Plunder goes on across Afghanistan as looters grow ever bolder.
James Astill in Bazy-Kheil Saturday December 13, 2003 The Guardian
Trade in antiquities worth up to £18bn as thieves excavate sites.
It was meant to be a rare success story. According to the Afghan minister of culture, the small mound of soft yellow earth at Bazy-Kheil, 20 miles east of Kabul, was one of the country's few protected archaeological sites. But as Mohammed Zakir, one of Afghanistan's five archaeologists, puffed to the top, he saw something was badly wrong.
A fresh rectangular pit had been cut into the side of the seventh-century Buddhist stupa. "That's nothing... it's a hunter's hiding hole," one of the soldiers in attendance insisted. "He's lying," Mr Zakir groaned.
Looters discovered Bazy-Kheil two years ago as the global trade in Afghan antiquities gathered pace. A local warlord promptly banned government officials from visiting the site, as his troops plundered its treasures. Then he relented, handing in 13 seventh-century buddhas and promising to plunder no more.
But, to Mr Zakir, the evidence of that freshly dug pit was damning.
"Even these soldiers are thieves," he said bitterly. "They pretend to be guarding this site, but when we leave they can take up their shovels."
Since the fall of the Taliban two years ago, Afghanistan has become a grave robbers' paradise. The Taliban destroyed many world-famous Buddhist sculptures, including the giant Bamiyan buddhas, but protected most of the country's more than 3,000 historical sites. Now, with the US-backed government virtually powerless outside Kabul, local warlords in partnership with Pakistani criminal gangs are looting with impunity.
"There was looting under the Taliban, but it was nothing compared to now," Mr Zakir said. "This is a total disaster, a complete free-for-all."
According to Unesco, the UN culture agency, the global industry in stolen Afghan antiquities is worth £18.3bn ($32bn) - more than the opium trade. Other experts dispute the figure. But none doubts that, at the current rate of plunder, the land where east and west have collided for millennia and a dozen civilisations flowered and fell will soon be stripped of its heritage.
"If this situation continues, in a year or two Afghanistan will be emptied of all its history," said Sayed Raheen, the culture and information minister.
"This is a tragedy, not only for us but for all humanity. When you put an ancient object in an Arab millionaire's living room, it loses its relation to history. It becomes meaningless."
The 13 buddhas of Bazy-Kheil are now in the Kabul Museum, once one of the finest in Asia. It was ransacked by rival mojahedin factions in the early 1990s. The Taliban stole more of its wonders - including the exquisite Bagram ivories, a 2,000-year-old collection of Indian panels - and smashed others. Now the museum has no roof, as it waits for international donors to deliver promised aid.
Further from Kabul, some of the world's most important archaeological sites are being laid bare. At Kharwar, in remote central Afghanistan, looters have discovered an ancient city stretching for 25 miles. From a trickle of confiscated artefacts, most archaeologists say the city dates from around the seventh century, shortly before the arrival of Islam.
"There hasn't been a discovery like this for a century; it's the Pompeii of central Asia," said Anna Rosa Rodriguez of the Society for the Protection of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage, an NGO. "Can you imagine? Even the Bamiyan buddhas don't compare to this, and legitimate scientists cannot get there."
Several government and UN missions have been turned away from Kharwar by local warlords. An Italian archaeological team flew in three months ago, but was permitted to spend only one day at the site. When the government subsequently sent nine police officers, four of them were murdered and the rest fled.
"There could be many more such sites; we don't know because the country's never been properly excavated," said Jim Williams of Unesco in Kabul.
"It's being excavated by criminals. They're the same people, the drug barons, the warlords, who are causing all Afghanistan's problems. But we still can't get the international community interested."
Unesco's budget for the country is £860,000, almost all of which is being spent on stabilising the empty plinths at Bamiyan, where the giant buddhas once stood. Afghanistan's government is only barely able to afford Mr Zakir's salary of £23 a month; it has no budget for protecting its historical sites.
Meanwhile the looters are growing bolder by the day, according to analysts in Kabul. Two weeks ago a six-tonne, 1,500-year-old buddha was intercepted at Peshawar railway station in northern Pakistan. At Kharwar, local villagers say Pakistani dealers are arriving with orders for specific antiquities.
According to Mr Raheen, a Pakistani general caused an uproar at an exhibition of Afghan archaeology at the Guimet Museum in Paris by declaring that he had much better pieces in his living room.
"The problem of this looting is like all the problems of Afghanistan, it's another bead in the necklace," said Abdul Feroozi, head of the National Institute of Archaeology.
"To stop it, you must do the same things as to stop the drugs and other crime: strengthen the government, build up the police and the national army, break the power of the warlords. Unfortunately we are still waiting for these things."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003