Book of the Week: The Photographer Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders

I had intended to have a weekly “Movie of the Week” post, but the movies I watched this weekend were overshadowed by this incredible book. From 1979 until 1989, the Soviet Union waged a massive war against Afghanistan that led to more than 1 million Afghan deaths, 5 million Afghan maimed and injured and the displacement of nearly half the population of Afghanistan. During the 1980’s more than half of all worldwide refugees were Afghan. Doctors Without Borders proactively provided desperately needed on the ground medical services to stranded and isolated populations, often at great risk to themselves.

French photographer Didier Lefèvre documents one arm of Doctors Without Border’s humanitarian efforts. Travel to medical sites had to be done on foot, as roads did not exist to the areas most starved for services. Doctors and humanitarian workers were smuggled over the Pakistan border under cover of night, riding along weapons supply caravans, where men literally carried munitions on their backs over mine filled mountain paths with few supplies.

Lefevre documents the entire 3 week journey to the inlands of Afghanistan, a month long stint providing medical services to multitudes of wounded men, women and children and a harrowing 4 week journey back. Interspersed with his incredible photographs is a graphic novel style telling of anecdotes from the journey, conversations with the humanitarian workers and interactions with Afghanis along the way. What results is not only an intimate view of life providing badly needed help to a wounded and scarred population, but also a complete portrait of an incredibly deep and complex culture. Lefevre’s work is exceedingly relevant given the current context of the Afghanistan war effort by the US and NATO, and perhaps essential to understanding at least part of the historical context which led to the Taliban takeover, 9/11 and our subsequent involvement.

My only complaint with the book is that the photographs are sometimes small and difficult to see (at least to my old man eyes), but the storytelling and presentation do well to fill in the blanks. This is a historically massive work. Lefevre’s document of events, along with Emmanuel Guibert’s artwork create a relevant and moving view of the senselessness of war and the great price that everyone pays in health and welfare.


About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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