Ten years after the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, a project to restore them is in doubt. Meanwhile, Bamiyan residents live in poverty in caves nearby, not sure what to make of their strange heritage.
Unesco bid to rebuild Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas falters
BAMIYAN // The sun is setting over the Bamiyan Valley cradled deep in central Afghanistan's Hindu Kush range, and Said Talib, a 26-year-old guard with unkempt hair and an ill-fitting uniform, stumbles barefoot out of a makeshift encampment and into the warm, twilight glow next to where the area's famed, twin Buddha statues once stood.
"I am responsible for guarding these Buddhas," he says, reaching back inside the hut for his cup of green tea. "What do you want to know?"
Mr Talib is one of eight local guards hired by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (Unesco) to protect the massive, hollow caverns that once housed Bamiyan's 2,000-year-old Buddhas, before the Taliban destroyed them with dynamite and rocket-propelled grenades in a fundamentalist frenzy 10 years ago this month.
On the tenth anniversary of their destruction, Unesco, which is spearheading the effort to preserve the remains, held a meeting in its Paris headquarters between Afghan, German, Italian and Japanese experts to decide on the future of the site.
Museums should be built in Bamiyan and a feasibility study undertaken to determine if partial reassembly of the smaller Buddha, which stood 37 metres tall, is possible, the Unesco group said in its March 2-4 conference. For now, total reconstruction of either Buddha, the larger of which was 55 metres high, would not be considered. The site remains on the list of official Unesco World Heritage sites, however.
But here in Bamiyan, an isolated hamlet where life now ebbs and flows as gently as the modest river that cuts through the valley, the ragtag facilities of Mr Talib and his colleagues at the ministry of culture and youth affairs are - quite literally - a world away from Unesco's pristine Paris headquarters.
The residents of Bamiyan province, about 400,000 mainly Shiite Hazaras who trace their roots to Mongolian invaders and who suffered greatly under the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban regime, say they feel marginalised by the foreign-led process to preserve and make use of their stunning heritage. Locals say they have watched millions of dollars in aid money pour in over the years, only to be siphoned off by corrupt provincial and central government officials.
"Everyone is deciding outside of Bamiyan what do to with the Buddhas and nobody has ever asked the people of Bamiyan: do you want to rebuild or keep the Buddhas - what do you want?" says Sher Ali Samimi, a professor of history at Bamiyan University.
"Here in Bamiyan, we are all in the dark. Is there money to rebuild the Buddhas? Is there a lack of budget? Nobody knows."
According to Unesco, since 2004 donor governments have spent US$4 million (Dh14.7m) on a three-phase project to map a strategy to preserve the Buddhas, but the human poverty that continues to surround the majestic ruins is glaring.
Clinging to the site where the Buddhas once stood are jobless squatters living in ancient, monastic caves. Outside the Buddha complex, just two wooden signs, painted with the Unesco logo and covered in dust, announce the Buddhas' "unique importance to humankind".
"We don't have enough funding to take care of the site properly; right now we are just passing the time," says Abdul Jalia Hamad, head of the department for the restoration and preservation of historic monuments in Bamiyan.
"My monthly salary is just $80," he says. "And the ministry of culture's budget for all of Bamiyan is just $7,000 per year. People are living in the caves here and destroying some of the historical site, but how can we tell them to leave when we don't have a plan?"
Indeed, the government office selling tickets to visit the site runs solely on a diesel-fuelled generator, while a single Afghan national police officer naps in the shade nearby.
On a tour of the Buddha complex with Mohammed, another young guard who says he has yet to be trained on how to handle or care for the site, large fragments of the Buddhas can be seen strewn about.
Exposed to the elements of Bamiyan's harsh winters and searingly hot summers - and closed-off by a simple, wire-mesh fence - artefacts have either been damaged or looted by local smugglers for sale on the black market, officials believe.
Other pieces are locked up in wooden sheds built by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the conservation of some of the world's most historic monuments. Local people have even collected and saved fragments of the rockets and dynamite used by the Taliban to bring the Buddhas down.
Mr Hamad says about 800 foreigners and 1,000 Afghans visit the site of the Buddhas each year. Bamiyan reigns as one of the safest places in Afghanistan as a Taliban insurgency rages elsewhere in the country, but there are currently no commercial flights to the region and portions of the bone-jarring road from Kabul to Bamiyan are laced with road bombs and watched by active Taliban insurgents.
And while the story of the Buddhas - both their history and untimely destruction - has captured the attention of historians and scholars worldwide, Bamiyan residents view the Buddhas with a degree of passive indifference.
"I heard the government wants to rebuild the Buddhas; our grandfathers and elders told us they are important for Bamiyan," says Sifat Ali, a day labourer who lives with his wife and eight children in a cave near the Buddhas. "If tourists come, and it is good for Bamiyan, then we support this. But right now, we just want to improve our lives."
In sharp contrast to the Taliban's austere interpretation of Islamic law, which the group said compelled them to destroy the Buddhist-inspired statues, Bamiyan natives fail to see the Buddhas as an affront to their Muslim faith. Rather, the Buddhas are a testament to area's rich, diverse history as a crossroads of religions, cultures and empires along the ancient Silk Road, they say.
In the remote district of Yakawlang, an area where, according to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban massacred 300 civilians in January 2001, 55-year-old Mohammed, a local mullah, ruminates on how Islam has guided him to accept and support the Buddhas. "The Buddhas were built hundreds of years before Islam came to Afghanistan. Why should we destroy this history? Who are we to make this decision?" he asks.
Hours from anything that remotely resembles a road, Mohammed reaches inside his jacket pocket to retrieve a small leather notebook in which, after having learnt to read under the Soviet-backed communist regime in the 1970s, he has jotted down numerous notes on the history of Islam in Afghanistan.
"I tell the faithful at my mosque: the Buddhas are symbols of a strong Bamiyan and an even stronger Afghanistan," Mohammed says, reading from his tattered notebook.
"Six hundred and forty-one years after Islam, Genghis Khan destroyed some of our most important cities, and we do not praise him. We should rebuild the Buddhas for our economy, but also because we should be the keepers of our own history."