PYANDZH, TAJIKISTAN — HIS face illuminated by the silvery glow of a three-quarters moon, Capt. Sergei Shumikhin squatted on the bank of the Pyandzh River and reminisced about quieter times along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
"The fishing here is great," he said, the swiftly moving current rippling below him. "The fish are huge - up to 120 pounds," he said.
These days Captain Shumikhin, the commander of a Russian border patrol unit here, has almost no time to relax or tell fish stories. Each night his troops are out hunting large and dangerous quarry - gun runners. The smugglers are bringing in arms from Afghanistan that are fueling an escalating civil war in Tajikistan. The unrest threatens to destabilize the entire former Soviet Central Asian region.
On one recent night patrol, Shumikhin had information that a group of 10 smugglers would try to bring a large arms cache into Tajikistan.
At 8 p.m., 10 squads of five soldiers each spread out to play a patient cat-and-mouse game.
Hiding in the tall reeds or crouching behind boulders along the riverbank, the soldiers of one squad wait with their guns constantly at the ready, pointed toward Afghanistan.
"I will fire my rifle if I have to, but I hope no one will come our way," said one conscript, who had arrived in Pyandzh only two weeks earlier.
The soldiers never had to use their weapons that night. The smugglers "got scared" and didn't attempt to cross the river, Shumikhin said the following morning.
Few smugglers nowadays are so daunted, however. By most accounts, the Russian troops are fighting a losing battle to seal the border.
Col. Ravil Mullayanov, the commander of all border troops stationed in Pyandzh, estimates that his forces confiscate only about 35 percent of all the weapons coming from Afghanistan.
The border forces recently received about 1,200 reinforcements from neighboring Central Asian republics and Russia, but their impact has been limited, says Colonel Mullayanov, who refuses to reveal the total number of troops deployed along the border. The reinforcements have boosted spirits, but morale remains a problem, many officers say.
The professional soldiers in Pyandzh bemoan their low pay and the high risks. They also complain about a virtual information blockade.
"We receive television from Russia, but get no newspapers and almost no mail," Mullayanov says. He adds that a lack of cooperation by the local Tajik population makes the task of securing the border virtually impossible.
"Before, they helped us all the time with information, and now most don't," says the colonel, lamenting the break-up of the Soviet Union. "They used to bow before us, but now the locals have stopped being afraid."
According to the officers, the smugglers are no longer scared to take on the border troops. Since May, when the Tajik civil war began to heat up, arms smugglers have become much more organized and ruthless, they say. "When you caught someone in the past and gave the command `hands up,' they would do it," Shumikhin says. "Now, they start shooting at you."
The smuggled arms come in all shapes and sizes. Weapons recently confiscated range from a 1916 bolt-action rifle to an 82mm mortar.
The arms that get through are being used in a civil war that pits defenders of the old Communist system against a Democratic-Islamic coalition, which has its main power base in Kurgan-Tyube, the center of the conflict. Arms are also making their way to the capital, Dushanbe, in anticipation of a spread in the fighting.
Currently, the two sides appear stalemated. The opposition coalition ousted hard-line President Rakhmon Nabiyev early this month, but it doesn't appear to have sufficient forces yet to completely defeat its opponents.
The conservative partisans continue to put up a spirited fight, fearing the Islamic-dominated opposition will establish a fundamentalist regime if it comes to power. Regional rivalries are also playing a significant role in the fighting.
Mullayanov and others accuse the Afghan mujahideen of aggravating the situation.
The mujahideen are guerrillas that fought the Soviet Army, which withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 following a decade-long intervention in the civil war there.
Some mujahideen factions, they say, are now providing arms, training, and even troops to the opposition coalition in an effort to help create an Islamic government in Tajikistan.
Opposition leaders counter the continued presence of Russian border guards and interior troops in Tajikistan is a leading cause of tension.
The Russian military, the object of smoldering resentment among many in Tajikistan, is widely perceived to be defending the interests of the Communist forces, opposition leaders add.
Until last week Russian troops in Tajikistan followed a policy of non-intervention in the conflict. But over the weekend, Russian units, acting on a request by the republic's leadership, took up positions to guard strategically important sites in the conflict zone, such as the Nurek hydroelectric power station.
Such a deployment is intended to settle the situation, but actually could have the opposite effect, some opposition leaders say.
"Russia shouldn't get involved," says Tahir Abujabar, leader of the moderate Rastokhez faction in the opposition coalition. "We don't need any provocative action because this could worsen the situation."
The opposition is pressing to replace the Russian border troops with a force comprising Tajiks. Such a notion is scoffed at by the predominantly Slavic officer corps in Pyandzh, where a "colonial attitude" seems widespread.
"Tajiks are physically and mentally incapable of controlling the border," says Col. Valery Kochinov, an officer based in Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan who was in Pyandzh on an inspection mission.
Many officers also say they consider the Tajik-Afghan border to be the Russian-Afghan border. Russia has controlled the area since the early 19th century.
"Russia historically has always controlled this border," says Mullayanov. "All of what is happening here is a blow against Russia."