Wednesday, October 3, 2001
In a Hellish Land
A timely documentary on Afghanistan explores a country of endless
By ROBERT SHUSTER, Special to The Times
"Other people's wars are over," says a
haggard-looking man in Afghanistan's rugged Panjshir Valley, where along with hundreds of
others he is fleeing an attack by Taliban forces pushing north from Kabul. His voice is
hoarse, his face disconsolate, but he is desperate to relate the plight of his people.
"Why," he asks, "can't it also end in Afghanistan?"
The scene appears halfway through "Jung (War): In the
Land of the Mujaheddin," a remarkable documentary about Afghanistan and its people
that's scheduled to open soon in Los Angeles (at a theater still to be determined by its
U.S. distributor, Human Rights Watch; for information go to http:// www.hrw.org).
The man's question, unanswerable and piercing, speaks to the
core of this film, which looks, with steady nerves, at the horrors of a war the Afghan
people have endured for more than 20 years. As the U.S. moves forces toward the region to
prepare for a likely offensive against the Taliban, it is a question that haunts.
Italian filmmakers Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti
and Giuseppe Petitto, all in their mid-30s, had never before documented a war and did not
know what they might encounter. As it turned out, they became part of a humanitarian
mission. "In the beginning," explains Petitto, the film's editor, "we were
just supposed to shoot an ordinary report on the situation in Afghanistan, which is such
an awful one. We knew about it because of what Ettore Mo had told us."
Mo, an Italian journalist who had covered Afghanistan for
the last 20 years, wanted to make one last journey to the country before retiring and had
agreed to help the filmmakers enter from the north, where Mo still maintained contacts
with moujahedeen leaders. But while arranging travel, the group met up with Gino Strada, a
surgeon and founder of Emergency, an association for civilian war victims. He was
planning, along with the help of British nurse Kate Rowlands, to attempt the construction
of a hospital in the northern part of the country. "And so," Petitto continues,
"the film and the hospital, they joined. We had to go on together."
Shot in 1999 and 2000 in the northeast mountains of
Afghanistan (an area still under the tenuous control of rebel factions known as the
Northern Alliance or "mujaheddin"), the film unfolds like a drama as the
characters and the desolate landscape emerge. There is Mo, grinning like an elf, just
happy to be back in the country he loves second only to his own. Rowlands, quiet and
observant, mirrors the viewer's own silent dismay at witnessing the bleakness that wars,
droughts, and poverty--a trinity of destruction--have created in a country already so
But it is Strada the surgeon, a brusque bear of a man,
always a little disheveled, who drives the story onward with his determination, against
all odds, to provide medical help. "Nobody believed a hospital could be done,"
Petitto says, "because it's a nightmare to travel there, to bring equipment and
goods. Nobody really believed it was possible except Gino."
Strada, Rowlands and Mo fly south in an old Soviet army
helicopter across snow-capped peaks from Dushanbe in Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan.
Led by Mo's political contacts, they continue by truck over dusty mountain roads, past
small bands of armed men and ruined tanks scattered on the roadside like junked cars, and
finally come to the home of Burhanuddin Rabbani, president of the Northern Alliance (and
still recognized by the U.N. as president of the country). Solemn and stately with his
white beard, Rabbani grants Strada permission to establish a hospital.
While following Strada's efforts, cameraman Lazzaretti also
captures the poignant stories of Afghans, keeping his cool even when the scenes turn
grisly. In a village on the front lines of fighting, a small girl calmly explains, as if
speaking about an ordinary event, how an explosion left her right arm a bandaged stump. A
visit to an existing hospital--so primitive that heat comes from a bin of burning
dung--shows a boy, bleeding, badly injured by a landmine, begging the doctor for an
injection "to put me to sleep." Another young victim cannot hide his defeat.
"I hope to be sent abroad for a new leg," he says, but adds without emotion,
"My life is over."
Petitto says that filming such scenes was, at first,
"very, very hard. But you get used to everything. We became distant. It's actually
more difficult for us to see the finished film." The crew did not shy away from
danger either, going to the front lines several times to capture the fighting close up.
One day, the crew meets up with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the "Lion of Panjshir," who
was the top military leader for the Northern Alliance until his recent assassination
(committed, many believe, by associates of Osama bin Laden).
The fighting, even under the command of Massoud, looks
haphazard. From crumbling mountain ramparts, moujahedeen soldiers carelessly fire machine
guns and rocket-propelled grenades into distant valleys. In one scene, a few figures
scatter before glowing tracers. When asked if they were Taliban fighters, Petitto cannot
say--very little can be clearly defined in this region. "Some of these
soldiers," Petitto suggests, "maybe yesterday they fought with the Taliban,
today they fight with the moujahedeen. Sometimes, you see, one side doesn't have enough
money to pay the commanders or soldiers, so they switch to the other."
In this country, hunger can be a stronger motivation than
loyalty. It is an astonishing facet to the war, and Petitto tries to explain it further:
"Most of the Afghan people, both in the north and in the south, would like to get rid
of the Taliban. But many people don't think about the problem, they just want to have a
little money in their pockets to eat. And if you don't have media, you don't have
television, and you don't read books because they are forbidden, you're just a soldier and
"Jung" is a film full of striking revelations and
images, and some of the most extraordinary present glimpses of what seems like another
world or era. "Nothing has changed for many years," Petitto says.
"Sometimes the idea you get when you're there is like being in the middle ages."
Women, not daring to expose any flesh to the Taliban, drape themselves in the pale blue
robes called burkas that cover them entirely; with only a lattice to peer through, they
wander in the villages like ghosts. Later on, at a celebration for the Islamic new year, a
man entertains by eating a shard of glass. Elsewhere, turbaned horsemen compete to carry
the carcass of a goat in the game known as Buzkashi, which dates to the time of Ghengis
But despite this country's isolation and ancient ways, the
modern world keeps pressing in with sophisticated warfare and global politics. That leaves
people like Gino Strada with the daunting humanitarian tasks. Strada does finally get his
hospital built, after being forced from one location by Taliban attacks, and he expresses
a fleeting joy as trucks arrive with supplies. But the remainder of the film documents the
grim truth: There is an endless abundance of victims and sorrow.
In a week or so, Petitto and the rest of the crew will
return to the "land of the mujaheddin," meet up with Strada and begin work on a
second documentary. Even Mo has decided to come along, postponing his retirement. For all
of them, the country has become a second homeland and hard to resist in the current
crisis. "We all knew that Afghanistan was a place where big trouble would start--we
felt it," Petitto avows. "But we didn't imagine it coming so soon." They
can only hope, he adds, that the sequel to "Jung" will have a happier ending.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times