TERMEZ, Soviet Uzbekistan -- One of the last major contingents of Soviet troops to leave Afghanistan pushed up to the Soviet border Sunday, with some soldiers playing guitars and singing to celebrate the end of their country's longest war and first military defeat since 1920.
The bulk of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, under orders of Afghan commander Gen. Boris Gromov, already have been airlifted to the Soviet Union, leaving a token force of about 500 crack troops remaining in Kabul to guard the airport.
About 65 military vehicles, including armored personnel carriers and light tanks carrying about 250 soldiers, pushed up to the border near Hairaton to await a celebration Monday officially marking their re-entry into the Soviet Union.
The column had met no enemy fire during the trek from Kabul, but had to brave snow, ice and avalanches while traveling through the Salang Pass in the Hindu Kush mountains, which slice through the country with peaks higher than 24,000 feet.
Although the distance from Kabul to Termez is only 250 miles, the convoy had to travel 310 miles because of the twists and bends in the narrow road leading to the forbidding mountain range.
After navigating the treacherous Salang Pass on roads glazed with ice, the convoy moved steadily the last 27 miles from Mazir i Sharif to Termez at 25 mph.
'I have been dreaming of this day for 18 months,' said Alex Kolkorotkov, a 20-year-old soldier from Moscow. 'Not everyone managed to come back, as you know. Afghanistan is an unpleasant country.'
'It took 12 hours to get through the Salang Pass,' Kolkorotkov recalled. 'We had to get out and put sand on the road. We were slowed to a crawl of 3 to 5 miles an hour.'
The arrival of the convoy at the Friendship Bridge that leads into the Soviet Union left only a few thousand Soviet troops in the country where 104,000 had been stationed before the Geneva withdrawal agreement was reached last April.
The first half of what the Soviets call a 'limited contingent' were withdrawn last August.
Soviet forces went into Afghanistan in December 1979 in an attempt to prop up a Marxist state in the Texas-sized southeast Asian nation, but instead they plunged into a grinding guerrilla war that cost them 13,410 dead and more than 34,000 wounded.
It was viewed as the first Soviet military defeat since the Poles repulsed Moscow's forces as they approached Warsaw during the waning days of the country's civil war in August 1920.
After driving deep into the Ukraine, the Poles were pushed back to the gates of Warsaw before they rallied and defeated Soviet troops in a battle known as the 'miracle of the Vistula River.'
Andrei Yerelin, 23, a first lieutenant, derided the Soviet policy of trying to prop up a Marxist regime. 'The Soviet policy brought nothing to Afghanistan,' he said as his armored personnel carrier bumped along the road toward the border.
'The Soviet Union did what the Afghan people should have done themselves. I thing the Soviet Union made a mistake.'
Another soldier, sitting astride the turret of his light tank as he bade farewell to Afghanistan, strummed a guitar and sang lyrics he composed on the road to Termez:
'We are leaving the dust from the cold Afghan wind. We are entering the danger zone and we don't know whether we are going to live or die.'