Suffering without borders

Given a timely release as U.S. troops join the war in Afghanistan, "Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin" follows the efforts of an Italian medical team to treat civilian casualties and opens Western eyes to the reality behind the term "humanitarian aid."


(Previously featured in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.)

A voice laments that everyone has forgotten the war in Afghanistan in the new documentary "Jung." Everything changed on Sept. 11, and since then nobody has escaped the barrage of news and information about that country in the middle of Asia. Two decades on and the various ethnic and tribal groupings are still slugging it out. The Russians have come and gone, interim governments have fallen as quickly as they are announced. Boosted by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the Taliban regime has lasted five years. All of that time, skirmishes and full-out battles with the Northern Alliance have brought war within reach of everyone in Afghanistan.


Directed by: Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Alberto Vendemmiati, Line producer&editor Giuseppe Petitto. Music by Mario Crispi.
Official site

Into this pitiful situation comes an Italian pacificist NGO called Emergency led by Dr. Gino Strada. They have attempted to insert a ray of hope into the bleak mountainous landscape in the form of hospitals. The first one set up in the northern village of Anabah is the subject of "Jung." The film opens with shots of Dr. Strada along with professional if culturally insensitive nurse Kate Rowlands and a veteran Italian journalist Ettore Mo making their way via air and land to Afghanistan in 1999. Their first-choice location inside the area under the Northern Alliance falls into Taliban hands, leaving Anabah as next best site for the new hospital. Negotiations for this prime real estate (it was to have been a police academy in more optimistic days) are predictably arduous. Good sense prevails in the end, and a convoy of supplies from Italy arrives to enable a skeletal setup to operate by mid-December 1999.

Thanks to the ongoing war, there is a steady stream of patients, for the most part civilian or war wounded or victims of land mines. Some of the shots of surgical amputations are not for the fainthearted, but they convey the reality that American TV coverage has largely avoided. To their credit, neither Strada nor the others let their feelings go numb, and their concern for their patients' pain and suffering is nothing less than moving. One of the few lighter moments in "Jung" shows a staff party in full swing, only to be interrupted to order to operate on a new casualty. Strada's eloquence regarding the senselessness of war should be required viewing for everyone in Afghanistan and elsewhere.


Limited social counseling is shown, too, but the Westerners have a hard nut to crack. Daut, a young Northern Alliance fighter, cannot be dissuaded from returning to the front lines minus one foot. A terminal cancer victim gradually relents to allow his wife to clean at the hospital to support the family.

As of mid-November 2001 it seems that fighting will subside, but the scourge of land mines will kill and maim innocent Afghanis for years to come. There have been other films specifically on the devastation caused by personnel mines, but "Jung" makes the case no less effectively. The film's U.S. distributor Human Rights Watch could have included a statement at the end about the American refusal to sign the international convention on land mines.

Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati tell the story well without milking it for sentimentality. Some of the scenes seem staged, but this is the unspoken norm for documentaries. A lot of the images we are seeing from Afghanistan focus on the bleak landscape there, but "Jung" by contrast is highly colorful, especially in outdoors. Clutches of women in light blue burkas enliven market scenes, even drably clad mujaheddin appear to best advantage silhouetted against the mountains. Mario Crispi's soundtrack is so apt that it blends almost imperceptibly into the narration. Pity that a film of such high quality was not dubbed into English to ensure a wider audience.

Subsequent to completing this film, Emergency established another hospital at Kabul in (former) Taliban territory. Dr. Strada has lately been holding forth from there following a brief closure, even during the recent intense fighting. Round-the-clock operations on the wounded there have been the norm per his reports disseminated at Emergency's web site. Luckily there are more hospitals in Afghanistan than these. Another Italian doctor, Alberto Cairo, has been at a Red Cross facility in Kabul for the past 12 years to offer reconstructive orthopedics and prostheses for the ravaged populace. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Khandahar," set for imminent U.S. release, shows yet another such medical center, probably in the southwestern sector.

The value of "Jung" will be to put a face on the phrase "humanitarian aid" that is now used so glibly in the media. Selfless, dedicated professionals like Dr. Strada and the others depicted in the film offer a ray of hope to a land where human values have all but been smothered. Maybe it will inspire similar efforts in other deserving corners of the world that have been forgotten.

NOVEMBER 23, 2001

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