July 23, 2009

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The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders is a book that uses photographs, illustrations, and text to tell the powerful story of clandestine operations Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) undertook to assist Afghan people after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

The story begins in 1986 in Peshawar, Pakistan, where photojournalist Didier Lefèvre and an MSF team of five prepared to cross into Afghanistan on donkey and horseback, while dodging Soviet bombers. We see the story unfold through Lefèvre’s eyes and photographs and through illustrations by graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, of an ever more challenging journey through an occupied and war-torn country to bring emergency medical aid to people trapped and wounded by violent conflict.

Originally written in French and published in 11 languages, The Photographer has just recently been released in English by First Second Books.

An excerpt of The Photographer appears on the following two pages—it begins as Lefèvre and the MSF team are arriving, after a long trek, at Zaragandara in the Yaftal Valley.

A Brief History of MSF in Afghanistan

During the Soviet-Afghan conflict of 1979 to 1989, MSF ran about 15 assistance programs providing services from heavy war-surgery in Mazar and Herat Provinces, to immunization campaigns carried out by some 35 international staff and hundreds of Afghans. Meanwhile, Soviet forces frequently bombed medical facilities and attacked MSF supply caravans. In 1984, Afghan political parties established in Pakistan, MSF’s primary contacts, requested that MSF stop using female staff. MSF decided to cease its operations under these constraints, given the threat to its operational independence and the impact removing female staff would have on access to medical care for women and children, and the request was eventually dropped. In 1987, two MSF teams transporting tons of medical supplies were kidnapped by militant Islamic extremist groups and five Afghan MSF staff were killed. MSF continued to provide assistance in Afghanistan during the civil war from 1989 to 1996, suspending operations for two years starting in 1990 when an MSF logistician was killed. MSF clashed with the Taliban regime in certain regions over restrictions on women’s access to medical care. However, in other areas under Taliban control, such as Ghazni, where a female Afghan pediatrician ran several wards of the hospital, MSF did not have the same constraints experienced by other teams. MSF teams evacuated Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US but returned after the Taliban was ousted and treated tens of thousands of people displaced and injured in the continuing violence.

In June 2004, five MSF aid workers were killed in a targeted attack on their vehicle in Baghdis province. With the government unwilling or unable to prosecute those responsible and the continuing threat of violence, MSF withdrew from the country after 24 years.

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