- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Warlords and thieves are stripping bare a recent archaeological discovery described as “the Pompeii of Central Asia” while the central government and Western scientists are powerless to intervene, authorities say.

They say the loss of irreplaceable artifacts from the ancient city is just the worst example in a pattern of widespread looting of some of the worlds most precious archaeological sites by mafia-style gangs seizing upon the chaos that followed the Talibans fall.

The ancient city stretching 25 miles across was recently discovered at Kharwar, in remote central Logar province. From a trickle of confiscated artifacts, archaeologists estimate that the city dates from the seventh century shortly before the arrival of Islam though some pieces suggest it might be as much as 500 years older.

“There hasnt been a discovery like this for a century. Its the Pompeii of Central Asia,” said Anna Rosa Rodriguez of the Society for the Protection of Afghanistans Cultural Heritage, a private organization.

Miss Rodriguez said the losses outweighed even the destruction by the Taliban regime of two enormous Buddhas carved into the rocks at Bamiyan.

“Can you imagine? This is a second-century city waiting to be discovered, and legitimate scientists cannot get there.”

Several government and U.N. missions have been turned away from Kharwar by local warlords. An Italian archaeological team flew in three months ago, but was permitted to spend only one day at the site. When the government subsequently sent nine policemen, four of them were killed and the rest fled.

“There could be many more such sites. We dont know because the countrys never been properly excavated,” said Jim Williams of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency.

“Its being excavated by criminals. Theyre the same people, the drug barons, the warlords, who are causing all Afghanistans problems. But, we still cant get the international community interested.”

Government and U.N. officials say local warlords in partnership with Pakistani criminal gangs are looting other archaeological sites across the country with impunity while President Hamid Karzais new government remains powerless outside the capital.

According to UNESCO, the global industry in stolen Afghan antiquities is worth $32 billion or more than the global trade in Afghan opium.

Other experts dispute that figure, but none doubts that it is a matter of years before looters will have stripped bare the heritage of a land where Alexander the Greats Macedonians fought Central Asias nomadic hordes and a dozen other civilizations flowered and fell.

“If this situation continues, in a year or two, Afghanistan will be emptied of all its history,” said Sayed M. Raheen, the culture and information minister.

“Im really suffering because I cannot prevent it. This is a tragedy not only for us, but for all humanity. When you put an ancient object in an Arab millionaires living room, it loses its relation to history; it becomes meaningless.”

UNESCOs budget for Afghanistan is $2 million, almost all of which is being spent on stabilizing the empty plinths at Bamiyan, where the giant Buddhas once stood. Afghanistans government has no budget for protecting its historical sites.

Meanwhile, the looters are growing ever bolder, say analysts in Kabul. Late last year, a looted 6-ton, 1,500-year-old Buddha was seized at Peshawar railway station in northern Pakistan.

At Kharwar, say local villagers, Pakistani dealers are now arriving with orders for specific antiquities.

According to Mr. Raheen, a senior Pakistani general recently caused an uproar at an exhibition of Afghan artifacts at the Guimet Museum in Paris by declaring that he had much better pieces in his living room.

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