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

Stealing a Country's History

Many of Afghanistan's most precious artefacts are being looted and sold to the highest bidder.

The red and white stones are meant to indicate where landmines are concealed in this heavily mined nation.

But instead of protecting civilians, looters are using these symbols to prevent access to sites where they are systematically stealing the country's valuable artefacts.

Three years after the world looked on in horror as the Taleban destroyed the giant Bamyan Buddahs, many of the nation's historic treasures continue to be destroyed, this time stolen by looters often aided by local gunmen. A network of dealers then sells the artefacts to knowledgeable collectors, according to Afghan experts, police and foreign archaeologists.

"It's a big game in Afghanistan," said Roland Besenval, director of the French Archaeological Delegation, which works with the Afghan government to help preserve archaeological sites. "I am very pessimistic."

A major focus of activity has been the ancient city of Balkh, located 25 kilometres (15 miles) west of Mazar-e-Sharif. One of the oldest cities in the world, Balkh's vast store of antiquities, some dating more than 5,000 years and of untold value, are regularly being excavated and sold.

"We must guard our cultural and historical inheritance, just as we respect our religion," said Abdullah Roeen, head of information and culture of Balkh.

Rosen blamed the local commander for much of the looting. He said that several square metres of tiles from the city's ancient Subhan Quli mosque had been stolen but he was unable to make an arrest for the crime.

"Despite knowing all the facts in this case, we can not make the commander return it," Roeen said. Local people said they all knew the name of the commander, but were afraid to have it published for fear of reprisals.

Both local police and foreign archaeologists say they are helpless to stop the rapid drain on Afghanistan's priceless ancient cultural artefacts.

"We arrested the smugglers of historical relics stolen in the winter, and they confessed their crime," said Balkh Chief of Police Mir Hamza. "But due to pressure of the local commander supporting them, we could not reclaim the stolen items. If we pressured them, it would have caused a serious war."

Afghan artefacts first began disappearing into the hands for foreign buyers during the civil war in the in the early 1990s, Roeen said.

"The international smugglers usually have complete information regarding whereabouts of the historical relics," he said. "And some of them are experts in historical relics. They go different places and discover the whereabouts of relics, and then they employ the local thieves to help them."

Besenval said the international community must bear some of the responsibility for the loss of Afghanistan's historic culture, "Without an international market, there is no looting."

One does not need to travel far to view the affect of the devastation. On the eastern edge of Balkh, there is a place known as "jeweler's hill". The site has attracted archaeological expeditions for decades. But today it is little more than a field of craters created by hundreds of illegal excavations.

It's here that centuries of historical artefacts have been found, many of them dating back to the time of Alexander the Great, around 325 BC. It has long been a centre for both Buddhist and Islamic cultures.

And it's not just major international dealers who are involved in the looting. In a shady, round park in the centre of Balkh, a shop called Brother Antiques offers ancient coins, pots, small sculptures and figurines for sale.

The shop's owner, Abdul Quadir, said he buys the pieces from local people who bring them to him, looking for a sale. His customers are sometimes foreigners, but are often Afghans. He normally charges about 60 US dollars for a small pot of ancient design and appearance, and up to 100 dollars for larger pieces.

New efforts are under way to halt the wholesale loss of Afghanistan's past. The Afghan interior ministry recently announced the formation of a special police unit to protect the country's historical sites. Once at full strength, around 500 officers are to be deployed across the country.

Lutfullah Mashal, interior ministry spokesman, said that 84 officers started work last month in the Kharwar district of Logar province and in Kapisa province, located south and north of Kabul respectively.

Mashal said they are also taking safeguards to prevent the local commanders from exerting influence over the sites. "People who live locally are not allowed to participate in the force that protects nearby sites," he said. "Instead, we are recruiting officers from various divisions all over Afghanistan."

"The people who [loot the sites] are the same to me as the Taleban," said Roeen said. "The only difference is that these people are stealing and robbing our culture secretly, while the Taleban did it openly, such as when they destroyed the Buddha sculpture in Bamyan province."

Noor Ahmad Ghafori is an independent reporter; Mustafa Basharat is a part-time reporter in Kabul; Hafizullah Gardesh is an editor in Kabul.