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20 years in Afghanistan: An eyewitness story

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
November 10, 2021

The documentary "My Childhood, My Country" follows an Afghan who lived in the Bamiyan caves as a young boy and grew up to see the Taliban reoccupy his country.

A little boy points his fist at the camera
Eight-year-old Mir Hussein at his home in BamiyanImage: Phil Grabsky

The opening scene of "My Childhood, My Country" begins with the sound of a bomb taking off, interspersed with sirens and frantic voices of men and women.

Another scene shows a view of Kabul's bustling streets in the 1980s, when women walked around freely wearing clothes of their choice.

In the background, a voice says, "My name is Mir. This is my story and the story of my country."

Directed by Brighton-based filmmaker Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi, who initially worked as an interpreter for the English film director, "My Childhood, My Country" tells the story of Mir Hussein, from 2001 to 2021.

"My Childhood, My Country" was co-produced by Grabsky's Seventh-Art Production and German public Broadcaster Westdeutsche Rundfunk (WDR), and in cooperation with French media house Arte. It combines Grabsky's first film, called "The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas in Bamiyan," released in 2004 and his second film following the same Afghan, "The Boy Mir" (2011).

Filming in Afghanistan

Mir, as Hussein is referred to in the film, tells his story beginning in the early 2000s, shortly before the US invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.

The Taliban government, under their 1996-2001 rule, had imposed a strict Sharia-based system that severely restricted the freedom of women, closed down schools and effectively took the country decades back in terms of development.

Phil Grabsky, who has made several documentaries for BBC's Channel F4, decided to start filming in the country to find out more about Afghans for himself. "I wanted to go to Afghanistan to find out who these people really are. The men can't all be bearded, dangerous terrorists and the women can't all be mute behind their burqas," the director said.

The advent of Sony's Handycam, which was easy to carry compared to standard heavy filming equipment at the time, made the decision easy, Grabsky said in a public discussion with WDR journalist Christiane Hinz during the Cologne Film festival in October 2021.

Phil Grabsky (center) with WDR's Jutta Krug (left), Christiane Hinz (right) and other journalists
Director Phil Grabsky (center) and members of his crew: 'My Childhood, My Country' won the Phoenix prize at the Cologne Film Festival 2021Image: Ying Tang/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Finding a story

"I went to make a film, but I didn't know what the story would be," Grabsky said, adding that he wanted to shoot in Bamiyan and latched on to a UN convoy that was going there. He had heard from a journalist friend of people living in the caves in Bamiyan and thought he'd find an adult man who'd be ready to tell his story.

"But the adult males were exhausted, they were depressed, they weren't doing anything. They were just sitting around drinking tea." And then, Grabsky spotted the young Mir, who was just 8 years old at that time.

"I realized a number of things. If I made a film about him, the audience would think: Where is Afghanistan going? What type of country is he going to grow up in?" Grabsky recalled, knowing that the boy's story would also evoke questions about the impact of the West's financial aid.

From cave dweller to cameraman

In the film, Mir Hussein's life is set against the trajectory of Afghanistan's upward progress from a conservative, underdeveloped nation.

Mir's family initially lived in a cave in the hill which once housed the Bamiyan Buddhas.Scenes in the film show young boys directing the filmmaker to rooms in the hillsides that still had sculptures carved on their roofs and stubs of statues that were destroyed by the Taliban. Mir himself lived in one cave with his grandmother and his father.

Over the years, Mir Hussein transforms from a cave-dwelling boy to a young man, who drops out of school and works in a mine. According to Afghan custom, he marries early and has two sons with his wife.

After years of failing to find real work, Mir moves to the capital, Kabul, and decides to train as a cameraman. Many scenes in the film have been shot by Mir Hussein himself.

Things could have started looking up for the Afghan at this point, but then came US President Donald Trump's announcement that a withdrawal agreement had been signed with the Taliban. His successor, Joe Biden also confirmed that US troops were "coming back home" from Afghanistan in September 2021. Germany, UK and other NATO member states followed soon after.

Destroyed Buddha statues come back to life

The Taliban's return

"There will be war because the Taliban cannot be stopped," Mir says in a scene in "My Childhood, My Country" that was shot in 2021, some months before the militants took over the country's government.

His wife adds: "One half of the people want the Taliban, the other half don't. The Taliban's return is worrying because it will oppress people." She is aware that women will be punished if they don't maintain their modesty and wear a hijab. "The Taliban believe they are real Muslims."

Shortly after this recording, Kabul was taken over by the Taliban. Speaking in Cologne, director Phil Grabsky says that in the months preceding the withdrawal, Mir Hussein himself came very close to being killed in a suicide attack. But the Afghan is safe and carefully following events in his country, like many other people who have stayed back, the filmmaker says.

Maybe the fact that Mir Hussein is a man will help him survive, together with his pragmatism and sense of humor, Grabsky says. "He is a remarkable young man and I was very lucky to have followed his life."

German viewers can watch the first two films about Mir Hussein in the ARD media library.

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.