In 1986, as the USSR was deep in the middle of its hopeless war of occupation in Afghanistan, the photojournalist Didier Lefèvre was hired by Medecins sans frontières to accompany a mission into the north-west of the country to run two field hospitals. Speaking no Dari and never having visited the country before, Lefèvre spent an unforgettable three months accompanying a team of dedicated doctors and nurses providing medical care and training in the harshest of conditions. With the roads and the air controlled by the Soviets, the team is forced to trek overland for weeks to reach their target villages, crossing dangerous mountain passes at night to avoid helicopter gunships who shoot first and ask questions later. Lefèvre would go on to make several other trips to the area, but as we are told in the foreword this first voyage, his introduction to the region, was always the one he would go back to when friends asked about his experience of Afghanistan. Years later, after the US had moved in to take up arms against the mujahideen they had trained and supplied, Lefèvre decided to take this story to a wider audience. The approach is one I haven’t seen before: he shared his photographs and stories of the trip with graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, who condensed the material and drew the necessary panels to support the narrative between photos. (The third collaborator, Frédéric Lemercier, did colour and layout.) It’s an interesting and effective combination. The simple but expressive drawings keep the story at a human level, and allow for a close focus on the emotional depth of a situation, while the stark black and white photographs remind you of the beautiful desolation of the mountains and the sometimes harsh reality behind the words.
Most stories of war are told from the point of view of those who fight them. Here we have a story about those who pick up the pieces afterwards. Reading this book will convince you that war truly is hell, that MSF richly deserved their 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, that this latest foreign occupation is not much more likely to succeed than the Soviet one, and that it’s a shame it likely won’t be safe to visit rural Afghanistan anytime soon. The world needs more books like this, and fewer books by soldiers and warmongers.