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Journey to Forbidden Zone a must for Americans

Journey to Forbidden Zone a must for Americans

By David Zurawik
TV Correspondent

October 6, 2001

Frontline Diaries: Into the Forbidden Zone is a remarkable television document.

Part of what makes the one-hour report on life and death in war-torn Afghanistan under Taliban control so stunning is timing.

The centerpiece of the program is an interview with anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the "Lion of the Panjshir Valley." The valley is at the heart of the small section of the country Massoud's rebel forces control as they fight a guerrilla war against the Taliban.

Massoud died Sept. 14, the victim of suicide bombers believed to have been working for Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11. Massoud, who surely would have been one of the key weapons in any effort to root bin Laden out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, was killed by two men posing as journalists.

Eerily, Into the Forbidden Zone is structured around the journey of two journalists smuggled into the only part of Afghanistan not controlled by the Taliban to meet with Massoud. The two are Sebastian Junger, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and author of the best-seller The Perfect Storm, and Reza Deghati, an Iranian-born photographer described as a friend of Massoud.

At first, the narration seems to have a breathless, overly hyped feel as we wait with Junger and Reza in Munich for the people who will take them over the mountains and into Afghanistan. But once they hook up with Massoud, the images and scenes captured by cameraman Stephen Conklin are so overwhelming that the narration seems understated.

One of the first stops is a refugee camp where people are living in conditions impossible to believe. We see close-up images of 2-month-old twins who appear close to death. Flies feed on the black, oozing crust in their sunken eye sockets.

We are informed that the people in the camp are Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban regime. Told about the scene, Massoud sends a doctor to the camp to help the children.

The next set of incredible images comes when Massoud allows his visitors to join his troops in battle. Junger shakes with fright as the Taliban artillery sends him, Reza and some of Massoud's soldiers burrowing into holes in the side of a ridge.

But that's nothing compared with the grisly close-up of a soldier whose right leg has been blown off below the knee by a Taliban land mine. If you want to talk about Americans being in a war with any sense of what that really means, you must not turn away from these pictures.

Making such moments all the more horribly shocking is the incredible natural beauty and majesty of the Afghan mountains. The contrast between the glorious stage and terrible dance of death could not be more profound.

Given the times in which we have been living since Sept. 11, this is a program not to be missed. That does not mean it should be endorsed as unconditional truth.

If you wanted to make a film aimed at convincing your audience that the Taliban are perpetuators of evil, it would look like this. Contrasted with the starvation and suffering of the refugee camp, we are shown pictures of life in Massoud's Panjshir Valley that feature smiling residents and food in the marketplace. Even Junger questions the pleasant living conditions of a prison run by Massoud for his Taliban captives.

But a journalistic reminder: This level of access is sometimes granted because the people granting it expect a certain kind of coverage. If we are now in a war, as our leaders say, such questions about programs that can so strongly affect public opinion about that war must at least be raised.

David Zurawik writes for the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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