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Graphic Art

Mark Luce's poster collection mirrors a bloody corner of the world.



Mark Luce has a habit of being in foreign lands around the time of major civil upheavals. He graduated from high school in Tripoli in 1969, not long before Colonel Gadhafi overthrew Libya's king. He fled Iran, where he was teaching English, during the 1979 Islamic revolution. Several leading sheikhs died during the time he was working in the United Arab Emirates, and in 1996 he left his post as director of a business school in Albania just before a nationwide pyramid scheme wiped out much of the population's savings.

Luce was stateside on September 11, though nowhere near Manhattan or the Pentagon, having just entered the PhD program in the University of Chicago's department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He'd come to study bi- and trilingual poets of tenth-century central Asia, but he'd brought with him some more recent artifacts from that region--political posters from Afghanistan.

It had been the first country he'd worked in after college. His father was an air force chaplain, so he was used to pulling up stakes. Those early moves developed his interest in the Middle East and central Asia, and in the early 70s he joined the Peace Corps and taught English at a school in Ghazni, a midsize city between Kabul and Kandahar.

Back then Afghanistan was at peace and the recipient of a bounty of developmental aid from a variety of countries, notably the U.S. and USSR. But it was hardly prosperous or politically stable. Soviet-educated Afghans had been returning home to teach and were producing more high school graduates than ever, few of whom could find jobs. Midway through Luce's two-year stint, King Mohammed Zahir Shah was deposed, and the influence of the communists grew. Luce saw the writing on the wall when a riot erupted at his school, pitting student supporters of an Islamic group against two communist teachers. "I had one student who had been thrown out of Paktia province for communist agitation," he says. "He had his head shaved without water in the public square, which was a big disgrace. He was telling me all these crazy things, like 'Rockefeller has a factory. And it's got millions of people in it. And it's called Belgium.'"

In 1973 Luce came back to the States, where he earned a master's degree in Persian and Arabic, then took on a series of teaching jobs around the Middle East and in the United States. But he kept his eye on Afghanistan, where the communists continued their ascendance. In 1978, after another coup, the Islamists declared a jihad against the Soviet-puppet government, and the following year the Soviet army invaded, initiating ten years of war and chasing almost five million refugees out of the country--about a fourth of the population and about a third of refugees worldwide.

"Around 1985," says Luce, "when the Soviets took a look at six years in Afghanistan and saw that they were getting nowhere fast and they were actually losing ground, they decided what they needed to do was to come up with a new strategy. And that strategy was just to carpet bomb. That increased the numbers of refugees into Pakistan and Iran, and at the same time really raised the clamor amongst the Islamic world to come to the aid of their Afghan brothers. That's when there was a really rapid increase in the number of Arabs that went to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen. The U.S. government decided they needed to try to organize the Afghans into some kind of shadow government so that there would be something in place once there was a vacuum."

This government-in-exile, an alliance of various Afghan political parties, was based in Peshawar, Pakistan. There it started an anti-Soviet propaganda campaign intended to stir the blood of the refugee community and raise money abroad to supplement the billions of dollars the CIA was giving the mujahideen.

In 1987 Luce and his wife moved to Pakistan, where he taught in the English department at the University of Peshawar. But student strikes interrupted his classes so frequently that he started looking for another position. His wife was teaching English for the International Rescue Committee, which operated an enormous relief program in the Afghan refugee camps, and Luce had other contacts in the organization from his Peace Corps days. Soon he was working as an IRC administrator.

It was then that he began to see posters appearing in schools and in the offices of the Afghan shadow ministries that denounced the Soviets and encouraged resistance. They were written in English, Pashto, Persian, and Arabic, but for the benefit of the illiterate they were also colorful, graphic, and unambiguous in their message: the mujahideen were righteous, and the Soviets and their puppets had to be driven out.

Recognizing the future historical value of the posters, Luce asked his Afghan and Pakistani friends to grab them whenever they could. Illustrated in bloody red and Islamic green, and accented with Koranic verse and anti-Soviet slogans, the posters are broad caricatures of good versus evil. A Russian bear drips blood as it steps on the throat of an Afghan woman. A giant Soviet bomb plummets toward a family huddled in front of their ruined village. A veiled woman hoisting a Kalashnikov above her head is superimposed on a map of Afghanistan. Many of the posters are signed by the same artist, A.H. Ashna. A typical Ashna poster, done to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the communist takeover, shows a Russian tank bulldozing its way down a wrecked street in pursuit of a squalling child.

Luce's favorite poster depicts a screaming boy tearing a Soviet flag in half, over the caption "Afghanistan: The End of Aggression." "That one brings back memories," he says. "I remember going to one Afghan event. Of course they started out with Koranic recitation, but then they had a little three-year-old get up on the stage burning a Russian flag."

Other posters are photographs. One was taken over the shoulder of a mujahideen aiming a machine gun; the caption states simply, "This is a unique solution," meaning the only solution. Another shows dead Afghan children lined up in a neat row on the ground.

Before the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, relief organizations and the UN were preparing for the repatriation of millions of Afghans. But many millions of Russian-made land mines littered the country. Atypically, they weren't simply distributed along the borders; they'd been scattered everywhere--on roads, around cities, in fields--by all sides in the conflict. And most were antipersonnel, not antitank mines--specifically designed to maim and kill. Sometimes mines had been stacked on top of mines to catch deminers unaware, and "butterfly" mines had been dropped from airplanes by the thousands. "They were pretty and were different colors, so kids really liked them," says Luce. "And they had just enough explosive to blow your hand off."

The IRC was charged with designing and implementing a land-mine awareness campaign for the refugees, and Luce was assigned to head it. His plan was to teach a group of Afghans how the mines worked, then arm these educators with a set of washable, silk-screened cloths that illustrated the various types, the consequences of tripping them, and what to do if you find one. "The idea was that once the Afghans started to return, then this program would also go across the border with them."

The project seemed simple enough, but it turned out to be a mine field of a different sort. Military officials who were to teach Afghans to clear mines complained that Luce's project wouldn't work. The French were kicked out of the program for espionage--for collecting information on mine technology. And the UN objected to depictions of people getting blown up. Luce says officials told him, "'We don't want them to be bloody and gory. We don't want a program that's going to scare people, so they're afraid of going back.' And people said, 'Hey, it's totally perverse to try to have a land-mine-awareness campaign that's bloodless. These people have seen worse in real life.'"

Eventually Luce prevailed, and the silk screens were produced. Few have text. Instead stark cartoon panels depict Afghans stumbling haplessly onto mines and being blinded or losing limbs. One shows a child wandering away from his distracted parents to examine a butterfly mine; in the final panel the parents react with shock as it explodes in the child's face. Another is aimed at children and illustrates step-by-step what a boy does when he finds a mine: he carefully backs away in his own footsteps, marks the spot, and fetches an adult.

In 1991 Luce left to head a similar campaign for Cambodian refugees in Thailand, and an Afghan organization took over the project, though he's not sure how it fared in the subsequent years of civil war. For the next nine years he carried the posters and a set of the silk screens around with him to Thailand, Albania, and Jordan, along with an intricate handwoven rug his wife commissioned for his birthday that depicts all the varieties of Russian land mines with their Cyrillic labels. When he arrived in Chicago, he decided to donate his posters and silk screens, as well as a set of Cambodian land-mine teaching aids, to the U. of C.'s Regenstein Library, which has a large collection of propaganda and advertisements from the Middle East. The library is restoring and scanning the images, and will eventually display them on-line.

Luce doesn't intend to hole up in Hyde Park any longer than it takes him to get his degree. He plans to travel and teach again--though not about land mines--and he hopes his research on central Asian poets will take him back to Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.

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