- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Five years after the Taliban blew them up, Afghan laborers are picking up the pieces of two once-towering Buddha statues, hoping they will rise again and breathe new life into this dirt-poor province.

While they wait for the Afghan government and international community to decide whether to rebuild them, a $1.3 million UNESCO-funded project is sorting out the chunks of clay and plaster — ranging from boulders weighing several tons to fragments the size of tennis balls — and sheltering them from the elements.

Progress is slow in the central highland town of Bamiyan, where the statues were chiseled more than 1,500 years ago into a cliff face about a quarter of a mile apart.

They originally were painted in gold and adorned with wooden faces and ornaments. Murals of Buddha covered cave rooftops flanking the niches from which the statues were hewn. Fragments of the murals also are being collected.

Rebuilding the statues, one 174 feet tall and the other 115 feet, will be like assembling giant jigsaw puzzles.

The town of Bamiyan, so poor that dozens of its people live in caves, has high hopes.

“We can change the local people’s lives from being dominated by poverty if we rebuild one of the Buddha statues,” said Habiba Surabi, governor of Bamiyan province.

She is Afghanistan’s first female governor.

The province, on the ancient Silk Road that linked Europe to East Asia, was once a center of Buddhism. Today, most of its 400,000 people are Hazaras, a largely Shi’ite Muslim ethnic group that was persecuted by the Taliban during its 1997-2001 rule.

The Taliban dynamited the Buddha statues in March 2001, deeming them idolatrous and anti-Muslim. It was one of the regime’s most widely condemned acts.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has since placed the entire Bamiyan Valley region on its World Heritage in Danger list.

“Our job is to safeguard the pieces left from the Buddha statues and put the fragments in a shelter,” said Ernst Blochinger, a German specialist with the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

The Paris-based group is working with UNESCO on the project, which began in 2004 and is scheduled for completion in 14 months.

The project relies heavily on Japanese funding. Rebuilding the statues would cost about $30 million each, scientists say.

“Whenever UNESCO finishes its work, we will appeal to the international community to try find the funds to rebuild at least one Buddha statue,” said Mrs. Surabi, the governor.

Tourists still trickle into the Bamiyan Valley — drawn by its Band-i-Amir lake and the red stone ruins of the once-great city of Shahr-i-Zuhak — despite a lack of amenities and a nine-hour drive from Kabul over wretched roads.

Mohammed Abraham, who earns $5 a day working on the UNESCO project, remembers when hundreds of tourists came to marvel at the Buddha statues and buy handicrafts.

“Everyone here was very happy and rich compared to now,” said Mr. Abraham, who lives with his eight children in a cave, without power or water, near where the larger statue stood.

“Now Bamiyan’s people are very poor because we lost everything when the Taliban destroyed the Buddha. I hope our government rebuilds them so our people become rich again.”

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