The Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban 20 years ago. Photo: Reproduction The Art Newspaper
The Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban 20 years ago. Photo: Reproduction The Art Newspaper

NIn recent weeks, Taliban guerrillas have been conquering territory in Afghanistan. They took control of their first provincial capital on the 6th of August and, just recently, on the 15th, they took over the country's capital, Kabul. On the resumption of the extremist group after the final withdrawal of US troops from the country, Brazilian journalist Adriana Carranca wrote: “The return of the Taliban was expected. The last time I was in Afghanistan, they already controlled 80% of the provinces and were 30 minutes from the capital Kabul. The US failed. In 20 years of war they could have transformed the country, but they opted for drones… Afghanistan is a young country and the new generations didn't (don't want) the Taliban. They had a lot of hope that the US would bring freedom and development.” Carranca explains that this did not happen, however, because with the departure from the US, the money invested (by security companies, mainly) also goes away. She adds that “as of 2014, Afghans constitute the second largest group of refugees, behind only Syrians. Many died on the crossing to Europe. Thousands were deported.”

The context

To understand some of the context of such political turmoil, the iranian journalist Jason Motlagh summarizes: “For 50 years, Afghanistan has gone from coups to conflicts. In 1973, an Afghan general deposed the king and declared himself president. Five years later, Afghan communists assassinated him and seized power. The Soviet Union invaded the following year to support the Communists, triggering a decade-long guerrilla war. The US funneled billions of dollars through Pakistan to anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters from across the Islamic world – including the Saudi jihadist Osama bin Laden – and they ended up forcing the Soviets to withdraw. A power-sharing deal failed and the militants split into warring factions. The Taliban emerged from chaos and seized power in 1996.”

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who covered Afghanistan for two decades, reports (in an article for the The Atlantic) that by the time of his first trip to the country, in May 2000, the Taliban had implemented their interpretation of Sharia law, Islamic law. “Education for women and girls was prohibited in almost all circumstances, and women (except for selected and approved female doctors) were not allowed to work outside the home or even go out without a male guardian.” After the US invasion followed by the 11/20 attack, the Taliban fell. “Women quickly proved invaluable to the country's reconstruction and administration work. There was a great wave of optimism, determination and belief in the development and future of Afghanistan,” writes Addario. Now, those gains appear to be fading, according to reports collected by her. “While I can't take away who Afghan women have become in the last XNUMX years – their education, their desire to work, their taste for freedom – fear permeates the country,” she says.

"Schools in Kandahar, Afghanistan, February 7, 2009. The previous November, 16 girls had been sprayed with acid by Taliban sympathizers as they walked to school. Most returned despite constant threats to their safety," Lynsey Addario. Photo: Originally published in The Atlantic. Credit entirely to the photographer and The Atlantic.
“Schoolers in Kandahar, Afghanistan, February 7, 2009. The previous November, 16 girls had been sprayed with acid by Taliban sympathizers as they walked to school. Most have returned despite constant threats to their safety,” Lynsey Addario. Photo: Originally published in The Atlantic. Copyrights entirely reserved to the photographer and The Atlantic.

According to Motlagh, more than three out of four Afghans are now under the age of 25: “Too young to remember the Taliban’s reign of fear, and especially in urban centers, too used to freedoms to be eager to relinquish them.” points. For the journalist, some people in rural areas see the return of fundamentalists as inevitable and preferable, but many Afghans shaped by the post-2001 reality are defiant, not wanting to return to a reactionary and repressive past”. Haji Adam, a tribal leader who spoke to Motlagh, however, questions: “For 20 years, the whole world came and money came into Afghanistan, but how did that help us? If water were under our control... if there was electricity, we would have products instead of war. If the roads had been paved, there wouldn't have been so much destruction.”

Saving heritage to save the history of the Afghan people

Without losing sight of the primary concern with the humanitarian turmoil of the last few days, we think about the survival of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. According to Gareth Harris and Dorian Batycka, in an article for the The art newspaper, the last time Kabul was under Taliban control, 20 years ago, about half of its cultural heritage was lost. The authors explain that the group’s interpretation of Sharia “prohibits the depiction of icons, human bodies, and other deities, which in the past has resulted in the systematic erasure of minorities and women, who now need to be accompanied by male guardians and wear the veil".

The Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban 20 years ago. Photo: Reproduction The Art Newspaper
The Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban 20 years ago. Photo: UNESCO/A Lezine. Reproduction Wikimedia Commons.

In February of this year, the Taliban declared that they intended to “robustly protect, monitor and preserve” the country's relics, despite their dismal record. In an interview with Andrew Lawler, from National Geographic, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, the director of the National Museum of Afghanistan is not reassured by the claim: “Unfortunately, the statement is unclear, especially with regard to pre-Islamic heritage.” Pieces intentionally shattered by looters during the civil war and in 2001 took years to reconstruct by the museum's conservators, including many wood and stone sculptures.

Rahimi's concern about pre-Islamic heritage is not unreasonable. Lawler explains that as an “important artery” on the Silk Road that connects India with Iran and China, Afghanistan is littered with remnants of ancient cities, monasteries and caravanserai that hosted travelers. As a practical example, the director of the Archeology Institute of Afghanistan, Noor Agha Noori, cites the Taliban attack on Mes Ayanak, an ancient Buddhist complex. “The site includes a deposit that originally contained around 8.000 Buddhist artifacts,” says Noori. Due to the lack of security, authorities had already transferred around 3.000 of these artifacts for the protection of the National Museum, however. Other transfers, such as artifacts from the cities of Herat and Kandahar, were made impossible by the abrupt fall of the government, “we didn't expect this to happen so quickly”, laments Noori. It is expected, however, that some archaeological excavations will continue for the moment, including a mission to the citadel of Kabul. In March, with the support of Turkey, the reconstruction of the poet Rumi's 13th century birthplace in the northern city of Balkh began. Likewise, this endeavor has not yet been stopped.

The National Museum of Afghanistan. Photo: Michal Hvorecky.
The National Museum of Afghanistan. Photo: Michal Hvorecky.

Many are skeptical of the extremist group's claims. Omar Sharifi, a professor of social sciences at the American University of Afghanistan, fled from Kabul to Delhi after receiving direct threats from members of the Taliban, he tells Lawler. Other sources added that cultural heritage officials across the country received texts and phone calls from Taliban officials accusing them of working with international organizations, Lawler reports. Keeping these occurrences in mind, for Mohammad Rahimi, the task is twofold: preserving the more than 80.000 artifacts in the care of the National Museum of Afghanistan, but also ensuring the safety of his staff. Both Rahimi and Noor Agha Noori said they have been in contact with their officials in Taliban-controlled cities and that those people appear to be safe for the time being. However, there is no way for them to leave the country if necessary.

UA museum curator with a deep understanding of Afghanistan's heritage (who preferred to remain anonymous) spoke with the The art newspaper about this problem. Regarding the Taliban statement mentioned at the beginning of the text, it is stated: “In the short term, I hope that the culture will not be destroyed, but it is the medium and long term effects on society that are of particular concern to me. Depriving a society of culture will harm an already traumatized nation that was just beginning to see the benefits of a generation of exposure to culture… But history has a cyclical effect and no government stays in power forever.” In contrast, he warns: “Do leopards change their spots? Just look at the Taliban's command structure and its supporters to feel that there won't be much change from 2001.”

Can we do something?

In the meantime, on Twitter (link below), the Wikipedia community created a call for contributions on entries on the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. This is a simple way to help safeguard this heritage in an open and easily accessible portal. Likewise, TIME Magazine has listed some ways that people outside of Afghanistan can contribute, even if minimally (see here). Other news portals highlighted the importance of keeping up with journalism in Afghanistan and, especially, women journalists. Among them are listed: Clarissa ward, Khushbu Shah, Ruchi KumarYalda Hakim

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