In a Hellish Land

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).

The fighting, even under the command of Massoud, looks haphazard. From crumbling mountain ramparts, moujahedeen soldiers carelessly fire machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into distant valleys. In one scene, a few figures scatter before glowing tracers. When asked if they were Taliban fighters, Petitto cannot say--very little can be clearly defined in this region. "Some of these soldiers," Petitto suggests, "maybe yesterday they fought with the Taliban, today they fight with the moujahedeen. Sometimes, you see, one side doesn't have enough money to pay the commanders or soldiers, so they switch to the other."

In this country, hunger can be a stronger motivation than loyalty. It is an astonishing facet to the war, and Petitto tries to explain it further: "Most of the Afghan people, both in the north and in the south, would like to get rid of the Taliban. But many people don't think about the problem, they just want to have a little money in their pockets to eat. And if you don't have media, you don't have television, and you don't read books because they are forbidden, you're just a soldier and nothing else."

"Jung" is a film full of striking revelations and images, and some of the most extraordinary present glimpses of what seems like another world or era. "Nothing has changed for many years," Petitto says. "Sometimes the idea you get when you're there is like being in the middle ages." Women, not daring to expose any flesh to the Taliban, drape themselves in the pale blue robes called burkas that cover them entirely; with only a lattice to peer through, they wander in the villages like ghosts. Later on, at a celebration for the Islamic new year, a man entertains by eating a shard of glass. Elsewhere, turbaned horsemen compete to carry the carcass of a goat in the game known as Buzkashi, which dates to the time of Ghengis Kahn.

But despite this country's isolation and ancient ways, the modern world keeps pressing in with sophisticated warfare and global politics. That leaves people like Gino Strada with the daunting humanitarian tasks. Strada does finally get his hospital built, after being forced from one location by Taliban attacks, and he expresses a fleeting joy as trucks arrive with supplies. But the remainder of the film documents the grim truth: There is an endless abundance of victims and sorrow.

In a week or so, Petitto and the rest of the crew will return to the "land of the mujaheddin," meet up with Strada and begin work on a second documentary. Even Mo has decided to come along, postponing his retirement. For all of them, the country has become a second homeland and hard to resist in the current crisis. "We all knew that Afghanistan was a place where big trouble would start--we felt it," Petitto avows. "But we didn't imagine it coming so soon." They can only hope, he adds, that the sequel to "Jung" will have a happier ending.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°