The Photographer - Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders (MSF)

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Afghan resistance groups, the Mujahideen, fought a prolonged war against the occupying Red Army. In 1986 Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), the international medical humanitarian organization, was preparing a mission to the worn-torn country. A team of doctors and nurses was going to Afghanistan in order to establish a small field hospital and to staff another one set up on a previous mission. Didier Lefèvre, a French photographer, was invited to accompany them on the mission and to record their experiences in photographs.

Joining the Caravan

In July 1986 Didier Lefèvre got on a plane and flew from Paris to Peshawar in Pakistan. There he went to the MSF house and met the doctors and nurses and the head of the mission Juliette Fournot, a young French woman. He was taken to a tailor to obtain a full set of Afghan style clothing, including the Afghan blanket called a Patoo. He helped pack and seal the boxes of equipment that they would take on the exhibition. All were wrapped in a waterproof tarp in case they fell into a river.

Their caravan included the hundred donkeys and twenty horses they had bought, to carry themselves and their boxes, as well as forty armed fighters.

Ideally, MSF would have have wanted to set up only unarmed caravans, but the only viable solution, to protect yourself from racketeers and kidnappers, and also from Soviet army helicopters, is to join the arms caravans. So we have ... 40 AK-47s against would be thieves and two or three shoulder-fired missiles against the helicopters. (p. 31)

Their caravan was one of the first to set off in August and would be one of the last to return in November before the winter.

Crossing into Afghanistan

In order to cross the border into Afghanistan they had to disguise themselves by dressing in a chadri, the long robe worn by Afghan women to conceal themselves. Once over the border they climbed the mountain The Dewanah Baba in complete darkness. The area they entered was called Nuristan. The arms caravans take their toll on horses. They came across horses abandoned and left to die from exhaustion.

They crossed the Pojol Pass and headed towards the mountains which the Russians fly over and bomb. There is a large unprotected plateau to cross. Two years previously an MSF team had been machine-gunned from the air when crossing the plateau. This time they cross without incident.

They reach the valley of Teshkan. Part of the MSF team remains here to run a small and rudimentary hospital. The rest continue their journey to their destination of Yaftal where they finally arrive after one month of travelling.

Treating Patients

The hospital is a grubby windswept porch. Word of mouth among the Afghans soon brings them their first patients. A boy with a burned foot after falling into a bread oven and two men nicked by the same bullet from an AK-47.

More patients arrive:

  • A man with a punctured eyeball - he fell on his rifle.
  • A boy who has had a bullet through his forearm.
  • A boy with part of his face blown off by sharpnel.
  • A man whose lower leg requires to be amputated.

Didier asks one of the medics why they go to Afghanistan.

I'll be practicing surgery in a place where people have absolutely no access to health care. And I find that deeply fulfilling. (p. 25)

Returning to Pakistan

Didier Lefevre learns from Juliette Fournot that the MSF team intend returning to Pakistan by a different route. This route will add a week to the journey. Didier's supply of film is dwindling and he decides that he wants to return to Pakistan on his own. He explains to Juliette that his job is done, that he has been away from France for three months and that he wants to return home to develop his pictures. Juliette trys to persuade him that it is too dangerous to travel on his own but eventually agrees to ask Bassir Khan, an Afghan who ruled the Yaftal valley, to provide him with a small caravan to Pakistan.

Didier Lefevre sets off for Pakistan with four men and a horse that Bassir Khan has assigned to him. He finds the men strange: they amble along rather than walk quickly. Didier concludes that they are lazy.

I realize at that point that the return trip rests squarely on my shoulders. There's nothing to expect from my escort...I find myself in the absurd position of guiding my guides. (p. 190)

Didier worries how they will cope with the real hardship of the Kalotac Pass. They may be bombed, there may be snow and they might get lost. Didier falls ill with a bug and wakes up one morning to find that his guides have deserted him. He is alone with his horse. Didier tries to saddle the horse but repeatedly the saddle falls off. They eventually reach the last stage of the climb up the Kalotac. It is 16,000 feet and snowing. Both the horse and Didier are exhausted. He believes he is about to die on the mountain.

Rescue

At dawn a caravan passes him and he is woken by one of the men. They agree to take care of him but ask for money - 20,000 Afghani. Didier gives the leader of the group the money and they set off down the mountain. They later climb the Pojol Pass but it is too much for Didier's horse and it collapses. The men ask Didier for more money, again and again.

Eventually they reach a village which Didier recognises. He remembers that the local chief knows Juliette and asks to see him. The chief recognises Didier, fires his escort and gets his nephew to look after him. After a three week ordeal the chief, Aider Shah, has saved Didier.

Didier hires a horse and guide from Aider Shah and sets off for Pakistan. He crosses the border, finds a place to stay but in the morning is arrested by a policeman. He is asked for money, refuses to pay and is put in jail. Eventually he is released and able to make his way to the city of Peshawar. Only one day after arriving there Juliette and her MSF team arrive there too. They are relieved to find that he is not dead. Didier flies back to Paris with the results of his trip: 130 rolls of undeveloped film.

Didier Lefèvre died aged 49 in 2007.

The Photographer - Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders

Author - Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier
ISBN - 1596433752
Publisher - Published by First Second in 2009.
Book Availability - Amazon (UK) - Amazon (US) - BookFinder

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This page was added on 28 November 2010.