MINEFIELD CASUALTY

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Date: August 1985
Location: Afghanistan
Distributor: ZDF (Germany), Antenne 2 (France)
Credits: directed, filmed and edited by Claudio von Planta
 
This MINEFIELD CASUALTY of an Afghan Mujahedin epitomises the beginning of my documentary filmmaker career. It was the most frightening moment in my life.


Production Notes:

In 1985 I studied Political Science at the University of Zurich but wasn’t particularly inspired by the academic life. I was eager to travel and discover the world. So I looked for an opportunity to try my luck in journalism. In school I always struggled with spelling and with my Swiss German accent. I didn’t feel at home with proper German and I wasn’t very confident with my primary languages – let alone with any other language. Documentary film making was the obvious solution to overcome my difficulties with writing.
 
Fortunately, I was able to start my documentary career as the entire television industry switched from film to video. Equipment quickly became affordable. Even I, as a newcomer with no experience, could try and get my foot in the door.
 
What makes a 23 year old student leave a cosy, comfortable life in Switzerland and plunge into a war in Afghanistan? Clearly, I was not driven only by rational argument. I must admit, irrational motivations also played a role.
 
On the rational side there was a political dimension. I was aware how news was always tinted by ideologies because I had grown up during the Cold War. Personally, I came from a conservative family background and was mostly exposed to a capitalistic perspective of the world. The Russian Communists who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 clearly were the bad guys. But in the 1980s Western media were not particularly interested. They focused mainly on the left wing liberation wars in Latin America – at least that was my perception in Switzerland. I was seriously annoyed about what I felt was the unbalanced selection of newsworthy stories. I found it scandalous that an exodus of over 2 million Afghan refugees into Iran and Pakistan did not win greater attention. As a consequence I decided to try my luck and produce a report about the war in Afghanistan. There was a gap in the market. I felt it would be easier to break into the TV industry with a story that didn’t have much competition.
 
On the irrational side I was running away from a hopeless love affair – pathetic but true. I had fallen in love with a girl during a language course in London and she seemed to respond to my feelings. After a few days of bliss I wanted to organise a romantic weekend but her reaction was devastating: “Sorry, I can’t do anything. My husband is coming” – What a blow! Joining the Mujahedin in Afghanistan suddenly appeared like the only way out and would let me leave my hurt feelings behind. Today it sounds ridiculous but I’m sure that all too often young men – and probably women, too – are prone to get trapped by emotional frustrations and are at risk to make crazy, irrational decisions.
 
I didn’t act in total isolation. I heard about another young Swiss, Beat Kraettli, who was already preparing a trip to Afghanistan and who had started a career as a photo journalist. I called him up and we agreed to join forces. Beat didn’t have any more experience than I. However, it was reassuring not to be the only crazy guy who wanted to report about events in Afghanistan. I never mentioned my unhappy love affair and entered a world where I ran away from my own emotions. In hindsight, it was an ideal situation for a documentary filmmaker. It allowed me to look beyond myself, forget my own feelings and focus entirely on the dramas in other people’s lives. Even today I find it liberating to follow stories that have nothing to do with my own background. It helps me put my own little world into perspective and not take it or myself too seriously.
 
The moment I touched land in Afghanistan I was totally blown away with a sense of extreme culture clash. On one side, the hospitality by my Afghan companions was overwhelming as was their determination to fight the Russian invaders. But I also struggled with their total lack of rationality. Ending up in the minefield captured in the above video clip was a typical example.
 
I joined a group of Mujahedins who organised an attack against a Russian camp. I thought, since they had already been at war for six years, then they must know what they were doing. Shockingly, they didn’t even do a recognisance mission. They could see that they were walking through a minefield but they didn’t care and continued forward until one of them blew up. Then they panicked and stopped the attack. The badly injured Mujahedin died a few hours later. Everybody was sad for a few days but they didn’t learn any lessons. Their next operation was suicidal too. Their belief of dying as martyrs was enough to keep them going.
 
With my Western mindset I never managed to accept the fatalistic attitude of the Afghans but clearly it makes them fearless. Even today, nothing has changed. Many Afghans – certainly in the Pashtun areas – continue to hate and fight any and all occupying foreign forces: whether they are Russians, Americans or whomever. It doesn’t make a difference. Fighting invaders is part of the Afghan culture and a way of life.
 
It’s easy to say: Let the Afghans run their own show. But a regime under Taliban control inevitably will violate many fundamental human rights – particularly when it comes to women. Should we care or not? I don’t think there are simple solutions. In theory, the international community has an obligation to defend the respect of human rights everywhere in the world. In practice it clearly doesn’t happen.
 
Why aren’t Nato troops enforcing regime change in Zimbabwe but instead they have been sent to Afghanistan? It’s simple. Afghanistan is strategically more important. It is a very dangerous part of the world. There are the constant tension between India and Pakistan – two nuclear powers. In addition, Iran also wants to join the atomic club. The entire area is the main breeding ground of militant Islamic extremism. It simply makes strategic sense for America and Nato powers to build up some military bases in that shaky part of the world.
 
In my view, worries about Human Rights abuses, drug production and Bin Ladin are used only as a pretext to justify Nato’s military presence. I don’t think they will ever bring peace to Afghanistan. It sounds good but Nato would need many more troops on the ground and I don’t see that happening. For the time being the Talibans are on the rise, the opium production is much higher than before the invasion in 2001 and even after Bin Ladin death in 2011 Islamic extremists remain an inspiration for many Muslims all over the world.

 

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