Afghanistan’s monumental destruction

USA Today
March 14, 2002, Thursday, Final Edition
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
LENGTH: 1500 words

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — The morning mist rises first, then the smoke from the wood stoves as the morning sky shifts from pale yellow to pink to blue. Slowly, the curtain parts, revealing the mountain bathed in dawning light that illuminates the soul.

In the very heart of the Hindu Kush mountain range is a testament to one of man’s greatest achievements, the Colossal Buddhas. But when the sun strikes the mountainside directly, the rays highlight the black holes where the sculpted Buddhas once stood. Carved out of the steep rock in the fourth and seventh century, the statues were blasted off the face of the mountain in the 21st century by the Taliban.

“It took them 17 days to destroy the two big Buddhas,” says Sayed Qiam, 46, who worked for five years at the generator at the foot of the statues. Qiam claims two local workers died of fright when they were lowered by ropes from the top of the Buddhas to drill dynamite holes. “Their hearts just stopped,” he says. And when the dynamite exploded “it was a very white dust, then a very thick and black dust of the bomb.”

An attack on a culture

The destruction of the Buddhas was the most vivid strike of the Taliban’s jihad against Afghanistan’s textured culture and history. Before the Taliban took control in 1996 and before the civil war that engulfed the nation in the early 1990s, archaeologists and historians came here to catalogue its treasures and history. Today, the same scholars are grimly considering the best ways to catalogue the destruction.

The savaging of Afghanistan’s history and culture ranges from the most remote parts of the nation, such as Bamiyan, to what used to be its artistic heart, Kabul. Above the entrance to the now-decimated Kabul Museum is a new sign put up after the Taliban were driven out of the capital. It reads: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.”

If this is true, Afghanistan is on life support.

“The destruction has lasted more than 22 years,” says Abdullah Wassay Ferozi, director general of the Afghanistan Center of Archaeology. “The looting and then the Taliban. They totally destroyed everything they could, all the objects which introduced the previous Afghanistan history.”

Ferozi has been appointed by the new Afghan government to survey the damage and devise a plan to rebuild where possible and preserve what remains. He is glum about what he will find: “At least 75% of the objects were destroyed and looted over the past 10 years,” Ferozi says. Even the equipment needed to conduct surveys and excavations was destroyed.

The Taliban arrived in Bamiyan on Sept. 13, 1998, and they immediately turned off the lights that illuminated the Buddhas at night. Five days later, they dynamited the head of the smaller of the two Colossal Buddhas. They then fired rockets at the statue’s groin, damaging the luxurious folds of the figure and destroying nearby frescos.

The two Buddhas were hewn with the classical features of all sub-continental Buddhas, but the figures were draped in Greek robes. The combination represented the unique fusion of classical Indian and Central Asian art with Hellenism, introduced by the armies of Alexander the Great. They were one of the wonders of the ancient world, visited by pilgrims from China and India.

Their presence was first recorded in 632 by Hiuan Tsang, a Chinese monk visiting Bamiyan, then a major center for Buddhist study. He described the larger Buddha as “glittering with gold and precious ornaments.” They survived countless invasions, including those of Genghis Khan, although the larger Buddha was hit with artillery by a 17th-century Mongol commander.

But they never faced an enemy like the Taliban. In January 2001 the Taliban razed a second-century B.C. Buddhist complex in Ghanzi. Then, on Feb. 26, 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict that the Colossal Buddhas must be destroyed because they violated Islamic bans on human images and idolatry. Several governments and museums offered to remove the statues and even buy them to help the cash-strapped Taliban government, but Omar refused.

“The first day the Taliban defense minister and other people came by helicopter from Kabul,” says Gen. Haji Mohammed Jawhari, the military commander in Bamiyan. “They read an order on the paper from Mullah Omar at the end of the meeting. It said that Mullah Omar ordered the soldiers to destroy Buddha. He said that the Afghan people are Muslim people and they should not leave the statues (standing) and that sometimes people worshiped them as gods.”

Jawhari dismissed that charge that the local people worshiped the statues. “No, never. They never loved them as a god, they loved them as history. They made Bamiyan proud and a famous and important province known around the world.”

The same wrath was unleashed on the Kabul Museum.

Lions used to flank the entrance to the museum, much like those at each side of the entrance to the New York Public Library. They were blown apart and now two heavy machine guns sit in their place. Only a few parts of the museum roof remain in the windowless building. The museum once housed the most comprehensive record of Central Asian history. Many of its pieces dated as far back as prehistoric times.

The curator, Yehya Mohibzada, remembers when the Taliban came with the hammers and rocks, shouting, “God is great!” as they began to destroy the museum’s treasures. It went on for three days, led by Mullah Qadradullah Jamal, the Taliban minister of culture.

“It’s not hard material. It was not difficult to destroy,” Mohibzada says.

First to go was a statue of Kanishka, the Kushkani king who ruled in the second century in northern India and Central Asia. It was the only known likeness of him.

Mohibzada estimates about 70% of the collection has been destroyed and another 20% lost or missing. There are about 2,500 pieces they hope to repair. For now, the pieces are wrapped in thick brown paper, labeled and numbered for repairs and reconstruction.

The rout of the Taliban saved some of the museum’s work. In one back room there are dozens of old vases, gathered by the Taliban for shipment to Pakistan for sale.

Some rare museum pieces were smuggled out and hidden. They remain hidden today, part of a successful guerrilla effort by artists, curators, museum staffs and sympathetic watchmen to save some of Afghanistan’s heritage. “We don’t want to explain (how they smuggled out the items), but we have it in a safe place.” Mohibzada says.

The effort was often aided by the Taliban’s ignorance of culture. In the museum, for example, the staff was able to foil the Taliban by turning elaborate Buddhist works backward so the plain side was hanging. They would scratch in some Islamic verses and tell the Taliban it was a rare Islamic tract.

Saving a collection

A more elaborate effort was underway at the National Gallery to save that collection.

The National Gallery opened in 1983 with 200 paintings, expanding to about 800 by the 1990s civil war. About half were destroyed in the civil war. The Taliban destroyed about another 200 paintings showing animals and the human body. Then the guerrilla campaign kicked into gear.

Yousef Asefie, a gallery employee, saved the bulk of the work.

In a three-month stretch, working about 90 minutes a day, Asefie, an artist, used watercolors to paint over the humans and the animals of 122 paintings. If the painting had glass over it, he would simply apply the watercolor onto the glass over the offending figures. Otherwise, the watercolor would go right onto the oil, turning flower girls into flowers, fishermen into rocks and water, and geese into lilies.

“I would take them in the other room (at the gallery) under the pretext of repairing them,” says Asefie, 40.

“I was scared (when the Taliban were looking at the paintings) because I knew this, but they didn’t know the difference in this paint. I was shaking.” Had they discovered his subterfuge, his fate would have been death.

He now spends his days repairing damaged painting and removing the watercolors he had applied to conceal the artwork.

Bringing back other parts of Afghanistan’s lost history and treasure will not be as simple. Almost every invader or local warlord has taken a share of plunder. But history also provides inspiration. “This nation always has been able to rebuild itself,” says Raheem Makhdoom, minister for culture and information. “When Genghis Khan attacked Herat, it was probably the best city and the most cultural in the world. He completely destroyed the city, burned everything and killed all but 16 people who were out of the city. They came back and rebuilt it, and it came back to have a renaissance and music and art and poetry.”

“We start from zero,” Makhdoom says. “We have to rebuild the national confidence. We have to do that. I want to do that.”

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