'IF YOU WANT to relate events, you
have to see them first-hand,' says a hardened war correspondent in
the documentary Jung [War]: In The Land Of The Mujaheddin. 'Although
you need to use your brain, good journalism is done with the sole of
It's a statement that Jung's makers, Alberto Vendemmiati,
Fabrizio Lazza-rettio and Guiseppe Petitto, took to heart. The
Italian trio spent the best part of a year travelling around
war-torn northern Afghanistan, recording daily life in areas under
military attack from the fundamentalist Taleban. Braving danger to
publicise the plight of those suffering in Central Asia's 'forgotten
war' is perhaps a noble pursuit in itself. But the film-makers also
achieved something more tangible: they built a hospital.
The civil war in Afghanistan began in 1989 when the Russians
withdrew from the country. After fighting the Russians, the
Mujahedeen - the 'holy fighters' - began battling among themselves.
In 1994, the fundamentalist Taleban, a Pakistan-backed group of
Sunni Muslims, started to win control of the country from a
disparate group of warlords. Although first welcomed, the Taleban's
attempts to set up the 'world's most pure Muslim state' quickly led
to them becoming feared and hated.
Today, the Taleban control about 90 per cent of the country. A
Northern Alliance, led by former warlord Ahmad Sha Massoud and
backed by Iran (a Shia Muslim country which fears a hostile Sunni
state as a neighbour) and Russia (which fears fundamentalist unrest
in former Soviet states such as Tajikistan) fights on. The war has
so far led to 500,000 deaths, four million refugees and one million
mutilations, and there's no end in sight.
Jung, which was presented by New York's Film Society of Lincoln
Centre as part of The Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival, doesn't hesitate to show the horrors of war in
Afghanistan. Children talk about their missing limbs and one wounded
boy dies in front of the camera. Female refugees tell how the
Taleban would beat them if they showed as much as a bare ankle -
they weren't even allowed eye-holes in their chadors (head veils).
Supporters of Massoud demand revenge on the mutilators of their
children, while the children themselves lament their lack of future.
But the focus of Jung is not the many faces of death. It's more
concerned with those who try to preserve life. The film-makers
follow the efforts of a tenacious doctor as he builds and equips a
hospital to treat the victims of landmines. It's a subjective
impression of events, with no claim to objectivity. In fact, the
film-makers became so involved with the efforts to build the
hospital, they showed the first half of the documentary on Italian
TV to publicise the cause. The broadcast raised enough money from
sympathetic viewers to enable the hospital to be built.
'At first, we intended to make a regular report about
Afghanistan,' says producer Petitto. 'We met war correspondent
Ettore Mo to talk about that. He introduced us to Dr Gino Strada of
Emergencias and we heard about the plans to build the hospital.
Emergen-cias is an organisation made up of doctors and nurses who
used to be in the Red Cross. We were invited to join the expedition
and we accepted. The film and the hospital became the same project.'
The northern Afghan authorities quickly gave permission for the
expedition. After all, they were getting a much-needed hospital for
free. But that didn't mean it was easy - even getting into
Afghanistan was tough. 'There are no air services to Afghan-istan.
You have to fly to Tajikistan and then take a helicopter into
Aghan-istan,' says Petitto. 'We had to wait at least a week to get a
helicopter. The helicopters are not very safe - they were stolen
from the Russian army a long while ago and never maintained. They
Once inside Afghanistan, the film-makers had to get to know their
subjects, the Afghan people. As the film shows, there is a high
level of resentment towards foreigners. Some Afghans are angry that
organisations such as the United Nations seem to have deserted them
- 'Why don't they just stop our war?' asks one. Others blame foreign
powers for causing and perpetuating the conflict.
'At the beginning they were closed to us,' says the film's
co-director Vendemmiati. 'But they saw us every day and they
realised that we were there for the hospital. They felt we were
there to help them. After a few months, they began to talk to us. We
also adapted - we learnt how to get in touch with them. We became
friends. Then, of course, their stories came out by themselves.'
The children are remarkably frank. War has made them grow up
quickly. 'Jung means war and it's an ugly word. It has deprived us
of any kind of education,' says one. One little boy who stepped on a
mine talks to the film crew before an amputation. His flesh is torn
and bloody, but he refuses to cry. He finally asks for an injection,
as he 'can't take the pain any more'. The amputation is carried out
with a primitive surgical saw.
'In the West, a child will cut his leg and start crying,' says
Vendemmiati. 'Here, wounded children will come up to you and not
cry. They have a different relationship with pain and suffering.
They have become used to it.'
The fact that they were building a hospital helped the
film-makers stop themselves becoming overwhelmed by the suffering
they encountered. 'We were doing something very concrete,' says
'That helped us a lot. We knew we could change a little bit of
the reality, a little bit of the situation. We were doing more than
'We were very affected by the part in the second half of the
film, when the young child dies,' adds Petitto. 'It was a terrible
event, obviously. We worried that we were concentrating too much on
suffering and sensationalising the war. We were also hit by another
feeling - the realisation that we were becoming immune to it all,
getting used to all the suffering. That scared us.'
Although the location had to be changed after a Taleban attack,
the hospital was finally built. The film shows the staff going about
the business of saving lives. Strada says that day in, day out, the
suffering is never- ending, and he feels he can't really make a
difference. But it's evident that he and his staff are doing an
admirable job. The film closes with Strada flying into a Taleban
area - to build another hospital there.
'He had to build a hospital for the other side so that it was
equal,' says Vendemmiati. 'If he just built one for the northern
Afghans, it would have become politicised - they were already
calling it the 'Massoud' hospital. It was important that the
hospital did not become a political issue, because then it could
have become a military target for the Taleban.'
Strada managed to build a hospital in a Taleban area, with their
permission, and it opened in April this year. 'But after a month,
the Taleban came in and closed it down,' says Vendemmiati.
On the northern side, the film-makers' hospital is still running.
Good journalism may indeed be done with the sole of one's shoe. But
this Italian trio used their hearts as well.