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In a Hellish Land

A timely documentary on Afghanistan explores a country of endless sorrow.

October 03, 2001|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 barren.

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).

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