Filmmaker Chris Hilton discusses his experiences with the Afghan poppy farmers featured in BITTER HARVEST and the logistical vagaries of filming in this infrastructure-strapped region.
WIDE ANGLE: Can you tell us more about the Afghan poppy farmers in your film? Do they ever speak of the implications for Afghanistan of producing this plant and its highly addictive by-product? Or is it just another crop to them, like wheat?
CHRIS HILTON: Sayed Ahmad, the farmer featured in BITTER HARVEST seems to sum up the attitude of many of the local Afghan farmers the crew met, as well as the views of the local drug agency officials and the aid agencies. They understand that opium damages peoples’ lives, but they have to grow it in order to survive. Sayed Ahmad was a teacher, forced out of school when it was closed down due to the war. “I had a small piece of land,” he says, “I had ten people to feed. I had no choice but to cultivate opium.”
“Of course, people know it’s wrong,” says the governor of Badakshan Province in the north of Afghanistan. “People do this because they are desperate for survival. If they didn’t have any problems they wouldn’t do this.”
Abdul Qadir, the newly appointed vice president of Afghanistan who was assassinated in July 2002, believed that Afghanistan needed to eradicate opium plants. However, he maintained that they were growing opium “out of despair, not out of desire.” He believed that if farmers were given the money allocated by the rich Western nations to grow different crops, that Afghan farmers would stop growing poppies.
Opium grows well in Afghanistan. It fetches a good price on the market and, until people are given an alternative, they feel they must continue to grow the crop to feed their families. “It’s poison and it’s the enemy of humanity,” says Sayed Ahmad, “but we are not.”
WIDE ANGLE: What were the farmer’s attitudes toward the interim government’s ban on opium poppy cultivation?
CHRIS HILTON: The farmers we talked to lived in the cooler northern parts of Afghanistan where the opium harvest happens two moths after that of the south. These farmers had heard of the British government efforts to get farmers to destroy their opium crop in exchange for financial compensation. This had led them to grow more poppy as a potential further source of income.
In reality, the farmers are so poor that they are in debt to opium middlemen who offer advances against their next harvest. This puts them in a difficult position in regard to destroying their crop. In the long run, such a ban should be able to work as long as the farmers have some other livelihood and with a gradual increase in enforcement pressure.
WIDE ANGLE: What difficulties did you experience while filming in Afghanistan and in Central Asia?
CHRIS HILTON: Setting up and filming in Central Asia proved to be the most difficult filming experience all of the crew and production staff had ever experienced — and we are all seasoned, experienced journalists and filmmakers who have travelled throughout the world.
One of the immediate problems was the lack of infrastructure throughout the region — phones and faxes work only sporadically and email communication is intermittent (we found several cafes named “Internet cafes,” but no sign of a computer). So booking hotels, cars and flights between these countries proved very difficult. For example, the crew wanted to fly from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to Moscow. In theory, Tajik Airlines flies this route twice a week. In practice, the flights are often cancelled or rescheduled with little notice. Bookings can only be made for these flights 10 days in advance and so we started calling 12 days in advance of the date we wanted to fly. It took three days until someone answered the phone, only to find that no one spoke any English. By the time we had found an intermediary to translate for us, the flight was full!
Crossing borders from one country to another was another obstacle: drivers and cars from one country cannot cross into another, corruption is rife, fuel is scarce and kidnapping of foreign nationals common. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs advises that travel to the border regions of any of the Central Asian countries should be avoided because many of the roads to the borders are mined and, if the bandits don’t stop you, you could run into the continuing armed clashes between rebel groups and government forces. We were fortunate that the United Nations was undertaking a survey of the drug trade in Central Asia — a trip that had taken two years of planning this and we were able to tag along — utilizing their cars, drivers and security for our filming. The downside was their break-neck schedule that sometimes had us travelling at high speeds for 20 continuous hours along dirt mountain tracks, seldom wide enough for two cars to pass and notorious for the number of trucks that have slid off the crumbling embankment edges and rolled down the mountain (evidence of which is clear as you ride this rollercoaster roadway).
Hotels and facilities were primitive on the trip — many did not have running water and electricity was sporadic. Outside of the capital cities, there are no hotels or hostels and the floor of an aid agency office was the best offer we had in some towns. The temperatures fluctuated wildly — very warm during the days and well below freezing at night. We experienced altitude sickness as we passed over the Pamir Mountains at more than 16,400 feet — sometimes rising 6,500 feet in less than 62 miles! The towns and villages we stayed in along the way are desperately poor, many relying on subsistence agriculture topped up by humanitarian aid for survival. Their meals routinely consisted of a thin soup broth and some meat. There were few vegetables or salads and the crew all had stomach troubles at some stage of the trip.
However, these are the problems that one expects in these remote countries. We came back tired and several pounds thinner, but raving about the breathtaking majesty of the Pamirs, the extraordinary friendliness of the local people and the uniqueness of the experience.
WIDE ANGLE: How did you find the people — the heroin addict and the woman imprisoned for smuggling — to feature in your film?
CHRIS HILTON: Using the resources of the local aid agencies and the United Nations, we were able to find local liasion personnel who found most of the people who feature in the film. Naturally, in countries such as these, there was some reluctance to speak on camera for fear of government retribution. However, many people felt the need to expose the corruption of the system or the problems inherent in the drug trade and its effect on the region. The Aga Kahn Development Network in northern Afghanistan, the Drug Control Agency in Tajiskistan, the United Nationals Drug Control program in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and the International Crisis Group in Kyrgyzstan were all great resources and provided us with both travel assistance and story contacts.
WIDE ANGLE: BITTER HARVEST is your second film on the opium drug trade. What changes did you observe in Afghanistan and Central Asia since your first film, DEALING WITH THE DEMON?
CHRIS HILTON: I first filmed in Afghanistan in 1995 in Eastern Afghanistan. At the time, the poppies were blooming and the opium was nearly ready for harvest. There was a civil war at the time as the mujahadin warlords fought each other and the growing Taliban movement for the spoils of the country. Most people talked about wanting to quit the opium and heroin production business and said “If we only had international aid, we would stop it.”
Seven years later, it’s almost an identical story. Everyone still heavily armed, the poppies blooming and a strong desire to give up the opium if and when international aid could be delivered. The main change is that overt signs of war have abated. We can only hope that peace will reign and that governments will keep the aid flowing and not turn their backs on Afghanistan again.
WIDE ANGLE: How do you think America’s “war on terror” has affected the drug trafficking in Central Asia?
CHRIS HILTON: The most immediate effect of the war was a deluge of heroin heading for markets outside Afghanistan. Experts suspect that many tons of heroin was being stockpiled inside Afghanistan and when the war loomed in October and November last year, drug lords in both Taliban and Northern Alliance areas saw the need to turn the stockpiles into cash in case it was destroyed.
Drug production this year is now back up to the highest levels it’s been in Afghanistan since the 1990s, after a brief lull in the last year of the Taliban when they brutally enforced a ban on cultivation.
Stopping the drug trade has not been one of the priorities of the war on terrorism, in fact, many of the Northern Alliance commanders that became Western allies had maintained their power from the drug trade as it was the major cash economy in a bankrupted Afghanistan. Diminishing the drug trade will only happen by a sustained and long-term rebuilding effort that provides people with alternative livelihoods combined with enforcement of a ban on cultivating and trading in opium.
If we are successful in weaning Afghanistan off opium, there is a high level of probability that illicit production will then simply move over the border to other unstable countries such as Tajikistan.