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Afghan Town Picking Up Pieces of Buddhas

A UNESCO project is sorting and sheltering the remains of two huge statues blown up by the Taliban. Residents hope they will be rebuilt.

September 17, 2006|Rahim Faiez | Associated Press Writer

BAMIAN, Afghanistan — Five years after the Taliban blew them up, Afghan laborers are picking up the pieces of two once-towering Buddha statues, hoping they will rise again and breathe new life into this dirt-poor province.

While they wait for the Afghan government and international community to decide whether to rebuild them, a $1.3-million UNESCO-funded project is sorting out the chunks of clay and plaster -- ranging from boulders weighing several tons to fragments the size of tennis balls -- and sheltering them from the elements.

Progress is slow in the central highland town of Bamian, where the statues were chiseled more than 1,500 years ago into a cliff face about quarter of a mile apart.

They were originally painted in gold and adorned with wooden faces and ornaments. Mural paintings of Buddha images covered cave rooftops flanking the niches from which the statues were hewn. Fragments of the murals also are being collected.

Rebuilding the statues, one 175 feet tall and the other 120 feet, will be like assembling giant jigsaw puzzles.

The town of Bamian, so poor that dozens of its people live in caves, has high hopes.

"We can change the local people's lives from being dominated by poverty if we rebuild one of the Buddha statues," said Habiba Sarabi, governor of Bamian province. She is Afghanistan's first female governor.

The province, on the ancient Silk Road that linked Europe to East Asia, was once a center of Buddhism. Today most of its 400,000 people are Hazaras, a largely Shiite Muslim ethnic group that was persecuted by the Taliban during its 1997-2001 rule.

The Taliban blew up the Buddha statues in March 2001, deeming them idolatrous and anti-Muslim. It was one of the fundamentalist Islamic regime's most widely condemned acts.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has since placed the entire Bamian Valley region on its World Heritage in Danger list.

"Our job is to safeguard the pieces left from the Buddha statues and put the fragments in a shelter," said Ernst Blochinger, a German expert with the International Council on Monuments and Sites. The Paris-based group is working with UNESCO on the project, which began in 2004 and is due for completion in 14 months.

The project relies heavily on Japanese funding. Rebuilding the statues would cost about $60 million, scientists say.

"Whenever UNESCO finishes its work, we will appeal to the international community to try find the funds to rebuild at least one Buddha statue," said Sarabi, the governor.

Bamian Valley is a starkly beautiful region. Dominated by mountain ranges, it includes the vast Band-i-Amir lake and the red stone ruins of the once-great city of Shahr-i-Zuhak. Tourists still trickle in despite a lack of amenities and a road from Kabul that is in such bad shape that the 80-mile journey takes nine hours.

Mohammed Abraham, who earns $5 a day working on the UNESCO project, remembers when hundreds of tourists came to marvel at the Buddha statues and buy handicrafts.

"Everyone here was very happy and rich compared to now," said Abraham, who lives with his eight children in a cave, without power or water, near where the larger statue stood.

"Now Bamian's people are very poor because we lost everything when the Taliban destroyed the Buddha. I hope our government rebuilds them so our people become rich again."

The province's sole export is potatoes. Its land isn't sufficient to grow wheat to feed its own people.

Another cave dweller, Mohammed Ayub, 34, walks more than half a mile daily to fetch water for his family.

"I hope for the Buddha to be built again," Ayub said. "We don't have power, we don't have running water, we don't have jobs. We are living inside these caves like wild animals."

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