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Taliban had promised to protect Bamiyan Buddhas
Ashwani Talwar

NEW DELHI (March 10): The Taliban, now in the process of dismantling the Bamiyan Buddhas, have in the past promised to protect them.

Hours after the Taliban captured Bamiyan city in September 1998, Mawlawi Abdur Rahman Hotak, the militia's deputy minister for information and culture, tried to allay the world's fears. ``Our troops have always been told to realise that part of their duties includes the maintenance of historical relics,'' a news agency story then quoted him telling reporters.

The Taliban spokesman let it be known then that protecting the statues was the right thing to do. ```Based on our policy,'' Hotak had said, ``no threat will be directed to the statues as a majority of the Taliban are people of knowledge and are keen to protect them.''

There are other reported remarks suggesting that the Taliban have now gone back on their word. One published report quoted Hotak talking about the need to attract tourists to the country over which the Taliban were extending control.

The ``top priority'' the minister had said then was to prevent further damage to Afghanistan's heritage. If sanctions were lifted, more restoration work could be done.

Pakistan-based Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH) too got similar assurances from the Taliban in recent years.

Jet Van Krieken, one of the SPACH founders, wrote last year that Taliban at one time not only agreed to remove an ammunition dump from the foot of the statue, but also set up a General Office for preserving historical sites.

But despite the SPACH-Taliban negotiations since 1998, when Taliban first took Bamiyan Valley -- it changed hands later -- the smaller Buddha's head and shoulders were damaged ``partly by a rocket, partly by explosives,'' van Krieken says.

A Taliban commander even drilled holes in the head of the larger statue, for packing explosives into it and blowing it up.

``He appears to have been stopped at the last moment by the Taliban governor of the Bamiyan Valley, with whom SPACH was in contact,'' the SPACH member says. Later, the bigger Buddha's face was blackened with burning tyres.

The SPACH account however indicates that the Taliban leadership was at least willing to listen to pleas asking it to rein in local commanders. Till Mulla Omar's recent fatwa that all idols in Afghanistan are to be smashed.

Sri Lanka's S Wijeratne, who has been Afghanistan mission chief of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, also recalls that the Taliban issued a statement in 1997 pacifying the world community, enraged over a commander's comment that they would destroy the Buddhas once they captured the Bamiyan Valley.

Taliban spokesman Wakkil Mohamed had said the organisation had no objection to the Bamiyan Buddhas remaining as long as they were not used as objects of worship, Wijeratne says.

Though the statues stood while he wrote this for Sri Lanka's government-owned Daily News last November, he was sceptical of the Taliban's intentions.

And quite prophetic. ``Like the other numerous Buddhist historical sites in Afghanistan it is a matter of time before the Bamiyan Buddhas are reduced to rubble and dust.''


Updated: 10-3-2001

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