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How Afghan climbers reached their highest peak

At 2:30 p.m. on July 19, 2009, the first Afghans to climb their country's highest mountain unfurled a national flag on the icy peak in the blue above the clouds.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At 2:30 p.m. on July 19, 2009, the first Afghans to climb their country's highest mountain unfurled a national flag on the icy peak in the blue above the clouds.

The celebration was fleeting. Minutes later, they headed down with a French companion, buffeted by violent gusts of wind and worried that exhaustion and a lack of oxygen would imperil their descent.

They aimed to deliver a message one doesn't hear much, that Afghans can succeed. To say, according to a new film about the adventure, that there is more to Afghanistan than the Taliban, opium and burqas, the head-to-toe garments worn by some Muslim women.

Yet the upbeat tale masks a back story of reversals and obstacles that parallels the challenges of operating in a nation eroded by conflict. The saga is about rivalry, persistence, and tension that can flare among Afghan officials and foreign benefactors and promoters with clashing agendas. On a tiny scale, the story echoes other moviemaking ordeals. The filming of "Apocalypse Now," a 1979 award-winner set in the Vietnam War, was so fraught with drama that a documentary was made about its production.

On Sept. 22, at Kabul's French Institute, a boxy, 1970s-era structure, more than 100 Afghans and foreigners attended the first public screening of "24,000 Feet Above The War," a 52-minute documentary that profiles four Afghans who sought to scale Mount Noshaq, a 7,492-meter-high (24,580-foot-high) peak — Afghanistan's highest — in the Hindu Kush mountain range in the northeast.

Noshaq, close to the Himalayas, presides over a sliver of land, the Wakhan Corridor, that borders China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Its isolation has largely spared it the violence that has gripped much of the rest of Afghanistan. An annual trickle of international tourists, many of them veteran climbers, is returning after a generation's absence.

The September film screening, meant to be a celebration of hope, came two days after a suicide bomber killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of a government-backed peace council trying to reconcile with the insurgency.

The crowd applauded the wiry, weathered Afghan climbers who ascended the auditorium stage after the lights came up. Some had worked as guides and porters for foreign expeditions up Noshaq, going as far as base camps but never to the top.

In the 2009 bid, helped by French climbers, Malang Daria and Amruddin Sanjar reached the summit. Another climber, Afiat Khan, turned back because of altitude sickness, and the fourth, Gurg Ali, accompanied him for his safety.

At the screening, Daria wore a blazer over his traditional garb, a shalwar kameez. He embraced his role as an ambassador for Afghan pride, describing what he felt at the peak in this way:

"I saw all of the Afghan people at the top of Noshaq."

It was the message that Louis Meunier, a 32-year-old trekker from Paris who crossed Afghanistan on horseback in 2005, had hoped to generate during the several years he spent preparing the three-week expedition and then producing the documentary from 50 hours of footage. The total cost was 90,000 euros ($122,000). Meunier didn't make it to the summit because of acute bronchitis.

The film images are lush and the cutting is crisp. Meunier shows the so-called "Wakhan Tigers" during nearly a month of training at Chamonix in the French Alps; setting off with 70 porters, each carrying a 23-kilogram load to base camp; picking their way with crampons and ice axes in the upper reaches; celebrating at the summit; and returning to garlands of flowers in a village below.

As the climbing party sets out, a police chief arrives and Meunier fears he will cancel the project — "everything being possible in Afghanistan," the narration says. But the officer just wishes them well. Then the team takes a rocky, steep route to avoid a minefield.

"The story behind the movie is much more complicated than it looks," Meunier wrote in an email from France after attending the screening. "I decided to focus on the positive aspects of the expedition, to outline the fact that the Afghan climbers were willing to send a message of peace in their war-torn country."

Trouble began long before the climb when Meunier and two French associates fell out with the French head of an adventure sports company who had promised financing. Later, Meunier got support from the French Embassy and the Aga Khan Foundation.

In other setbacks, a French production company dropped out, and the Afghan Ministry of Culture and Information objected. At a base camp, Meunier was informed by telephone that authorities might send helicopters to bring down the group. He quickly called the French Embassy, which used its influence to save the mission, according to Meunier.

Footage of his urgent phone conversations was cut from the film. The Afghan climbers, who are Shia Ismaili Muslims, speculated the culture ministry had wanted someone from Afghanistan's biggest, mostly Sunni ethnic group, the Pashtuns, to be involved in the climb.

Najib Manalai, a Pashtun who was deputy culture minister at the time, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that there was "absolutely" no ethnic motivation for opposing the project, citing ethnically diverse teams in cricket and other sports.

"My proposal to the French was to give us, rather than this very symbolic, one-shot action, investment in a mountain-climbing course in Kabul where we would have trained tens of Afghani young people, who could have climbed many of the summits of Afghanistan," he said.

He said the climb organizers sidestepped his ministry by getting support from other authorities, possibly in the presidency, and that the outcome "pleased some French and showed the incapacity of the Afghan government to take care of its interests for the long term."

Manalai, now an adviser to the finance minister, spoke of tension between the "ideological concerns" of some Western donors and the "fundamental needs" of Afghans. He recalled telling French actors that street theater in Afghanistan was marginal, that their plan to stage shows would have little meaning and that any investment should be directed elsewhere.

Meunier is mild of manner and lanky of build. He has a rugged verve for the outdoors and Afghanistan. He arrived in 2002 for a six-month stint as an aid worker and ended up staying seven years. In Kabul, he played buzkashi, in which horsemen vie for a headless goat carcass.

"Why did it take me so long to edit the movie?" he wrote of the Noshaq documentary. "I was reluctant to address all these issues in a film. A few months later, when I decided to do it anyway, I did a first edit without starring myself. But the narrative was not good, and lacked direction. So I did a second edit... speaking in the first person, in French and English."

It took another six months to get a $42,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy to dub the movie into Dari and Pashto, the two main languages in Afghanistan, produce DVDs and cover other costs. The embassy is sending copies of the film to provincial offices so more Afghans can see it. The U.N. mission plans to organize a national tour for the climbers.

The documentary helps "put a happy face" on Afghanistan, said Matthew Case, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy, which was targeted on Sept. 13 by insurgents during an attack that killed seven Afghans. No embassy staff members were hurt.

"Afghanistan is not just about the war," Case said. "There are people here trying to do well and survive and live a normal, quasi-normal, life."

The Afghans who climbed Mount Noshaq hope to use their experience to promote tourism. At the film screening, Daria said he was willing to set up a mountaineering school for Afghans, but needed equipment because "I don't have anything."

As for Meunier, he is working on what is surely another monumental project, a film about the last Kyrgyz nomads of Afghanistan.