A Living Witness to the Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas

Nineteen years ago, as Taliban fighters entered Bamiyan, a tremble ran through the two large Buddha statues. The statues, although already scarred, still stood proud in the heart of the cliffs. But on March 11, 2001, the magnificent statues of Shahmama and Silsal finally collapsed in an attack organized by the Taliban. This event said a lot about the negligence of the international community and even their involvement in the destruction of the statues. Now, years after the event, people still fear a return to that point in history.

Around two decades have passed since the destruction of the statues of the Buddha. Afghanistan and a number of interested countries are engaged in talks and negotiations to restore one of the two large statues. According to cultural figures, although rebuilding the statues can in no way restore the original charm and position of this ancient human heritage, it will serve as a means of recognizing this cultural heritage, which makes it a praiseworthy and valuable act.

When it comes to accounts of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, I wanted to hear about it from someone who witnessed the destruction of the statues by the Taliban in 2001 in person and saw those shocking scenes from up close. After much searching, I found his address: he repairs two-wheelers in a corner of the old city of Bamiyan. I could not find him on the first day, and neighboring shopkeepers told me that he had gone to his son’s wedding and had not been to the shop for a few days. The next day I went there again, and this time the gate of his little booth was open. After greeting me, he offered me to a seat. I asked him, “Are you Sayed Mirza Hossein Ahmadi?” He replied in a Hazaragi accent, “Yes, brother. How can I be of service?” I sat next to him and our conversation began.

Sayed Mirza Hussein was one of the 116 men that were taken captive by Taliban fighters when they entered Bamiyan Province. The Taliban bound him and his fellow captives’ hands and legs to prevent them from fleeing. He became witness to one of the most shocking cultural incidents in the world: the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban.

Ahmadi says that after killing people, the Taliban’s aim was to blow up the statues of the Buddha, and they did not want to leave Bamiyan without destroying them. When it came to the act of destruction, the Taliban made prisoners of war do forced labor, without pay. The captives’ legs were released and they were made to transport the explosives into the caves located at the bottom of the statues. According to Ahmadi, this was something he did not want to do, but he was forced to move and plant explosives at gunpoint. Taliban gunmen had shot one of his relatives who was unable to carry explosives due to illness, right in front of his eyes. They dumped his body in a cave near the statue.

Eventually, the Buddha was destroyed by a series of powerful and terrifying explosions within a week. To celebrate, the Taliban beheaded nine cows and distributed the meat among themselves as a “celebration of victory”. “At that time, I felt that I would never come out of there alive,” Ahmadi said, adding that he had no hope of surviving and returning home. “I felt a sense of anguish and despair while placing the materials and when the Buddha statues exploded. At that moment, I thought I was destroying Afghanistan with my own hands. But I had no choice – the Taliban stood over me and coerced me with threats of violence.”

“Foreign engineers were guiding the Taliban”

According to the narrator of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, he noticed the presence of engineers who dressed differently and spoke foreign languages ​​while moving the explosives. These individuals, who appeared to be trained in the use of explosives, guided and cooperated with the Taliban. “I did not know them,” Ahmadi said. “They did not talk to us at all. But it was clear to me that they were foreigners, as they spoke foreign languages ​​and dressed differently. Inside the cave of the statues, we also saw antiquities being looted.”

There is no specific report on whether some foreign country had given the order to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas to the Taliban. But a number of scholars and other observers of the destruction of the statues say that it would not have been possible to destroy the two large statues without the support of outside countries. Ahmadi called the Taliban’s bombing of statues of the Buddha a “horrific and unforgivable crime.” He said that the Taliban were used by foreigners to blow up and destroy this masterpiece of humanity without knowing its historical, cultural and economic significance.

In recent years, representatives and archaeologists of some countries have held meetings in various countries in the presence of government representatives to discuss the reconstruction or restoration of the statues. It is still not clear how the restoration would be conducted, how much it would cost and which countries would cover the expenses. Ishaq Azizi, head of the Bamiyan Department of Information and Culture, told 8 Subh that several meetings have already been held, but the coronavirus outbreak this year has prevented the representatives of relevant institutions from meeting, and discussions on this issue are currently at a standstill.

One of the plans for the reconstruction of the Buddha, which may be approved by most supporting countries, is for one statue to be rebuilt and the other to remain as it is, as a reminder of history and a symbol of the Taliban’s actions. But Sayed Mirza Hossein Ahmadi, who witnessed the collapse of the Bamiyan Buddhas, expressed concern that if even one of the statues was rebuilt, the Taliban would destroy it again.

According to him, the Taliban will not be willing to make peace, as the group has no independence in its decision-making, and even if it does makes peace, the restoration of the Bamiyan Buddhas will not be acceptable to them. According to him, one of the reasons the Taliban oppose the rebuilding of the statues is ethnically motivated. They do not want the residents of the central regions of the country, especially Bamiyan, to have a good economy with the growth of the tourism industry. “If the Buddha statues are built, the Taliban will still destroy it in any way possible,” he said.

Mirza Hossein Ahmadi believes that it is unwise to spend money on rebuilding the statues until a strong, efficient and inclusive government is in place, as otherwise any party could cause chaos and the Taliban could destroy them again. Officials, however, say that the cultural achievements of the last two decades should not be sacrificed for peace.