We have good intention, and we’re gonna go there to do some good for the people. So there’s nothing else besides to just feel good about it.
—Dr. Nafisa Mojadidi
Only Afghans can successfully develop their own country.
—Medina Qasimi, Assistant Director of the Shuhada Organization (deleted scenes)
In 2003, Dr. Qudrat Mojadidi went back to Afghanistan, again. This time, he was accompanied by his daughter Sedika Mojadidi, and her film crew. The doctor, who has a thriving OB/GYN practice in Virginia, had for 20 years been working along the Afghan border, helping those women he could survive childbirth, disease, and injury. Now, following the invasion and the temporary defeat of the Taliban, the US guaranteed support, asking the doctor to rehabilitate the Rabia Balkhi hospital, and most earnestly, wanting to “make a difference inside the country.”
In her documentary, Motherland Afghanistan, now available on DVD (whose minimal extras include deleted interviews and scenes), Sedika Mojadidi narrates their journey with a mix of concern, confidence, and wonder. The camera looks out from their car window as they drive in, observing male street vendors, soldiers in uniform, women in burqas, children as the car slows in traffic. A news clip voiceover offers George Bush’s promise: “We’re determined to lift up the people of Afghanistan.”
One of five American staff at Rabia Balkhi, Dr. Mojadidi is training 60 Afghan doctors (Sedika’s mother, Nafisa, a general practitioner, is volunteering at the family planning clinic, not supported by the US). While her father notes the effects of the Taliban’s destruction of the educational system (doctors lack basic knowledge to help their patients, that “They’re so thirsty for one word of wisdom”), Sedika reports that Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world (a 2000 survey found 1600 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births, and 18 percent infants will not survive their first year). Following a note that the US Department of Defense spent $300,000 on the hospital for renovation, the doctor says he submitted a list of necessities to the Department of Health and Human Services, which promised to support the training program for OB/GYN doctors.
“The US Department of Health and Human Services,” narrates Sedika, “tries to limit what I film in the hospital, by denying me interviews with their American staff. But the Afghan Health Ministry controls Rabia Balkhi, and welcomes me to film here.” As her father begins surgery on a woman’s fistula, he notes that she and her family have had to purchase their own materials, from IV equipment to sutures. “You see the frustration,” he says through his surgical mask, the operating theater filled with the camera crew, as well as aides without proper equipment (like gloves), “You put a little pressure on it and it breaks.”
The moment is typical of what happens throughout the film. Meeting with a patient who has been beaten by her local mullah—her family believed that her seizures were signs she was possessed, and he meant to beat the evil out of her—the doctor sighs. “When I see something like this, psychologically, it’s so draining.” Confronting “so much cultural influence,” on top of the lack of care and information, he says, “What goes through my head is we’re in a totally chaotic 13th century situation here.” Despite promises of support and even a letter from Tommy Thompson commending the work he’s doing (the doctor displays it like a relic), after four months, HSS delivers none of the supplies he’s requested: “I buy my own soap to wash my hands before surgery,” he says. Adding insult to injury, HHS decides to rename the maternity ward where he’s working the Laura Bush OB/GYN Ward. “I realized I made a huge mistake,” the doctor says. “I couldn’t change things enough under these circumstances.”
Dr. Mojadidi leaves Rabia Balkhi.
And yet despite his frustrations with HSS, he remains committed to Afghanistan. (Or, as he puts it, “I’m kind of addicted to it.”) The film provides contexts, including his family history (he and his family emigrated to the US in 1972). Inevitably, this personal history is also shaped by international events. When the Mojadidis visit the family cemetery, Sedika describes the experience with reverence tinged by regret: the visit is “to return to the past, to remember a future we never had a chance to live out. A future cut off by Afghanistan’s history as a cold war pawn.” The doctor shows her an empty space where his home used to be (in 1979, “the pro-Soviet regime rounded up 30 members of the Mojadidi family and executed them”). “All my dreams are in that house,” he says softly, the camera tilted up at his face against a blue sky, “Because I grew up there.”
In 2005, he returns to work with Shuhada, a nongovernmental organization that supports schools, shelters, and hospitals. When asked what he’s “learned” from his previous time in Afghanistan, he smiles ruefully: “Don’t trust the US government.” Though his wife shakes her head (“Don’t say that”), Dr. Mojadidi analyzes US interests: “Those people were tortured for the past 25 years. After September , ‘We’re gonna go rescue women.’ Well, baloney, you’re not going there to rescue, you could have done it before. But because now you’re affected by Afghanistan affairs, that’s why you’re doing it.” The answer, he concludes, is that Afghans have to do it for themselves.
This theme comes up repeatedly in Motherland Afghanistan, specifically, that trusting in the United States has only led to disappointment. Sedika’s second “tour” with her father is partly hopeful, partly comical (she packs 13 pairs of shoes, and her dad has a good laugh), and mostly more hard work, against odds repeatedly affected by external forces. Almost as soon as they arrive in country, the news breaks that US guards at Guantánamo have done damage to Qurans, inspiring rioters in the province where the doctor and his family are headed.
Still, they press on, arriving at the hospital that serves 57,000 patients. The doctor recognizes the obstacles: “The reality of this place,” he says, “is that the people are in a very remote region. How many won’t make it how many will die on their way coming to the hospital? How many will die in their homes?” As extra scenes included on the DVD reveal, it’s still “normal” for a mother to die in labor in Afghanistan, owing not only to lack of facilities but also traditions that make it difficult for women to travel in search of medical assistance. Dr. Mojadidi points out the crucial purpose of Shuhada’s schools for girls: “We have to educate women and children so they understand their rights. And that’s one way to begin to stop the mortality and abuse.”
Focused through the witty, measured perspective of Dr. Mojadidi, the documentary makes clear the successes and the hardships of his remarkable efforts (the death of a premature baby, its tiny corpse tended to on screen, would likely have been avoided had the proper resources been available). Telling a story that is at once intensely personal and acutely political, Motherland Afghanistan offers a trenchant critique of US policy. While, as the film shows and Dr. Mojadidi says, Afghans can do take care of themselves, some small sincere, well-considered, and organized help would go a long way.