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Friday  July 13  2001

Soul reportage
Three Italian film-makers went to Afghanistan to make a documentary about the civil war. They ended up building a hospital. Richard James Havis reports

'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 your shoe.'

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 often crash.'

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 Vendemmiati.

'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 observing.'

'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.



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