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Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001
What Lara can tell us about Afghanistan
Angelina Jolie's new movie, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," might not be up to much, but I have a lot of respect for Jolie herself. On Sept. 10, at a Tokyo press conference to promote the film, the actress mentioned her new job as special ambassador for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. She spent almost a year in Europe making "Tomb Raider" and found "that the news you get there is different from the news you get in the United States. There was a lot I didn't know about the world, and when I got back, I called up the United Nations to find out more."
The press conference took place the day before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Since then, it seems every major Hollywood star has been trying to outdo each other in donating money to American victims and their families. Julia Roberts sees Schwarzenegger's million and raises it another million. Jolie, on the other hand, gives her million to Afghan refugees, who, I daresay, need the money more.
Likewise, I've never been a fan of Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, the writer, actress and talk-show host who chatters like a duck and wears more makeup than the Folies Bergere. However, as an honorary UNICEF ambassador since 1984, Kuroyanagi has exploited her high profile to collect billions of yen in donations from the Japanese public, to feed and educate children throughout the developing world. Each year, Kuroyanagi takes a TV crew to a country devastated by famine or civil strife and subsequently plasters the Japanese media with videotapes and photos of starving, sick children and her own weeping countenance. It's shameless and, at times, even self-promoting, but it does the trick. People give money.
This year, she chose Afghanistan, which, even before the world fixed its anxious gaze on that country, took courage. The Taliban are not enthusiastic about foreign media entering their realm and are particularly uncomfortable with women. In the end, Kuroyanagi and her crew decided that it was too dangerous to travel to Kabul and limited their journey mainly to refugee camps.
Last Sunday, Asahi TV broadcast a special about her trip, which took place in July. In light of subsequent developments and coverage, a lot of what Kuroyanagi reported took on a meaning that was slightly different from what she originally intended.
When she arrived at the first refugee camp, she was met by a crowd of angry women who demanded to know what the world was doing about the fact that their children were eating dirt to stay alive. They were beyond wrestling with the Taliban, who didn't care about them since they were voluntary refugees. But they understood that there was a world out there and, somehow, knew that the world was at least partly responsible for their suffering.
Since she's a representative of the U.N., Kuroyanagi didn't offer any comments on the political situation. UNICEF places a high priority on education, so she visited several schools in the refugee camps and also one "secret" school for girls. She pointed out that the Taliban reportedly prohibits education for females but that they "look the other way" for some secret schools because UNICEF is indirectly involved, an aspect that hasn't been mentioned on any of the foreign news reports I've seen.
Kuroyanagi seemed to be going out of her way not to demonize the Taliban, but only within the context of the current media atmosphere. Because the special was completed before the terrorist attacks, avoidance of any political slant is easy to explain.
Since the attacks, most of the firsthand intelligence the Japanese public has received about Afghanistan has come from one man, Tetsu Nakamura, a doctor who has been working for a Pakistan-based Japanese NGO for 17 years. Ten of those years have been spent in Afghanistan, where he set up eight clinics, mostly against the wishes of the authorities.
He was forced to leave the country after Sept. 11 (he has since returned) and subsequently appeared on every news show in Japan. Nakamura's measured, unemotional tone betrayed years of dealing with a culture that he admits he initially found disagreeable. He has learned how to deal with a repressive system in order to do the work he needs to do, mainly training local medical personnel.
Though Nakamura speaks with authority about how Afghanis remain the victims of "power games," he won't get drawn into a debate on the merits of one regime over another. He mentioned, repeatedly and dispassionately, that the Taliban have brought a small measure of stability to a country that was mired in chaos for many years, another aspect that the media doesn't seem willing to discuss.
The point is not that Nakamura is turning a blind eye to the Taliban's human rights abuses but that one cannot discuss Afghanistan without understanding the many conflicting forces that have brought the country to its present state of misery.
Neither Kuroyanagi nor Nakamura are political experts or journalists. She is a showbiz personality and he is a physician. Their positions vis-a-vis Afghanistan are more sensitive than those of local news correspondents, but what they report is no less valuable or meaningful to our understanding of the region. The fact is, most of the news we've received from that part of the world has been filtered through an American sensibility, which, as Angelina Jolie herself found out, can be very limiting.