Saturday, 5 March 2011

Impasse over Bamiyan buddhas, 10 years on

Ten years after Afghanistan's ancient Bamiyan buddhas were blown up by the Taliban, there is still no agreement on whether the war-torn country's best-known cultural icons should be rebuilt.
In March 2001, seven months before a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban, their leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered that the two "anti-Islamic" giant stone statues be destroyed, despite pleas from around the world to save them.
With their country's economy crippled by war, many Afghans now want the 1,500-year-old buddhas restored in the hope they can draw tourists to Bamiyan, a relatively peaceful and picturesque province in central Afghanistan.
But the UN's cultural body UNESCO -- holding a meeting in Paris this week on the future of the buddhas -- does not favour reconstruction, while poor security in Afghanistan as a whole has also hampered progress.
"As is often the case in Afghanistan, there is more disappointment than satisfaction because there were high hopes for reconstruction and the reality is completely different," said Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist with extensive knowledge of the site.
Bamiyan is one of the most attractive parts of Afghanistan, famed for its wall paintings, brightly-painted caves, lush valleys and clear lakes. It is located on the Silk Road, the historic trade route which criss-crosses Asia.
The two buddhas, 38 metres and 55 metres tall, were built in the sixth and seventh centuries by Buddhists who lived in the area before Muslims conquered it.
Many Afghans in the area now hope the brightly-coloured historic monuments can be restored to their former glory to help boost the local economy.
"People want the buddhas to be rebuilt because every development project depends on it. We mainly need airports, roads, hotels and restaurants," local lawmaker Mohammad Akbari said.
"When the statues are rebuilt, Bamiyan will be a true city for tourists."
Research released by scientists at the University of Munich in Germany last month said it would be possible to piece together the remains of one of the buddhas, despite the doubts of many other experts.
Doing so would mean building a small factory in Bamiyan or transporting 1,400 rocks weighing up to two tonnes each to Germany, the team said.
Furthermore, many foreigners with the expertise needed to help with such a project are afraid to come to Afghanistan.
"Bamiyan is one of the safest places in the country but people hear news of unrest from Afghanistan so they don't want to work here," Akbari said.
Other experts dismiss the idea of reconstruction as a purely commercial exercise, since the buddhas have been so badly damaged that there would be no merit in restoring them from a heritage point of view.
The buddhas are seen in Afghanistan "mainly as a way to increase tourism, especially from Japan and China", Marquis said.
The Bamiyan valley was put on UNESCO's list of endangered areas in 2003.
UNESCO insists that a great deal of work has already been done on stabilising the remaining areas around the buddhas.
"The areas around the sites have been demined, the remains of the buddhas and the cliff (are) stabilised for the most part,"said Reza Sharifi, a Kabul-based UNESCO official.
"Three to four million dollars have been spent in Bamiyan since 2004."
Experts also highlight a lack of action on the issue by President Hamid Karzai's government, which is battling a brutal Taliban insurgency now entering its tenth year.
"People know that the government is weak and that culture is not its top priority so they did not expect a quick reconstruction," said Akbari. "But after ten years, more things should have been done."

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