11 September 2001>News Stories>Where Buddhas Fell, Lives Too Lie in Ruins

Where Buddhas Fell, Lives Too Lie in Ruins
Berry Bearak . NY Times . 09 December

The giant Buddhas blown up last spring in central Afghanistan were only the best known and most visible of the Taliban's victims in the region.
A view from an opening behind what used to be the head one of two Buddhist statues destroyed by the Taliban in March.

BAMIAN, Afghanistan, Dec. 5 The giant Buddhas perished in this storied valley. For 1,500 years, the two statues stood in their sandstone niches and stared across the rugged plain toward the snowy peaks of the Baba mountains. The Taliban destroyed them last spring, making precise incisions to strategically place the explosives.

But the Buddhas were only the best known and most visible of the Taliban's victims in this remote region of central Afghanistan. Within months, other terrible crimes were committed here. Ethnic hatred was the grisly wellspring for methodical murder and devastation.

For three and a half years, the Taliban have restricted entry into this battlefield. Only in recent days have outsiders traveled the mine- bedeviled roads to survey the havoc. What they see is scorched earth. Little is left of the hamlets on the heaving single lane west of Bamian except ashes and mud. Decomposed bodies are still being found on the frozen soil.

Squads of mainly Pashtun Taliban marauders went from village to village and house to house, gutting the dwellings of the Mongol-featured Hazaras, their main adversary in these narrow gorges and vaulting peaks, chasing them from even the meager livelihoods of their infertile land.

Now, with the Taliban gone, desperate Hazaras are slowly returning to mountainside homes in places like Shahidan, Shebertoo, Qarghanatoo, Aghrabat and Gulestan. Most often, they discover only the charred shell of a ransacked house. There are no roofs above their heads, no wheat or barley in their bins. Last week, as the season's first snowflakes were whipped by the wind, some wondered whether hunger or cold would be first to claim their children.

"Look at my boy, he has nothing on his bones," said Abdul Hussain, holding a feverish 2-year-old in his arms in Shebertoo. The child, wearing a sweater and vest but no shoes, was making faint, pitiful sounds: eh, eh. His legs were as thin as saplings. "He becomes weaker every day," the father said. "Maybe I have brought him home to die."

Soon the snow will block the roads, already difficult with axle-jarring ruts. Relief agencies, long endangered by war, have yet to fully mobilize. A few weeks ago, American bombers hit a Bamian-bound 22- truck convoy of the World Food Program, destroying 6 of the vehicles, witnesses said. The city's main hospital has just now reopened. There is one doctor and no medicine. The retreating Taliban stole the beds, the generator and the X-ray machine.

"So many are suffering from pneumonia and grippe and depression," said Dr. Ali Khan Sharifi, standing beside a dusty examination table. "People have no possessions, no pillows, no mattresses, no house, no wheat to harvest. This is why they are depressed."

As the Taliban retreat, disappearing abruptly after five years in power, the full weight of the devastation they wrought becomes apparent. Bamian and the places nearby are a shocking example.

The road west is as hard to traverse as it is spectacular to behold. The mammoth walls of brown rock seem partially molded by man, like giant sand castles once washed by the sea. Some are honeycombed like sponges. Some are sheared flat at the top. One has a great fissure made white by an icy spring that is said to be the frozen tears of a dragon.

As last Monday unscrolled its morning light, a man and his mule came around a bend. His name was Abdul Hamid, and by necessity his turban was partly unfurled so it could contest the wind as a mask and a scarf.

Two days ago, he had come back to his home in Shahidan. The Taliban vandals specially trained for arson and demolition had worked efficiently. The beams of his house had been eaten by fire. The roof now lay on the floor.

Still, he was a fortunate man. In June, as the Taliban approached, he had fled. Some others had not. "Let me tell you about Ghulam Sangzawar," Mr. Hamid said. "He stayed behind. He said he could live with the Taliban but on the second day they slit his throat."

A death toll is impossible to tally. It is early in the counting and people are dispersed, some gone to safety, others to eternity. But anecdotes accumulate stories of men slaughtered while hung upside down or bound with rope or piled in a heap like logs.

Muhammad Hussain returned to a nearly deserted Shebertoo 10 days ago. He surmised that many of his neighbors had been killed, though he only happened upon six bodies.

"What was left of them had rotted," he said, staring out at fallow barley fields. "We couldn't haul them to our cemetery. We buried them where they were without proper prayers."

Mr. Hussain, a village elder, appointed himself as guide, leading the way up a steep incline toward mud houses built on patches of flatness. He is a stocky man with a white beard made dingy by dust. His chief defense against the cold was a thin corduroy coat.

He stopped at a well. "This one is useless to us," he said gravely. "It smells bad, and we think the Taliban put chemicals in it. Something dreadful is down there."

Then there are the houses, ruin after ruin. Such destruction required skill. Mud walls blacken but do not burn. Nourished on wood, the fire had to follow a hopscotch path to consume both roofs and window frames. Long months later, the air is still acrid.

Mr. Hussain and his family escaped by suffering a three-day trudge through the mountains. They slept in the stables of a distant village. Upon their return, fearing the worst, they were surprised by the good fortune of an intact roof. Five families now huddle in two rooms, burning yellow-brown scrub for heat.

"You will not find a better place in Shebertoo," the man boasted.

Nearby was another livable space, with one room sheltered by a wood roof and a second one feebly protected with burlap. But this was a house full of sickness. Fatima, an old woman with swollen lips, emerged from the darkness, walking stooped over like a comma.

A lament substituted for a greeting. "I am dying," were her first words, accompanied by a rasp well- burrowed in her chest. "Do you have medicine?"

Her distress was shared. Bunched in a dank corner of a small room were two other women and five children. A thin line of light was arriving through a tiny window covered by plastic. The weak coughs of the youngsters interrupted the silence. "We have only tea and barley bread to eat and little of that," Fatima said.

She pointed to her best exhibit of affliction. Gulbakht, 25, seemed petrified in one position, her hands grasping her ankles. She did not move or speak. There was a blankness to her face as if she was already far along on the journey to her own demise. "She has no milk to feed this little baby," Fatima said, cradling a wiggly bundle in her arms. "She has been this way for a month. We had to bring Gulbakht here on a donkey."

Muhammad Hussain, the elder, had been listening. To him, this seemed a good time to curse the Taliban. "They want all the Hazaras to die," he said. "They are very bad people."

In the end, the Taliban turned out to be not just religious zealots but relentless conquerors. To complete their domination of the country they had to go where they were exceedingly unwelcome. The lairs of the Hazaras were such places.

History had provided the Taliban with precedent. One hundred years ago, the Pashtun emir Abdul Rahman made the massacre of Hazaras a central element of his autocratic rule. He was not only offended by their independence but also by their religion. The emir was a Sunni Muslim while the Hazaras were Shiites. He labeled them infidels.

Most of the Taliban are also Sunnis, and some of their leaders have similarly condemned the Hazaras. In 1998, during the conquest of Mazar-i- Sharif, the Taliban-appointed governor converted his religious prejudices into an ungodly massacre.

Thousands of Hazaras were murdered, often in ghastly fashion, their bodies then treated with additional contempt. Hundreds more were crammed into shipping containers that were placed in the sun to bake. Nearly all suffocated. To some Pashtuns, the killing was a fitting reply to a previous massacre in which the role of villain was reversed. Hazaras have committed their own atrocities. Some have nailed spikes through their enemies. Others have used beheadings as entertainment.

"Hazaras cannot pretend to be innocent," said one Pashtun who has worked in Bamian.

As with much of Afghanistan's political jigsaw, the pieces rarely fit neatly. There is a temptation to cite last summer's rampages as well as earlier ones in the town of Yakaolang and elsewhere as classic instances of "ethnic cleansing." But while the Taliban were murdering Hazaras in one place, they were accommodating them in others. One Hazara warlord, his chameleon colors on full display, remained a Taliban ally to the last.

The Taliban's scorched-earth tactics also served a military purpose. Their forces had superior weaponry but the Hazaras had popular support. "When we needed to, we could supply ourselves in Shahidan and other places," said Hajji Ali Yar, the Hazara commander in Bamian. "Without them, everything was harder. This was one reason the Taliban burned the villages."

Bamian, the provincial capital, changed hands repeatedly. The Taliban first captured it in September 1998, then were dislodged for three weeks in 1999. They lost the city again for three days earlier this year and were finally routed on Nov. 11.

"Look at Bamian now," said Sayed Muhammad Hussain Hashimi, a farmer whose family has fled from place to place since the Taliban raided his village. "War has left people with barely a space to live in, barely a building that has not come under the torch."

Ten days ago, Mr. Hashimi moved his family to somewhere fireproof. They now live in one of the grottoes that freckle the colossal sandstone cliff where the Buddhas stood. Many refugees from the ravaged villages live there. They are the mountain's new mendicants.

Centuries ago, these hundreds of caves were monastic cells. Bamian was a vital stop for camel caravans along the ancient Silk Route between China and Rome. Buddhism, once flourishing here, had given way to Islam. But ascetics still came here to ponder the ineluctable burden of human suffering and the Buddha's middle path to truth.

The smaller Buddha, 120 feet, was the first to fall. The bigger one, at 175 feet, required a greater injection of explosives. Men with chisels were then lowered by rope to chip away at bulging remnants.

Now, the surrounding niches look like molested keyholes. Only an imprint of the Buddha remains as if preserved in a fossil. Some of the bigger chunks rest in a heap, mingled with rubbish. The Taliban carted off smaller fragments in their pickups.

There was more, of course. The blasting sprayed the air with billions of granules. Those are now dust, freed by the wind and mixed into the soil.

The statues had been springboards of awe. They survived attacks from Genghis Khan and other Mongol conquerors. Their destruction belongs instead to men who found the portrayal of the human form an impiety. Hundreds of years from now this may be the single footnote the Taliban have carried into the annals of time.