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Iranian: B1-B2 Limbs of no body
By Mohsen Makhmalbaf

21/10/2001 9:41 am Sun

The Iranian
June 20, 2001

Limbs of no body

World's indifference to the Afghan tragedy

By Mohsen Makhmalbaf

If you read my article in full, It will take about an hour of your time. In this hour, 14 more people will have died in Afghanistan of war and hunger and 60 others will have become refugees in other countries. This article is intended to describe the reasons for this mortality and emigration. If this bitter subject is irrelevant to your sweet life, please don't read it.

Afghanistan in the eyes of the world

Last year I attended the Pusan Film Festival in South Korea where I was asked about the subject of my next film. I would respond, Afghanistan. Immediately I would be asked, "What is Afghanistan?" Why is it so? Why should a country be so obsolete that the people of another Asian country such as South Korea have not even heard of it?

The reason is clear. Afghanistan does not have a role in today's world. It is neither a country remembered for a certain commodity nor for its scientific advancement or as a nation that has achieved artistic honors. In the United States, Europe and the Middle East, however, the situation is different and Afghanistan is recognized as a peculiar country.

This strangeness, however, does not have a positive connotation. Those who recognize the name Afghanistan immediately associate it with smuggling, the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalism, war with Russia, a long-time civil war, famine and high mortality. In this subjective portrait there is no trace of peace and stability or development. Thus, no desire is created for tourists to travel to or businessmen to invest in Afghanistan.

So why should it not be left to oblivion? The defamation is such that one might soon write in dictionaries that Afghanistan can be described as a drug producing country with rough, aggressive and fundamentalist people who hide their women under veils with no openings.

Add to all of that the destruction of the largest known statue of Buddha that recently spurred the sympathy of the entire world and led all supporters of art and culture to defend the doomed statue. But why didn't anybody except UN High Commissioner Ogata express grief over the pending death of one million Afghans as a result of severe famine? Why doesn't anybody speak of the reasons for this mortality? Why is everyone crying aloud over the demolition of the Buddha statue while nothing is heard about preventing the death of hungry Afghans? Are statues more cherished than humans in the modern-day world?

I have traveled within Afghanistan and witnessed the reality of life in that nation. As a filmmaker I produced two feature films on Afghanistan with a 13-year interval ("The Cyclist", 1988 and "Kandahar", 2001). In doing that I have studied about 10,000 pages of various books and documents to collect data for the films. Consequently I know of a different image of Afghanistan than that of the rest of the world. It is a more complicated, different and tragic picture, yet sharper and more positive. It is an image that needs attention rather than forgetfulness and suppression.

But where is Sa'di to see this tragedy -- the Sa'di whose poem "All people are limbs of one body" is above the portal to the United Nations?

Afghanistan in the minds of the Iranian people

The Iranian people's impression of Afghanistan is based on the same image as that of the American, European and Middle Eastern people. The only difference is that the focus is at a closer range. Iranian workers, people of southern Tehran and working class residents of Iranian towns do not look kindly on Afghans and view them as competitors for employment. By pressuring the Ministry of Labor, they demanded the Afghans be returned to their homeland. [See photo essay]

The Iranian middle class however, finds Afghans quite trustworthy at care-taking and janitorial jobs. Building contractors believe Afghans are better workers than their Iranian counterparts and command lower wages. Anti-drug authorities recognize them as key elements in drug trafficking and suggest that crushing the smugglers and deporting all Afghans would put and end to drug problems once and for all. Doctors view them as the cause for some epidemic diseases such as the "Afghan flu" that was nonexistent in Iran. They offer immunization from within Afghanistan and in so doing, have born the costs of polio vaccination for the people of Afghanistan as well.

The world's view of Afghanistan

News headlines matching a country's name must always be checked. The image of a country depicted to the world through the media is a combination of facts about that country and an imaginary notion that the people of the world are supposed to have of that place. If some countries of the world are supposed to be covetous of a place, it is necessary that grounds be provided through the news.

What I've perceived is that unfortunately in today's Afghanistan except for poppy seeds, there is almost nothing to spark desire. Thus Afghanistan has little or no share in world news, and the resolution of its problems in the near future is far-fetched. If like Kuwait, Afghanistan had oil and surplus oil income, it could also have been taken back in three days by the Americans and the cost of the American army could have been covered by that surplus income.

When the Soviet Union existed, Afghans received Western media attention for fighting against the Eastern Bloc and being witnesses to communist oppression. With the Soviet retreat and later disintegration, why is the United States, who supports human rights, not taking any serious actions for 10 million women deprived of education and social activities or for the eradication of poverty and famine that is taking the lives of so many people?

The answer is because Afghanistan offers nothing to long for. Afghanistan is not a beautiful girl who raises the heartbeat of her thousand lovers. Unfortunately, today she resembles an old woman. Whoever desires to get close to her will only be saddled with the expenses of a moribund and we know that our time is not the time of Sa'di when "All people are limbs of one body".

The tragedy of Afghanistan in statistics

There has been no rigorous collection of statistics in Afghanistan in the past two decades. Hence, all data and numbers are relative and approximate. According to these figures, Afghanistan had a population of 20 million in 1992. During the past 20 years and since the Russian occupation, about 2.5 million Afghans have died as a direct or indirect result of the war -- army assaults, famine or lack of medical attention.

In other words, every year 125,000 or about 340 people a day or 14 people every hour or one in about every five minutes have been either killed or died because of this tragedy. This is a world wherein the crew of that unfortunate Russian submarine was facing death some months ago and satellite news was reporting every minute of the incident. It is a world that reported non-stop the demolition of the Buddha statue.

Yet nobody speaks of the tragic death of Afghans every five minutes for the past 20 years. The number of Afghan refugees is even more tragic. According to more precise statistics the number of Afghan refugees outside of Afghanistan living in Iran and Pakistan is 6.3 million. If this figure is divided by the year, day, hour and minute, in the past 20 years, one person has become a refugee every minute. The number does not include those who run from north to south and vice versa to survive the civil war.

I personally do not recollect any nation whose population was reduced by 10 percent via mortality and 30 percent through migration and yet faced so much indifference from the world. The total number of people killed and refugees in Afghanistan equals the entire Palestinian population but even us Iranians' share of sympathy for Afghanistan does not reach 10 percent of that for Palestine or Bosnia, despite the fact that we have a common language and border.

When crossing the border at the Dogharoon customs to enter Afghanistan, I saw a sign that warned visitors of strange looking items. These were mines. It read: "Every 24 hours seven people step on mines in Afghanistan. Be careful not to be one of them today and tomorrow."

I came across more hard figures in one of the Red Cross camps. The Canadian group that had come to defuse mines found the tragedy simply too vast, lost hope and returned. Based on these same figures, over the next 50 years the people of Afghanistan must step on mines in groups to make their land safe and livable. The reason is because every group or sect has strewn mines against the other without a map or plan for later collection. The mines are not set in military fashion as in war and collected in peace. This means that a nation has placed mines against itself. And when it rains hard, surface waters reposition these devices turning once safe remote roads into dangerous paths.

These statistics reveal the extent of the unsafe living environment in Afghanistan that leads to continuous emigration. Afghans perceive their situation as dangerous. There's constant fear of hunger and death.

Why shouldn't Afghans emigrate? A nation with an emigration rate of 30 percent certainly feels hopeless about its future. Of the 70 percent remaining, 10 percent have been killed or died and the rest or 60 percent were not able to cross the borders or if they did, they were sent back by the neighboring countries.

This perilous situation has also been an impediment to any foreign presence in Afghanistan. A businessman would never risk investing there unless he is a drug dealer and political experts prefer to fly directly to Western countries. This makes it difficult to resolve the crisis that Afghanistan is faced with. At present, due to UN sanctions and safety concerns, with the exception of only three countries (officially) and two others (unofficially), there are no political experts in Afghanistan. There are only political suppositions offered from a distance.

This adds to the ambiguity of crisis in a country burdened with such an enormous scope of tragedy and ignorance on the part of the world. I witnessed about 20,000 men, women and children around the city of Herat starving to death. They couldn't walk and were scattered on the ground awaiting the inevitable. This was the result of the recent famine. That same day the then United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Japan's Sadako Ogato, also visited these same people and promised that the world would help them. Three months later, I heard on Iranian radio that Madame Ogata gave the number of Afghans dying of hunger to be a million nationwide.

I reached the conclusion that the statue of Buddha was not demolished by anybody; it crumbled out of shame. Out of shame for the world's ignorance towards Afghanistan. It broke down knowing its greatness didn't do any good.

In Dushanbeh in Tajikestan I saw a scene where 100,000 Afghans were running from south to north, on foot. It looked like doomsday. These scenes are never shown in the media anywhere in the world. The war-stricken and hungry children had run for miles and miles barefoot. Later on the same fleeing crowd was attacked by internal enemies and was also refused asylum in Tajikestan. In the thousands, they died and died in a no-man's land between Afghanistan and Tajikestan and neither you found out nor anybody else.

As Mrs. Golrokhsar, the renowned Tajik poet put it: "It is not strange if someone in the world dies for so much sorrow that Afghanistan has. What's strange is that why nobody dies of this grief."

Afghanistan, a country with no images

Afghanistan is a country with no images, for various reasons. Afghan women are faceless which means 10 million out of the 20 million population don't get a chance to be seen. A nation, half of which is not even seen by its own women, is a nation without an image.

During the last few years there has been no television broadcasting. There are only a few two-page newspapers by the names of Shariat, Heevad and Anise that have only text and no pictures. This is the sum total of the media in Afghanistan. Painting and photography have also been prohibited in the name of religion. In addition, no journalists are allowed to enter Afghanistan, let alone take pictures.

In the dawn of the 21st century there are no film productions or movie theatres in Afghanistan. Previously there were 14 cinemas that showed Indian movies and film studios had small productions imitating Indian movies but that too has vanished.

In the world of cinema where thousands of films are made every year, nothing is forthcoming from Afghanistan. Hollywood, however, produced "Rambo" about war in Afghanistan. The whole movie was filmed in Hollywood and not one Afghan was included. The only authentic scene was Rambo's presence in Peshawar, Pakistan, thanks to the art of back projection! It was merely employed for action sequences and creating excitement. Is this Hollywood's image of a country where 10 percent of the people have been decimated and 30 percent have become refugees and where currently one million are dying of hunger?

The Russians produced two films concerning the memoirs of Russian soldiers during the occupation of Afghanistan. The Mujahedin made a few films after the Russian retreat, which are essentially propaganda movies and not a real image of the situation of the past or present-day Afghanistan. They are basically a heroic picture of a few Afghans fighting in the deserts.

Two feature films have been produced in Iran on the situation of Afghan immigrants, "Friday" and "Rain". I made two films "The Cyclist" and "Kandahar". This is the entire catalogue of images about Afghans in the Iranian and world media. Even in TV productions worldwide there are a limited number of documentaries. Perhaps, it is an external and internal conspiracy or universal ignorance that maintains Afghanistan as a country without an image.