Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: Buddha Caves Provide Refuge

Hundreds of homeless Afghan families find shelter amid the ruins of the Bamiyan Buddhas
By Farzad Ahmadi

Cave networks in the mountains around the Bamiyan Buddhas, the giant statues destroyed by the Taleban last year, have become primitive, makeshift homes for hundreds of desperate families.


When the Taleban withdrew from the nearby city of Bamiyan, once an important caravan stop on the ancient Silk Road, Hazaras returned from hiding in the mountains only to find their houses burnt and plundered.


During their period in power, the student militia drove the Bamiyan Hazaras, the main ethnic group in the area, into the desolate mountains - and often prevented Western relief agencies from supplying them with consignments of aid.


With Taleban gone but no homes to return to, the Hazaras have had no option but to seek shelter in caves which radiate through the mountains around the remains of the Bamiyan buddhas, destroyed by the Taleban in March last year.


The caves, many of them close to the now wrecked statues, were long ago home to Buddhist monks. For their new inhabitants, life is a constant struggle.


Each day, they trudge up the steep escarpment, carrying water and firewood. In order to shield themselves from the wind and cold - the temperature is well below freezing at night - many of them have walled off the entrances to their homes with mud and straw bricks.


Ali Hussain lives in one cave with his six children. The remains of his small mud and straw home are 300 m away. He says he was forced to flee his home last year.


"If we hadn't left the place, we would have been murdered by the Taleban," he said. "They had no mercy for Hazaras. They considered us non-believers. We had to escape."


Hussein, his face shrivelled and pinched from cold and hunger, pointed up into the snow-capped Koh-e-Baba mountains to the north, where he and his family had hidden. Then motioning towards the dark opening of the cave, he said, "I am grateful to God. He saved our lives by helping us find this place."


From talking to the families living in the Bamiyan caves, it's clear that virtaully all have lost relatives to cold and starvation during their exile in the mountains.


The Red Cross recently began to provide food for the cave-dwellers; prior to this the search for food took up most of their energy. "Every morning, I would go out to look for something to eat," said Hussein. "When it was snowing or raining, we could borrow corn or raisins from relatives. But they lived far away - somehow we survived."


With that, Hussein picked up a tiny pile of fire wood and went off to his cave and children.


All the cave-dwellers seem physically small and thin. Their skin has darkened from malnutrition. They are all waiting for help from relief agencies to rebuild their homes in Bamiyan.


Mohammad Ali is sheltering in a cave with his mother and two surviving children. For years the family had lived in Kabul where he worked as a fast-food salesman. The fighting, however, finally drove them out of the capital and they came to live in Bamiyan. But the family failed to find security there either.


"We were six people," Mohammad Ali explained. "Two years ago I left them and went to Iran to find a job. When I returned my wife and two of my children were dead. I was told that my wife died from tuberculoses and my children from hunger."


Ali spoke calmly about his tragic past. Only the twitching muscles in his face gave any hint of the pain he felt. Inside his cave, he has one luxury item - a stove - which gives him some respite from the chill. "It is too cold for you," he said. "You live in the city. Maybe you find this unpleasant, but we're used to it."


International officials are confident that the plight of the Bamiyan people will improve in the coming months. They believe there's enough food aid to keep them going through the winter and that with the warmer weather in the spring they might be able to start rebuilding their homes.


But the damage inflicted on the area by the Taleban together with a series of droughts means it will be a long time before the lives of these people return to normal.


Farzad Ahmadi is an IWPR contributor based in Kabul