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Battle to save Afghanistan's shattered heritage

Two years after the Taliban destroyed much of Afghanistan's cultural heritage, attempts are being made to restore what is left.

Published on 19 June 2003

Author(s): The Guardian/Luke Harding

Type:  News

The international communityís indifference is hampering efforts to undo the vandalism of the Taliban regime

The statue of King Kanishka - one of the most formidable rulers to reign over what is now Afghanistan - used to stand in the foyer of the Kabul Museum. The king lost his head and arms a long time ago. But Taliban soldiers who arrived one frosty February morning smashed his remaining lower half with hammers and ordered museum staff to collect the fragments. Two years after the Taliban destroyed much of Afghanistanís cultural heritage, attempts are being made to restore what is left.

Over the past three weeks a group of French experts have been gluing together Kanishka - who brought Buddhism to Afghanistan in the second century - along with several other damaged statues. So far his royal pantaloons and left foot have been found but his right foot is still missing. Daniel Ibed, an expert from the Guimet Museum in Paris, said: "Itís like doing a jigsaw but with several pieces not there. We have found 300 fragments of King Kanishka, including three large chunks. I have to accept that it will be impossible to restore the statues like before."
Beatrice Beillard, another expert from the Guimet who was working on the damaged head of a fourth-century Buddha, said: "Itís terrible. We are doing our best. But itís a very difficult job. I canít put the Buddhaís expression back. Itís lost forever." Since US-led forces evicted the Taliban from Afghanistan 18 months ago, the international community has done little to help the government of Hamid Karzai restore the museum or get back thousands of artefacts looted from Afghanistan over the previous decade. Most of the museumís best pieces were stolen in the early 1990s - before the iconoclastic Taliban arrived - by rival mojahedin groups fighting for control of the Afghan capital. In February 2001 the Taliban destroyed much of what was left of the collection. This followed an edict by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Talibanís leader, that statues from Afghanistanís pre-Islamic past were blasphemous. In recent months museum workers have begun sorting through 2,000 statue fragments. "The Taliban wanted to keep secret what they had done. They told us to collect the pieces and lock them in a room," said Shairazuddin Saifi, standing next to a 1,500-year-old Buddha he had glued together. "It would be fair to say they were estranged from sculpture." Work is also under way to restore the shattered museum building which was repeatedly hit during the civil war of the 90s. Afghan officials would like to move it from the edge of the city into the centre of Kabul.

In the meantime the British Museum has paid for a new conservation room. Greece and Japan have also donated funds. The US has so far given $100,000 (£59,000) - too little, staff point out ruefully, to pay for a new roof for the museumís gutted second storey. Louise Haxthausen, a specialist with the UNís cultural organisation, Unesco, in Kabul said: "Iím totally frustrated. We are now more than one and a half years after the fall of the Taliban and virtually nothing has been done. We had expected the international community to come up with more funds."
There is continuing uncertainty over the fate of the museumís two most prized exhibits, the Bactrian treasures and the Bagram ivories. The Bactrian treasures - a horde of gold coins and Greek-style figurines dating from the time of Alexander the Great - disappeared after the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996. Afghan officials say they do not know what happened to the collection though some believe that Mr Karzaiís government has it in safekeeping. The Bagram ivories - a series of exquisite Indian panels nearly 2,000 years old, from Kanishkaís Kushan empire - have also vanished. Several of the panels recently turned up in London.

Smuggling network

Unauthorised excavation is continuing across Afghanistanís numerous archaeological sites, carried out by professional gangs supported by local warlords. "It is a very organised network," one official said. "The people going on to the site are armed. They are professionals who come from Pakistan." Police recently recovered several Buddha heads dug up illegally from a site in Logar province, south of the capital. Kabul Museumís director, Omar Khan Masudi, said more than 400 artefacts had been retrieved from looters but admitted that many others had been smuggled to Pakistan. The picture was depressing, he said. The trade could be stopped if international peacekeepers in Afghanistan expanded their operations beyond Kabul, a demand Tony Blair has rejected. Later this year Unesco will release a list of 100 missing artefacts that Afghanistan would like back in the hope that collectors and private dealers will return them.
Restoration work has also begun on the two giant Buddha statues in the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan, which were blown up by the Taliban. There are no plans to rebuild them but attempts are being made to consolidate the niches where the Buddhas stood for 1,500 years and to restore the few surviving murals in the surrounding caves. Archaeologists admit that most of Afghanistanís cultural past has gone for good. "What has happened here is a great sadness for Afghanistan," Mr Masudi said. "The international community promised to help us. The reality is they havenít given us very much."

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