Close-up images of war-torn nation

Preview: A series on anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan brings stunning scenes, but beware of its impact on public opinion.

September 25, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Frontline Diaries: Into the Forbidden Zone, the premiere episode of a new quarterly series on the National Geographic Channel, 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. (National Geographic advanced the series debut from Oct. 22 to tonight at 9.)

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, 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 told 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 close-up of a soldier whose right leg has been blown off below the knee by a Taliban land mine. It is one of the most grisly images I have seen on television - and it's real. If you want to talk about Americans being in a war with any sense of what that really means, you need 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. But I need to make it clear that I am not endorsing the report as 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.

National Geographic calls the access that Reza and Junger had "unprecedented." Indeed.

But a journalistic reminder: Such 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.

Frontline Diaries

When: tonight at 9

Where: National Geographic Channel

In brief: The war brought home

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