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Don't Turn Away
By Pamela Nice
In the Land of the Mujaheddin
A film by Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Alberto Vendemmiati and Giuseppe Petitto, 2000
Italian and English, with English subtitles, 114 minutes
“Jung,” which means “war” in Dari, one of the main Afghan languages, is a documentary made in Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000. Three intrepid and exceptional Italian filmmakers document Milanese surgeon Gino Strada’s attempt to set up a hospital in northern Afghanistan, among warring tribes of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The documentary pulls off a remarkable feat: its subjects speak to the camera as though to a close friend; we have no sense of a filmmaker’s intrusion. This is a film thatobserves, without a guiding narrative or commentary, the devastating effects of war on a land and its people. It is a strangely intimate and revealing portrait, dedicated to the people of Afghanistan.
The pace of the film is slow, the camera lingering on images we may not want to see. The film opens with children describing what jung means to them; we return to children frequently during the film. Their faces and voices are mostly without affect or shyness as they recount how they lost a hand or a leg to bombs that hit their homes or mines encountered near a water well. They complain that there is no longer any school. They come into the hospitals shaking from shell shock and mine injuries or lie motionless with starvation in refugee camps, while their mothers cry to the camera, “Help us!”
In Part I, we follow Dr. Strada, his colleague, British nurse Kate Rowlands, and veteran Italian journalist Ettore Mo as they first enter Afghanistan in February 1999 to seek permission and a location for the hospital. Why Afghanistan? Because, says Strada, “it is a place where nobody wants to go.” After 22 years of war between Soviets and the mujaheddin, Taliban and Northern Alliance, inter-tribal warfare,which produced four million refugees, one and a half million deaths, and over a million mutilations by land mines and bombs, Afghanistan had received little attention from the international community. Strada explains that he wants to go there to set up a hospital for the mine and war-wounded, sponsored by the Italian Emergency Aid Organization.
The prevalence of land mines in Afghanistan has been well documented by international agencies. Wounds from these mines are particularly horrific — and far too common in Afghanistan. In the first part of the film, Dr. Strada works in the hospital in Charikar, Afghanistan, while making plans for his own. After a grueling day in surgery, he speaks of his own vulnerability as a doctor: “After thousands of operations on land mine wounds, I still feel sick when I take off the bandages in the operating room and see the devastating effects of those explosives. I feel sick . . . and angry. I get a sense of impotence . . . because you get the impression that this will never end, that every day will be the same. Tomorrow there will be another one.” We see evidence of this in the many children, soldiers, and others in the film with white-bandaged stumps for arms and legs.
(The situation has only worsened since the American bombing of Afghanistan this fall. According to the Christian Science Monitor (Jan 4, 2002), Afghanistan is estimated to have millions of land mines and unexploded ordnance today, set by Soviets, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Since Oct. 7, 2001, American warplanes have dropped “cluster bombs” in which nearly 10% of the scattered bomblets may not have exploded. These little bomblets are yellow, and some children think they are food.“More than 10 Afghans are killed or injured each day,” according to the Monitor. “And nearly one out of 10 families has a member who has been disabled by mines or exploding ordnance.”)
As we travel with Strada, Rowlands and Mo through northern Afghanistan, we see a surreal landscape. Donkeys and cows meander near broken-down tanks, women and children find “shelter” in ruins of buildings, dust rises in eddies as each truck or tank passes — overloaded with guns and mujaheddin off to another battle. In the middle of a long trek through a field, the camera rests on the bodies of dead soldiers lying embedded in dried mud. “We are in a place where people die in silence,” notes Dr. Strada.
In one sequence, the doctor and his companions encounter a front in action and scurry behind mud walls while gunfire and mortars fly overhead. Mujaheddin commanders radio frantically to each other, and we hear soldiers shout, “Don’t shoot!” as they are threatened by friendly fire.
Several times during the film, we come upon groups of mujaheddin. They explain why they are fighting — to defend their land in the name of Allah. Even famed commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Defense Minister of the Northern Alliance [who was killed by suspected Al-Qaeda assassins on Sept. 9, 2001], offers this rationale in an interview. The call to prayer sounds eerily during battles. It is one of the more telling images of this war, which seems to have taken on a self-perpetuating momentum of terror in the name of God.
The doctor’s plans for a hospital are almost scuttled when a major Taliban offensive decimates the village and building where he was hoping to locate. The flow of refugees begins, with bicycles, camels and donkeys loaded with families’ entire belongings, and the displaced families walking alongside. In one former village, a couple of women make a fire in an abandoned building to cook the little they have for several children. Both are war widows. “We are too poor to move,” says one. They must beg for a living for their children, who they watch starving to death. Life has become worse than death, another woman comments, but “not even death wants the people of Afghanistan.”
Nonetheless, Strada has not given up on his plans for the hospital. In Part II, we see that he has managed to find another site — a former police academy in Anobar. The second half of the film documents the establishment of this emergency hospital in 2000.
What motivates this indomitable doctor? Journalist Mo insists that Afghans “will always need a war to live,” but Dr. Strada has taken this as a challenge. He talks matter-of-factly, waving his cigarette: “We need to show them there is another way.” War has become a way of life in Afghanistan, distorting human rights and values. A misplaced militant heroism has created extreme poverty and mutilated the populace — all in the name of honor. This is what Strada is up against: the mujaheddin’s unwavering belief in a heroism that destroys what it is pretending to defend.
The filmmakers underline this point by juxtaposing every battle scene with one in the operating room. The battle and hospital scenes alike are unglamorous, driving home the obscene consequences of battlefield heroism. We see mujaheddin loading ammunition into tank guns, then the film cuts to young soldiers rushed into the hospital with ghastly open head wounds, shuddering with pain. The camera meticulously records the type of munitions used, and, just as unsparingly, shows us the ragged flesh of a shrapnel wound.
During one operation, we see Strada remove a bullet from a wound and hand it to his assistant to save. Why?, the assistant asks. “They want to keep the bullet to prove that they have been wounded.” Strada’s voice betrays a hint of sarcasm. “They are heroes of the jihad.”
But Strada is determined that his emergency hospital will operate under its own rules and that the staff of the hospital will form a cohesive community. “A hospital becomes a place where we can practice a few human rights that are basic to everybody,” he says. Women are not allowed to wear burkas in the hospital; hospital employees and visitors are urged to give blood — even when they complain that they don’t have enough. “Bullshit!” says Strada in English. (More Afghans know English than Italian.) He tries to shame them into compliance by convincing them that they must give to the community that is willing to serve them.
The emergency hospital also hires many women, amputees and refugees (80% of the staff are from Kurdistan), offering desperately needed employment to the surrounding population.
We see the hospital treating an older man who is dying of jaw cancer, even though his care is a drain on the medical staff in a hospital created for mine and war victims. They treat the man because, as Nurse Rowlands says, it is the humane thing to do. His wife is given a job at the hospital, and the family is able to join him in his last days.
It is the courage of this doctor and his staff, who work for “another attitude toward life” while repairing mujaheddin so they can fight again, that lifts this film out of despair. Again and again, Afghans plead to the camera, “Why does no one come to help us?” Here are a few who did. And three Italian filmmakers have guaranteed that Afghans will no longer die in silence. Now it’s our turn.
This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 7, no. 37, Fall 2001).
Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid