Afghan Heritage Under Threat

Authorities appear to be losing their battle against smugglers of antiquities.

Afghan Heritage Under Threat

Authorities appear to be losing their battle against smugglers of antiquities.

Afghanistan's National Museum collection is growing as honest citizens and police hand over recovered relics, but thieves continue to plunder ancient sites and sneak their contents out of the country.


This fall, the ministry of information and culture took custody of a number of valuable ancient pieces, including a frieze and six Buddhist statues that had been taken from Bamyan and Logar province respectively.


"People have become interested in guarding their historical monuments," said Abdul Rauf Zaker, vice president of the archaeology department in the ministry of information and culture. "In fact, some of our compatriots are informing us about the smuggling of historical artefacts.


"For example, one resident of the Saraaye Khwaja district of Kabul told us about a historic (1,000-year-old) stone that had been smuggled, and as a result, we got it back from the smugglers."


Afghanistan's landscape is filled with buried historical monuments, artwork, statues and artefacts, some dating back 5,000 years. Many are from the height of Buddhist culture in Afghanistan.


Countless numbers of relics were smuggled to foreign dealers in the chaos of civil war. Since the beginning of the interim administration, police have cracked down on the trade, but the work is difficult because of power struggles between local officials.


In many areas, lack of security allows looting to continue. Officials and residents told IWPR reporters about numerous cases of armed men digging up and stealing relics in a dozen provinces. A local official in Logar, for example, said 20 square km of land in Kharwar district were being excavated and that 127 statues had already been stolen by a band of armed men.


In order to address the ongoing destruction and theft of historic treasures, the ministry last week set up a Council for the Protection of Historical Heritage, under the supervision of Mirwais Zahir, son of former sovereign Zahir Shah.


The council, the first of its kind in Afghanistan, has set up a separate commission specifically to devise a security plan to guard the country's historic property.


Abdul Wassey Ferozi, president of the Archaeology Department of Afghanistan, said the Bamyan frieze and the heads of the figures from Logar date to the Koshaani and Yaftaali eras, 16 to 18 centuries ago, when Afghans worshipped Buddha statues.


"When Islam came to Afghanistan, people were prohibited from worshipping statues, but some people continued secretly," he said. Gradually, though, they fell into disuse and were buried.


Bamyan province is particularly rich in Buddhist-era antiquities. It became known worldwide in 2001 when the Taleban destroyed two towering ancient Buddha statues.


Haji Mukhtar Ahmadi, a farmer in Bamyan province, found the frieze and other historic artefacts - including golden coins, a book, a glass bottle and a bezeled diamond - while digging up bushes near his house six years ago, during the Taleban era.


He handed the relics over to a governmental delegation, but decided to leave the frieze where it was. It was subsequently dug up and stolen - and Ahmadi conducted a house-to-house search of his village until he found it. In September, he turned it over to the information and culture ministry.


Ali Yarzada, the governor of Bamyan, said the government is very grateful to Ahmadi and hopes that others will follow his example. He said he didn't know what happened to the artefacts he turned over six years ago.


The frieze dates back 15 centuries, as indicated by the exceedingly rare Khroshti script on it, said Dr Sayed Mukhdoom Raheen, the minister of information and culture. Archeologists still have not deciphered the ancient script, he said.


The ministry sent Ahmadi a letter of appreciation and has asked that the central government give him a financial reward as well.


"Our efforts are continuing and we are trying to find the other historical relics as well," Raheen said. "We have to protect them as we do our chastity."


Finding the antiquities usually involves pursuing smugglers. In Logar, law enforcement officers acting on a tip off about illegal excavations in the Mes Ainak region found the heads of three Buddhist statues, said police chief General Mohammad Haroon Yousifi.


Unfortunately, he said, the smugglers had already destroyed the pieces and escaped before police could arrest them.


Jalaat Khan, director of the historical monuments department in Logar, said there aren't the resources to guard all the ancient sites: he only has an old bicycle to get him around his beat.


As a result, he said, there have been thefts of religious antiquities from mosques and the shrine of Ali Malang in Raghoon town, in Mohammad Agha district.


Local commanders and elders in the region are involved in the smuggling of antiquities, alleged Mohammad Zahir Sediq, head of Logar's information and culture department.


"Excavations are done by the armed people of the region," Sediq said, referring to regional commanders. "The people posted to guard these monuments also dig them up."


Sediq claimed that a military commander is supervising the removal of relics, and when he informed the media and central government, the commander sent his followers to warn him that he would be arrested.


Khalilullah, a soldier based in Gardez, denied Sediq's allegations, "We are trying to guard historical monuments in four southern provinces (Logar, Paktia, Paktika and Khost). We try day and night to stop people from illegal excavations. And we plan to put together a special military force to guard ancient sites."


Residents of regions that are rich in historic relics say they often see looting going on, but can do nothing to stop it because the robbers are armed.


According to General Sultan Mohammad, director of a unit called the Struggle Against Smuggling and Narcotics at the interior ministry, foreign criminals control the antiquities trade and hire local thieves to help them.


In Baghlan province, Sayed Abdul Ali Shah, a resident of Kayan valley, told IWPR, "Foreigners have come here. They pay local gunmen to give them a hand to dig up the relics, which they then carry back across the border."


Outside Kabul, in the village of Tankai village near Pol Charkhi, thieves took a different approach: an organisation claiming that it would build a reservoir dug up the area where artefacts were known to be buried, said local resident Sebghatullah. "After plundering the area, they disappeared."


Mohammad Shafiq Haqpal and Danish Karokhel are IWPR staff reporters.


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