World News Day 2020

An investigation helps preserve ‘life + limb’

Patients at a clinic in Kabul, Afghanistan, rest between exercise sessions. Stuff Circuit's ‘Life + Limb’ documentary revealed that 17 Afghan civilians had been killed or injured from ordnance on New Zealand firing ranges in Afghanistan. Credit: PHIL JOHNSON/STUFF

A New Zealand documentary forces clean-up of a deadly Afghanistan firing range

New Zealand combat troops went to Afghanistan in 2003 as part of a UN peacekeeping operation and the country’s leaders claimed they were on a mission to win ‘hearts and minds’. So when we came across information suggesting civilian deaths – for which our country might be responsible – it was important to investigate.

We travelled to Afghanistan to film the facts: were there deaths and injuries of civilians? How many? Were they connected with our firing ranges? Were New Zealand authorities aware? Had they done anything about it?

We knew there was a UN database that offered details of nine separate incidents, but before we even arrived in Afghanistan, we got hold of documentation in which the New Zealand Defence Force stated that none of the “incidents” had been directly linked to its activities, and that it had cleared the main firing range in question.

How could that be so at odds with what we had been told by others?

Meeting the survivors

We wanted to track down injured survivors and the families of those who had been killed – so as to put faces to names so that our audience could connect on a human level: that these are not just unnamed people in a faraway land; they are mothers and brothers and sons who had suffered great loss.

We wanted to speak to the UN in Afghanistan, to local investigators, de-miners, and elders, and to track down documentation to get as full a picture as possible, to establish whether what the Defence Forces claimed, was right.

Video investigation

Our resulting video investigation, Life + Limb, revealed that 17 Afghan civilians had been killed or injured from unexploded ordnance on New Zealand firing ranges.

The documentary revealed the story of exactly what had happened, to whom, and where: and the facts were in stark contrast to what the New Zealand Defence Force had told us.

We structured and edited the video in a way which we hoped would pull the viewer in and keep them. These were important revelations, so we chose opening and closing shots of three mothers grieving for their seven children, killed in one explosion, because we wanted to provide an instant way for people to connect.

‘You are the first’

When we sat down to interview them, they told us they had not heard from any New Zealand authorities since the incident – in fact, from anyone at all from New Zealand.

“You are the first,” one of them told us, five years after the death of her children.

But the mothers did not really care whose unexploded ammunition was responsible for killing their children.

They just wanted the firing ranges cleaned up so that nobody else would be killed.

Ardern’s response

Within 24 hours of our documentary being aired, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern summoned the chiefs of the Defence Forces to Parliament, and ordered them to urgently clean up all of the unexploded ordnance at the New Zealand firing ranges in Afghanistan.

In an interview with Stuff Circuit, the PM had a message to the families: “We have a responsibility to clear our sites and we will: it’s taken too long in my view.”

Link to the full video:

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Published on September 28, 2020
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