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Friday, March 11, 2011

Afghans divided over remains of Buddha statues


By Farhad Peikar Mar 11, 2011, 5:18 GMT

Bamiyan, Afghanistan - As experts in Paris pondered what to do with Afghanistan's shattered Buddhist statues, the locals in a snow-covered valley thousands of kilometres away had their own opinions.
Exactly 10 years after the giant statues in the central province of Bamiyan were dynamited by the Taliban, hundreds of provincial officials and local farmers massed in front of their empty niches this week in commemoration.
'If they were reconstructed, they would attract a large number of tourists every year,' said Ebrahim Akbari, the head of Bamiyan's information and culture department.
In a declaration drafted at the gathering, the men and a handful of burqa-clad women collectively condemned the destruction of the 1,500-year-old statues and pleaded with the international community to help the province rebuild them.
But Western and Afghan specialists have decided against trying to piece the rubble back together, as the fragments are too small.
'The reconstruction is not possible,' said Franscesco Bandarin, assistant director general for culture of the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 'We are not doing it,' he said late Thursday at UNESCO's New York offices.
Speaking before the decision was announced, Akbari said a restoration would help the province, once a trading hub on the ancient Silk Road, regain its historical significance.
The region, which lies in the Hindu Kush mountains, attracted many visitors even after Muslims captured the region in the ninth century. Tourists and traders continued to come to the region until Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
Even today, while most of Afghanistan is plagued by a Taliban insurgency against the Afghan government and foreign troops, Bamiyan frequently hosts foreigners who work for international organizations and diplomatic missions in Kabul.
The province, located 230 kilometers north-west of Kabul at an altitude of 2,500 metres, still suffers extreme poverty, but is widely regarded as the country's safest region.
Pride in local culture is strong, and people from all walks of life have taken firm positions on the debate over the statues' future.
Haji Qasim Kazimi, Bamiyan's deputy provincial governor, welcomed a finding by a German specialist that only the smaller statue could have been rebuilt. Leaving the larger niche empty was a good idea anyway, he said, so that future generations could see 'the Taliban's cultural crimes.'
Razia Eqbalzada, a member of the provincial council, had called for both to be restored, in defiance of what she called the Taliban's act of enmity towards Afghan culture and the international community.
'Now that we have a government with the help of the world, we should show them [the Taliban] that if they could destroy our cultural heritage, we can rebuild it and keep our history alive,' she said, days before UNESCO announced the decision it had made with Kabul.
Local people had other reservations about the potential project.
'I don't know why we should spend millions of dollars rebuilding Buddhas while we don't have clinics, schools for our children or paved roads,' said Hussain Ali, who owns a grocery shop in the main bazaar of Bamiyan city, the provincial capital.
But Abdul Karim, another shopkeeper in the same market, who was forced by the Taliban 10 years ago to help destroy the statues, disagreed. 'This is a historical province, and the main site is the statues,' he said.
'So if these Buddhas are not reconstructed, I don't think anyone would spend money to come all the way to see the empty niches,' he said.
Some were also concerned that reconstructing the Buddhas could send the wrong message to the country's conservative Islamic society.
'Because of these statues, the Taliban thought we were not Muslims, and that was why they came and destroyed them,' said Safar Ali, a resident of Dara Fooladi, a village on Bamiyan city's western outskirts.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar said the statues were anti-Islamic idols when he ordered them dynamited, seven months before the regime was ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001.
Ali said the Sunni Muslim Taliban fighters thought their Shiite rivals, the majority in Bamiyan but a minority in the country, were worshiping the statues. 'So if we rebuild them, we will prove them right, that we wanted these statues for worship,' he said.
Speaking before the decision not to rebuild was announced, Omara Khan Masoudi, the director of National Museum in Kabul, was philosophical. 'Afghanistan has lost its precious statues and nothing could be done to bring them back to their original shape,' he said.


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