Home Culture Culture The 20-year story of one Afghan’s journey

The 20-year story of one Afghan’s journey

The 20-year story of one Afghan’s journey
The life of Mir Hussain is chronicled in the documentary “My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan." (Photo: Seventh Art Productions)

The life of Mir Hussain, chronicled in the documentary “My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan,” feels distant and foreign yet at the same time deeply relatable and personal. It also offers audiences the rare privilege of not only following a person’s life over two decades, but doing so in a country whose inhabitants are either seen as perpetrators of war or victims of it — not as ordinary people like us.

Of course, Mir’s journey is far from ordinary as he navigates childhood living inside the caves of Bamiyan — where the Taliban destroyed the country’s famed Buddha statues and where Mir’s family struggles to survive — to filming suicide bombings in Kabul as a cameraman working to support his own young family.

As he matures from boy to man, we become deeply invested in Mir’s future — one that is all the more unpredictable now that the Taliban has returned to power.

In fact, the hasty American exit from Afghanistan is precisely where the documentary ends, with a haunting image of Mir filming the last U.S. flight out of Kabul.

“I’d always known [the Taliban] were going to take over again, so the film was actually driven to that conclusion,” Phil Grabsky, who co-directed the documentary with his Afghan counterpart, Shoaib Sharifi, told The Washington Diplomat via Zoom from London.

Grabsky never intended for the project to span 20 years. After 9/11, “I just became intrigued to know who are the Afghan people really — they can’t all be terrorists, they can’t all be mute women under their burkas,” he said.

So he hopped on a plane and picked up a local translator in search of a story, eventually winding up at the blown-up statues of Bamiyan, where families eked out a living inside some 200 caves along the cliffside.

That included Mir’s family, who had fled their village to escape famine, only to find an equally destitute existence in the caves.

Despite the bleak circumstances, Mir is your typical 8-year-old boy — plucky, adorable and mischievous as he and his friends play amid the wreckage of tanks left over from the Soviet invasion.

Grabsky said he was instantly drawn to Mir.

Mir grew up living inside the caves of Bamiyan, where the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s famed Buddha statues. (Photo: Seventh Art Productions)

“We started to engage a little bit. I didn’t speak his language, he didn’t speak mine, but I suddenly realized that he was very cute, very smiley, so he’s very engaging. And I just had an epiphany, which is the best decision I’ve made in 250 films, which is he’s the story,” Grabsky said.

“Because if I film him, over a course of a year … two things: One, I don’t know where the story will take me, but at least it’ll be energetic and funny, and two, the audience will start thinking about the future. What is going to be the Afghanistan that he’s going to grow up in?”

The question gnawed at Grabsky as well because he had no idea if Mir had even survived the winter.

So after releasing “The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan” in 2004, Grabsky decided he needed to follow Mir for 10 years “to really get a sense if all this military campaigning and all the aid spent is going to make any difference.”

Perhaps it could have, Grabsky said, had the U.S. government not spent 30 times more money on military expenditures than on aid.

But he said there’s plenty of blame to go around for the money pit that Afghanistan became.

“When you talk to Afghans over the last 10, 15 years, their number one concern actually wasn’t the Taliban or even the Western military. It was corruption. Corruption is a terrible thing,” he said. “The Afghan government and Afghan officials have to take responsibility for that, but us going in with suitcases full of cash didn’t help.”

Mir himself at one point wonders why “there is no peace, no development? Where are all the billions of dollars the Americans had brought to the country?”

But Grabsky doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the war was a complete waste.

“It has to be said that things were achieved. One example is that when I first started, there were no mobile phones in Afghanistan. Now, everybody has a mobile phone … people can communicate with the outside world, and they see the outside world,” Grabsky said, noting that child mortality also plummeted and an estimated 5 million landmines left by the Soviets have been cleared.

Mir himself goes from the brink of starvation as a child to buying a motorbike as a teenager to becoming a cameraman in Kabul.

As Grabsky put it, Afghanistan “is a myriad of shades of gray.”

We see this throughout the film as we watch Mir’s evolution on the one hand, contrasted with the devolution of the U.S.-led military campaign, which is conveyed through news reels showing a parade of leaders — from George W. Bush to Angela Merkel to Barack Obama — extolling the progress made in Afghanistan while downplaying the Taliban’s relentless rise.

Yet as omnipresent as the violence is, Afghanistan’s grinding poverty is the larger force that shapes Mir’s life.

“The thing that struck me very quickly, which is such an important part of the film, is that they are desperately, desperately poor. And to understand a country like Afghanistan, that is the number one thing you have to understand — is that they are people like you and me, but are desperately poor,” Grabsky said.

“They’re having to spend all day going to a river to collect [water]. Hopefully they’ve got containers to collect the stream, which hopefully hasn’t dried up. It’s a deforested nation, so they have to find twigs or kindling to start a fire, which they then have to burn inside their caves … just to have the clean water.”

Mir eventually stops going to school and works in the coal mines to make money. (Photo: Seventh Art Productions)

Mir eventually stops going to school because he has to plough the fields. His father says that while he doesn’t want to “send the poor lad to work … if we don’t plough, we don’t eat.”

While most of us can’t relate to Mir’s predicament, what’s striking about the film is just how relatable it is.

Grabsky points out that Afghans “are no less smart than you and me.” They’re ambitious and have the same hopes for the future that many of us do.

Mir’s father wants his son to go to school. “I want to see him dressed in a suit,” he says in the film.

As a child, Mir’s “pool” may be a muddy pit in the ground, but he’s thrilled to play in it with relatives just as any American kid would.

Later in life, when he’s filming a soccer match in a sports stadium, Mir jokes that his wife — stuck at home with three young children — questions if he’s really working “or playing around and checking other women out.”

And like his father, Mir encourages his own children to study and not give up on school like he did.

Mir never seems to lose the hopeful innocence of his youth. That’s not to say he’s naïve to the harsh realities around him, but there’s little time to complain. He accepts, adapts and plows ahead.

When he has to get married, Mir laments that he is too young to be a husband. “I was confused,” he says, “but then I learned.”

Mir works in the coal mines because the money is relatively good. When the backbreaking work becomes too much, he saves enough to move his family to Mazar-e Sharif. When he can’t find a job there, he moves to Kabul and learns to become a news cameraman, a profession he says “gave him purpose.”

But that work wasn’t easy either because it often involved filming the gruesome aftermath of Taliban suicide bombings, including one that nearly killed him.

“I was amazed by Mir in that he just maintained this kind of optimism and enthusiasm and humor throughout,” Grabsky said.

Yet the bombings are a reminder of just how tenuous Mir’s new life is.

His wife anguishes over what will happen if the Taliban returns to power.

Meanwhile, Mir astutely remarks that “no superpower exists that can defeat the Taliban.”

Grabsky couldn’t agree more.

“There was certainly never any chance of defeating the Taliban,” he told us. “Just to make a contemporary comparison, I think the Russians are discovering that they will never defeat Ukrainians. I think the Taliban were always willing to live in caves for 20, 30 years.”

The filmmaker said the U.S. needs to face facts and engage with the Taliban, which he called “more pragmatic” than the previous regime.

“Their history is one of murder, patriarchy … it’s just terrible what some of them have done. But you’re never going to bring them to trial,” he said. “The people of Afghanistan are not going to rise up against the Taliban — that moment has been missed — and we’re never going to send troops back in, so the only way is to deal with them.”

Grabsky said that includes releasing the $7 billion in Afghan reserves frozen in U.S. banks — and not splitting that money with the families of the victims of 9/11, as President Biden has said he wants to do.

“It’s a terrible decision. There were no Afghans on any of those planes,” Grabsky said. “What you’ve done by basically stealing that money is that’s money Afghanistan desperately needs to create this administration to feed its poor.

“So for many Afghans, it’s come back to that, where their major concern at the moment is having enough to eat and clean water.”

At the same time, there are no more suicide bombings and the streets are relatively safe to walk again, “so it’s a confused picture.”

With many media organizations shut down, Mir lost his job as a cameraman and is doing other work to keep his family fed.

As an adult, Mir learns to become a cameraman when he takes his family to live in Kabul. (Photo: Seventh Art Productions)

But Grabsky said Mir has no plans to leave his homeland. “He has always wanted to stay in Afghanistan and work toward building a better, stronger, brighter Afghanistan.”

As for the next chapter of Mir’s life, the filmmaker suggested that story might be up to Mir himself to tell down the line if the situation becomes safer.

For now, Grabsky is still working to get “My Childhood,” which came out last summer, noticed. “If the Taliban hadn’t taken Afghanistan, I’m not sure some of the broadcasters we did get would’ve shown it,” he said, calling that “depressing.”

The film has had various festival screenings and can be seen in countries such as Canada and Mexico. “In fact, really the only major nation that has not yet bought it, in terms of television, is the United States, which I think is deplorable,” Grabsky said. “I genuinely don’t understand how a country that spent between $1 and $2 trillion, and had 2,500 soldiers killed …  how there can be no interest to kind of have a look at what happened. Channels are saying, ‘Well, our audiences aren’t interested in this.’ They’re not interested because you’re not showing it to them.”

Perhaps that’s because Americans have become so accustomed to the binary view of Afghans as villains or victims, which is a shame because “My Childhood” presents a nuanced picture of a country that Grabsky said we shouldn’t forget.

That realistic portrayal seems to be appreciated by Afghans themselves, who Grabsky said have been the film’s strongest supporters.

“They love it because they say, ‘We’ve never seen an Afghan family on screen like this ever.’”

In this way, Mir’s perseverance is not unique — it’s shared by a nation perpetually at war — although it’s inspirational nonetheless.

Even with the Taliban closing in on him toward the end of the film, Mir is sanguine. “The more we worry, the more we stress,” he says. “We have to be happy, whatever happens.”

“My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan” will be available to download on https://seventh-art.com in May.  

Anna Gawel is editor-at-large of The Washington Diplomat.