12 March 2001

In Taliban Country: Bamiya's 'refugees in stone'

12 March 2001
The Times of India

In Taliban Country

Bamiyan's 'refugees in stone'

By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

KABUL: The Taliban's enigmatic order to destroy all statues from
Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past, including the two Buddhas at Bamiyan,
has left people here saddened and appalled. Except for Taliban leaders
and cadres, not a single Afghan that this correspondent met has
supported the decision to destory the statues.

``I had read about Atilla burning libraries but is there any parallel
to this madness?'', asked the owner of a pharmacy shop in northern
Kabul. ``Gear box kharab hai'' is how one taxi driver explained it,
pointing to his head. At the Torkham border checkpost with Pakistan --
where every day thousands of Afghan refugee arrive -- a Kabul-based
trader used a most poignant metaphor to describe the plight of the
statues. ``Look at all these people'', he said, ``Afghanistan has
become a country of refugees. If the Buddhas were not made of stone,
they would also have been mohajirs."

Most Afghans reject the suggestion that the destruction of ancient
statues has Qoranic sanction. One shopkeeper in downtown Kabul claimed
that Hazrat Usman and Hazrat Ali had passed by Bamiyan during their
travels but did not feel the need to destroy the statues. "When they
were happy to leave the Buddhas alone, who are the Taliban to say they
must be destroyed?", he asked.

``The Buddhas are part of the sarmaya (wealth) of the Afghan nation'',
a butcher in Kabul said. "How is the future of Islam affected by these
pieces of stone?'' One man who had lived for 15 years in Kohat,
Pakistan, as a refugee, said, ``We feel very sad. But we can do
nothing about it.'' Tugging forlornly on his beard, he added: ``When I
am not even free to shave, what can I do for the Buddhas?''

To date, there has been no credible eyewitness account of what is
happening to the statues -- journalists are not allowed in and Bamiyan
town is said to be empty because of the recent fighting between the
Taliban and the Hizb-e-Wahadat.

Even the Taliban have been giving conflicting accounts. Some suggest
the terrible deed has already been done, others that the work was
suspended due to the Eid holidays and that it will be completed soon.
Either way, it is clear that the statues' days are numbered.

On Saturday, Mullah Mohammed Omar, Amir-ul-Momineen (Commander of the
Faithful) and head of the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
(IEA), rejected an appeal from Pakistan's interior minister Moinuddin
Haider. IEA foreign minister Abdul Walal Motawakil, considered a
moderate, said his government rejected a ``compromise'' suggestion
that a wall be built in front of the Buddhas to block them from view.
``We have the money to build the wall or even to take care of the
statues. But this is not about money. The statues have to be

Whatever the rumours of a division within the Taliban leadership, the
rank and file have no sympathy for the staues, or public opinion. A
Taliban soldier named Abdullah -- unarmed but recognisable by the
trademark black turban -- told this correspondent there was no way the
statues could escape the fate decreed by Mullah Omar. ``The Amir never
goes back on his word.''

He said the firman was necessary to ensure ``but-parasti'' (idol
worhsip) never returned to Afghanistan. When told that Muslims around
the world had appealed to the Taliban to stop the destruction,
Abdullah said that these were not ``real Muslims''.

Another Talib, Sher Mohammed, who had studied in a madrassa in
Charsadda, Pakistan, before signing up, was equally rigid. He agreed
with the suggestion that building hospitals and schools, or even
madrassas, might be a better way of making sure Afghans remained on
the path of true Islam, but said now that Mullah Omar had spoken, the
statues' destruction was ``the most immediate work for us''.

He also attacked the world for suddenly being concerned about what was
happening inside Afghanistan. ``People died of the cold in Herat last
month, why are you bothered about the Buddhas? If the UN had not
imposed sanctions on us, there might have been some room to negotiate.
But now it is too late.''

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