The authorities still covered up what happened to Enn Valli at his funeral

Afghanistan, destroyed Soviet tank, April 2, 1989. PHOTO: Joe Gaal/ap/scanpix

A grand funeral was held in Põlva in January of 1981. Despite extraordinarily cold weather, the cemetery was full of people. Many looked on from afar. The funeral was for Jr. Sgt. Enn Valli who was not yet 22 when he died as the first Estonian Soviet Army soldier to perish in direct combat in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Valli was killed in action 40 years ago, on January 7, 1981.

The life of Enn Valli

Enn came from a big family living in Peri near the city of Põlva. The children were Eda (born 1957, later Salujärv), Enn (born April 26, 1959), Merike (1961), Mati (1966) and Sigmar (1972). Father Ilmar and mother Milvi worked as laborers at a collective farm named after Estonian writer Eduard Vilde. The family lived in a large manor house. It had been left to the children’s great aunt after Milvi’s older brother, battalion commander of the Estonian Rifle Corps, Maj. Eduard Kevvai (born 1918) was killed in Courland in March of 1945. The house required constant care and work.

Enn Valli, 1978. FOTO: PHOTO: Erakogu

Enn Valli graduated from the eight-grade Peri School in 1974. The school’s 12th graduating class had just 10 people, eight boys and two girls. Enn Valli’s academic performance was deemed average. He played ball, rode his bike and went swimming with the local boys in summertime.

The kids had skis and sleds in the winter and chased a hockey puck on the pond ice whenever they could get their hands on one. Other times, a makeshift one was fashioned from rocks or ice. Enn often lent his parents a hand at the kolkhoz and had relatively little free time.

His education continued at the Tihemetsa State Farm Polytechnic that Enn graduated from in 1978 as an agricultural mechanic. Enn was sent to the Järva-Jaani Vocational High School no. 31.

Russian sources suggest he worked as a driving instructor but are probably inaccurate as a young man of just 19 years would not have been allowed to teach his peers how to drive. It is more likely he spent around a year working at the school’s workshop or in some other technical capacity. Enn Valli was drafted into the Soviet Army from the Paide district military commissariat on May 3, 1979.

The life of a soldier

His service began in Kaliningrad where he was promoted to the rank of junior sergeant after completing a motorized infantry training camp. Enn’s relatives recall that he was stripped of his rank for a period either because of a fight or some other reason. The young man repeatedly wrote home about talk of sending 50 men from his unit to Afghanistan. He also wrote that it is possible they would be sent to Tallinn to help finish buildings for the 1980 Olympics.

Enn Valli in Afghanistan, 1980. FOTO: PHOTO: Erakogu

However, an armored convoy soon drove from Kaliningrad to Klaipeda where a new regiment was assembled from different units. They were given brand new BTR armored personnel carriers. Next came a long railroad haul to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic where they spent a month in the border city of Termez. Valli wrote home of rumors they would not be taken across the border, complained of poor food and asked loved ones to send him packages.

Enn Valli crossed a pontoon bridge into Afghanistan in April of 1980. Everything the army needed was transported from far away. Even the white foot wraps of soldiers were brought from Tashkent. Valli was often ordered to guard convoys with his BTR. His fellow soldiers described him as being coolheaded and up to the task.

In his letters home, he did not sugarcoat the conditions, describing a bullet that missed him by a mere meter while on watch, the hardships of night watches where one cannot see anything etc. He also wrote that soldiers dig deep holes beneath tents when forced to spend the night outside of camp and that bullet holes have been found in the canvas in the morning. While Enn Valli kept a diary, what happened to the 48-page book that was later sent home is a mystery.

Soviet troops were occupying a region of kishlaks nestled between mountains at the time and reported having freed certain regions of rebel presence. However, the mujahideen promptly returned after the units moved on and the central government and Soviet armed forces lost all influence again.

Valli was near the small town of Puli Khumri in southeastern Afghanistan in the fall of 1980, often going on patrol to the kishlaks. He had four months of service left after New Year’s when his unit was ordered to clear the Babar kishlak of rebels during an operation that lasted just a few hours. Jr. Sgt. Valli’s squad was on the right flank and joined in the successful attack after the sides exchanged fire. The soldiers were ordered to gather up weapons lying on the ground. A mujahid who was likely wounded shot Enn Valli from a distance of approximately one meter. Russian sources say he was “mortally wounded when pursuing a retreating enemy.”

Funeral

The sad news was brought home by the Põlva district’s military commissar and kolkhoz partorg. The fallen soldier’s uniform and personal effects soon arrived in Peri. The district newspaper Koit published a total of 11 condolences that only referred to a young man’s “unfortunate” or “tragic” death on January 22, 24 and 27.

Funeral, January 4, 1981. FOTO: PHOTO: Erakogu

Bus drivers of the Põlva TREV were put on 24-hour call. The casket had been flown to Crimea, but bad weather kept the plane grounded there for some time. An order was issued for a RAF Latvija cabover van to start for Tallinn Airport as soon as the plane takes off in Crimea.

That is how the casket reached the militia of the Põlva district. Two relatives who were not Enn Valli’s parents were called in to identify the body. The heavy lead casket that held Valli’s remains was brought to Põlva in a large wooden box. The lid of the lead casket had a tiny plexiglass window that allowed one to look at Enn’s body clad in full dress.

From there, the lead casket was transported to the Peri Cultural Center where militiamen stood guard 24 hours. Everyone who wished was allowed to come and say their farewells. Valli was buried on January 24. Fashioning a large wooden casket around the lead container took time as Estonian funerary customs needed to be upheld.

The military funeral was held at the Old Põlva Cemetery. The local military commissariat promised to invite all necessary people and cover all the costs. A brass band, 12 soldiers to carry the casket in two shifts and another group to fire a salute into the air were brought in from Valga.

Officers who included many Estonians could be seen busying themselves. Witnesses recall that officers gave vague and even contradictory accounts when asked what had happened in faraway Afghanistan and how dangerous the situation was.

Valli’s casket was lowered into the ground to the sound of the Soviet anthem after which soldiers filled in the grave. Fashioning a traditional burial mound failed despite instructions from the crowd.

This caused Estonians in the crowd to take up shovels and shape a mound that was soon covered with wreathes and flowers. The wake was held in the local Põlva restaurant. Let it be said in closing that seven soldiers with ties to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic died in Afghanistan in 1981.

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