 days of uncertainty. I would never wish anyone to go through that.”

To understand their plight one has to go back to the chaotic Afghanistan of 1995.

Burhanuddin Rabbani is nominally president, but the country is in a civil war and the Taliban are on the rise.

Into the maelstrom flies Vladimir Sharpatov and his crew in their cargo plane. The Taliban was fighting against the government and it found out about the flight carrying ammunition and was waiting to intercept it.

“We flew in taking shells for the Rabbani government but were intercepted,” remembered Vladimir Sharpatov, the original pilot-captain of the unfortunate plane. “So the Taliban took these shells. But they also had another agenda – to show that Russia was still involved in Afghanistan. The Taliban wanted to provoke Russia to see what actions it would take.”

Once captured they were kept in a small, walled compound. All the anger of the Afghans over the war with the Soviet Union was directed against them.

“For them we were pagans, the untouchables,” explained pilot Vladimir Sharpatov. “They would just bring in groups and show us off like animals in a zoo. They showed us their wounds and stumps, saying – this is what your soldiers have done. So we represented the whole of Russia and were to blame for everything.”

They were bundled off as government forces attacked Kandahar and brought back again when the attack failed. Their spirits sank. But just as all seemed lost a medical team from the Russian government was allowed to visit them, bringing supplies and news from their families.

“We had a very productive stay. Four of the crew, if I am not mistaken, had developed hepatitis and we left them the necessary medication. Sadly, the food they were given was very poor but we gave them as much support as we could,” recalled a rescue coordinator Sergey Kudinov who visited captured pilots.

As the months dragged on and negotiations bogged down it became clear to the men they would have to try and escape.

They chose their moment carefully, recaptured their plane and flew home. The rest is history… and film.

“We tried to tell this story as much as we understand it. But I don't think we’ve understood more than 10%,” confessed the director of the movie, Andrey Kavun, “And nobody would have understood. You can only understand it when you’ve been through it.”

He also told RT: “The most interesting aspect of the story is the human’s side – what happened within the crew, their relationships.”

The film Kandahar tries to portray the ordeal these men went through, as it was their counterparts in real life who escaped their captors and were greeted as heroes on their return to Russia in 1996.

And today, with the Taliban's power apparently growing in Afghanistan once again, perhaps its time to remember the perseverance and resourcefulness of Vladimir Sharpatov and his crew.