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Is It Better Now?A New Film Depicts Old Realities in Afghanistan
20 February 2002
They needed translators at the Walter Reade Theater last week when Italian doctor Gino Strada appeared to speak about his work with the victims of war in Afghanistan. The good doctor's English wasn't the problem. It was his reality that the New York audience was ill-equipped to understand.
"Is it better in Afghanistan now?" one concerned lady in the crowd inquired. Strada is a surgeon who since 1999 has been providing medical and surgical help to Afghans. His organization, EMERGENCY, based in Milan, operates first aid posts in the most heavily land-mined parts of the country, constructed a hospital in the Panshir Valley when it was under Northern Alliance control, and has worked at a facility in the capital, Kabul, beginning in 2000.
"Since 1979, the Afghan people have had no control, no responsibility for what has happened to them," Strada answered, slowly. "This new war is another -- the latest -- tragedy.
"Are they glad the Taliban are out of power?" Strada continued. "Mostly yes." But are they living in anything resembling peace? "No," he said. He described the road he traveled from Kabul to Panshir in December: "It's like a moonscape there are so many craters. The land is uninhabitable and will be for many years." He said he was trying to be optimistic.
The longing in the theater was for better news. The crowd had just seen a film about Strada and his partner, Kate Rowlands, and their work in Afghanistan. "Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin" received its U.S. premier during the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival last year.
The screening at the Walter Reade left people stunned. Some were sniffling back tears. As the press release says, no one who has seen Farbizio Lassaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati's "Jung" is likely to forget it. Strada and Rowlands are seen negotiating with Massoud, the Mujaheddin hero of the Panshir Valley, leader of the anti-Soviet and then anti-Taliban resistance. They are seen negotiating with the Taliban, and ultimately -- in new footage -- negotiating with the members of the new interim government of Hamid Karzai. Their goal is always the same: to open hospitals, to get supplies in safely, to hire women, to get access to prisoners. Strada has a mantra: "If your human rights are not for everybody, they are not rights, they are just privileges."
"Jung" shows Strada performing surgery by kerosene lamp back in 1999, using the single saw available to amputate a landmine victim's leg. Nurses strap the young patient's arms to the operating table, in case the anesthetic runs out. Rowlands pulls back bloody rags on patient after patient. The camera doesn't shy from staring at her patients' mangled stumps.
"I have operated on tens of thousands of victims," says Strada, in the film. "But when I take off the bandages I always feel sick."
Rowlands is shown late one night, furious, frustrated. "I feel ashamed, sending a family home with one bag of I.V. fluid when I know it won't be enough, and the family have no food. I am ashamed."
Having seen the film, the New Yorkers wanted it to be better now for Strada and Rowlands and their Afghan clients. The wish was audible in every question.
"Are things better now? Isn't there more humanitarian aid coming in?" one woman inquired.
The gray-haired doctor, fiddling with an unlit cigarette, tried to dash her hopes gently. "Afghanistan has been being destroyed for twenty years and no one cared. Last year there was virtually no money for Afghans. Now, it's true, there is an impressive amount," said Strada. At the UN summit in Tokyo last month, donor nations promised $4.5 million over the next 3-4 years. "That's nothing compared to what was spent to destroy Afghanistan in the past four to five months, but nonetheless . . ." He concluded: "The big question for humanitarian groups like ours is what to do?"
EMERGENCY decided to refuse all government money after Italy agreed to join the U.S. alliance. "We don't believe in taking money from any entity that decides in one moment to drop wheat flour and, in the next, to drop bombs," says Strada. "We can't do our work if humanitarian assistance is reduced to a cosmetic operation of the department of war."
The spirit in the room started to sink. "But what about the food aid that accompanied the bombing?" a high school student asked. A group of high-school kids from East Harlem had come for the screening. They'd held a bake sale which raised $80 for Human Rights Watch. "I have seen many bombs," said Strada. "I've seen not one kilo of food."
And some things have become more difficult. Before September, EMERGENCY was paying $250/month rent on two houses in Kabul, but with the new government has come an inflated economy. "Now our landlords want to charge us $3,000 a month. If this goes on, we'll have to stop."
The latest footage, shot by the makers of "Jung" at the beginning of December in and around Kabul, shows young Taliban soldiers with the same mangled body parts as their Northern Alliance counterparts in the earlier footage. Now they are the ones with the bloody-rag bandages, the no-anesthetic operations. "We spent seven months with EMERGENCY on one side of the border," explained cameraman Vendemmiatti. "When we did come across the line, we saw just what we'd feared. Now these soldiers are the victims."
One frustrated New Yorker spoke up: "But wasn't military force the only answer? Look what happened to us here. You can't negotiate with people like that."
Strada's answer was unwavering. "In medicine, we say when a patient is in critical condition, whatever we do is most likely to fail. But as a society we don't act on first symptoms. We often give the wrong medicine . . . In this country, we know there is a particular tension, after this city became a victim of the crazy idea that is circulating in the world that killing is a way to solve problems."
The room was silent.
"But," Strada concluded, "we strongly believe we can find solutions to our problems if we begin to talk and discuss and understand one another."
Somebody in the audience began to clap and then others joined in until the applause was deafening.
If "Jung" comes to your town, one imagines it could start some interesting discussions. In New York, the audience had to literally be forced out of the theater to let the next screening begin.