In 1986, Afghanistan was torn apart by a war with the Soviet Union. This graphic novel/photo-journal is a record of one reporter’s arduous and dangerous journey through Afghanistan, accompanying the Doctors Without Borders. Didier Lefevre’s photography, paired with the art of Emmanuel Guibert, tells the powerful story of a mission undertaken by men and women dedicated to mending the wounds of war.
This is a graphic memoir which tells the story of French photojournalist Didier Lefevre, on his first major assignment documenting the work of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan during the Cold War of the 1980s. He starts in Peshwar, Pakistan and works his way through Afghanistan, traveling primarily by foot or mule. Didier's actual photography is incorporated in between the panels of artwork, a format I had not come across before but one that really held my interest!
For those not familiar with this time in history, no worries. Translator Alexis Siegel (as you can guess, Lefevre's story was originally published in French) provides a clear and very helpful overview of the situation in her introductory essay at the beginning of the book. For those interested in the topic, much of what is discussed in this essay can also be found in the powerful nonfiction works of Azar Nafisi.
I've always been impressed with Doctors Without Borders as an organization, even more so now. I like how they do not see borders, only patients that need help regardless of which side they are fighting on -- so while the hospitals they set up might have been stationed in Afghanistan, a good number of their patients also came from the Soviet side. It struck me as somewhat funny how the story tells of how the doctors had to cross borders illegally at night, always fearing capture by the Soviets, yet the Soviets didn't bat an eye at bringing their wounded to the very doctors they were trying so hard to keep out! I was especially impressed with the group's leader, Juliette, a female doctor who stood out for dressing like a man, who confidently addressed village chiefs on an equal level, and who had such a cool mix of bravery, no-nonsense and also a light-hearted, fun loving side (when the timing was appropriate, obvs). I also liked how she revealed her secret to getting "in" with the male leaders -- she'd befriend the women of the households and gain their trust to get any helpful gossip / intel! Go girl!
Reading this memoir, while it is a bit of work -- it does not flow as fast and easy as a graphic novel typically does -- was such a rewarding education. I learned so much and got a good look at just how difficult the lifestyle there can be. I also got at least a small sense of the political climate at that time, how uneasy and scared everyone was (how bathing required armed guards and planning!) but also how so many wanted peace between everyone but didn't know how to get there.
While it is an important education, it is also certainly a painful read. It broke my heart to read of how the horses and mules were commonly overworked and mistreated literally to death -- they would just fall over and die, be left there to rot, their replacement simply picked up in the next town. I also felt for the children photographed by Lefevre, many under the age of 8, coming into the hospitals with body parts burned black or gunshot wounds to their little limbs. Those photographs were the hardest parts to stomach. There's one series of shots of one little girl with a burned hand where you can almost hear her screams of pain through the photographs.
But with that, there are also moments of levity and touching humanity that I loved. I especially laughed at the guy who just randomly shows up in the middle of the desert with a bag of cakes, miles away from any civilization, when the traveling doctors are fatigued and desperate for food and rest. And then after handing out cakes, he just walks off into nothingness again!
While it definitely won't read like your typical graphic novel, I do recommend checking this one out for those interested in history and multicultural reads. I also recommend maybe having a magnifying glass on hand because some of the photographs in here are tiiiiny.
Something else to note: The Dari / Farsi sections of dialogue in the story are done by Marjane Satrapi, the author of the graphic memoir Persepolis.