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Iranian: B1-B2 Limbs of no body
By Mohsen Makhmalbaf
21/10/2001 9:41 am Sun
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.
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
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
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?
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]
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.