by Melissa Kerr Chiovenda
In Bamiyan, Afghanistan, locals’ discussions on Hazara history and recent oppressions faced by Hazaras would often incorporate the meanings that two Buddha statues, built in the 6th and 7th centuries and destroyed on March 10 2001 by the Taliban, held for Hazaras. During my stays in Bamiyan between 2011 and 2013, some individuals recalled myths that explained the statues as symbolising the foundational ancestors of Hazaras, while others considered them to be nothing more than un-Islamic idols. Against the background of these myths, many locals pondered whether the destruction of the statues by the Taliban epitomised the suffering of Hazaras that reaches far into history.
Panorama view over the Bamiyan Valley, with the empty rock niches in the back. © Abdul Latif Azimi 2015
The huge rock niches in which the statues once stood remain there, surveying the landscape. Here, the statues are simultaneously present and absent. My friends in Bamiyan felt that the destruction of the Buddhas was a tragedy: for the ethnic Hazaras and others who inhabit the area, for Afghanistan’s heritage and for the world. They believe everyone should have a right to experience such a unique cultural artifact. Yet, concerning the future of the statues disagreement is common among the community. Some believe that rebuilding the Buddhas could be helpful, not only to bring back some of the lost beauty to the valley, but also to attract tourists. Others argued that the empty niches suffice as tourist attraction and that money, which would be used to rebuild the statues, should rather be invested in public facilities such as schools and hospitals.
One empty rock niche, surrounded by the famous rock caves that, during their eventful history, sheltered meditating Buddhist monks, refugees of violent conflicts, Taliban and weapons. © Abdul Latif Azimi 2015
Shukria Neda is one of those who believe that the statues should be rebuilt, at least one of them. Shukria works with the Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Project in Bamiyan. An ethnic Hazara herself, she told me: “When I went to Bamiyan for the first time to start my career, during the initial days I was faced with the empty places of the Shahmama and Salsal statues. When I went near the niches and saw the remaining pieces of the statues, I was not able to stop my tears.”
Shukria’s life story of the time before she came to Bamiyan is remarkable. As a child she was forced to flee her home in the Ghazni province for Helmand because of the Taliban, which were oppressive to Hazaras. In Helmand, she founded a school for girls, which operated in secrecy and was later recognized and funded by UNHCR and UNICEF.
“The first month I stayed in Bamiyan, I often went to the empty niches. Standing there was not like being in a geographical location, it was a place between two generations. The first generation created the statues thousands of years ago and they left it to us. We are the second generation, those who were to inherit these valuable historical monuments. But I felt that my generation is the guilty generation, the generation that destroyed the statues. I began to wonder, what could be done to atone for this?”
© Abdul Latif Azimi 2015
Shukria came up with a campaign called “Two Afghanis Donation for the Salsal and Shahmama Restoration.” The basic idea was to motivate the locals of Bamiyan to donate a small amount for the restoration of the statues. A locally led project would, Shukria believed, be more meaningful and those who lived every day in the shadows of the niches could feel that they were doing something to remedy the situation.
Bamiyan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, at present the international organisation does not have a clear policy concerning the statues. In regard to reconstruction, UNESCO has expressed concerns, as the entire cliff face has been rendered unstable by the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas. On the other hand, as the Afghan Department for the Preservation of Monuments has indicated that they would like to see the monuments rebuilt, UNESCO declared their intent to examine all possibilities.
Meanwhile, Shukria works hard to show that rebuilding will be beneficial to the community in more ways than simply to stimulate tourism. Her concern reaches beyond pragmatics. Believing that projects of reconstruction after conflict can help communities in their healing process, she says, “If we think of the Bamiyan statues, the two events that happened to them are the two parts of a single history. First is the creation of the statues and second is the destruction of them. If we restore both (figures), we will omit the history of destruction and if we leave both destroyed as they are now, we will omit the history of their creation. This is why the best option is to restore one of the statues.”
Shukria Neda gives a peace sign in front of one of the Buddha statue niches in Bamiyan. © Abdul Latif Azimi 2015
Recently, during the annual Silk Road festival of Bamiyan in June 2015, there was a holographic light projection of one of the Buddhas at night. Everyone I spoke to from Bamyian discussed the deep emotion they felt at seeing this temporary “restoration.” Perhaps Shukria is right and, for the people of Bamiyan, a reconstruction of one of the statues could restore much more than just a tourist site or historical monument.
View of the holographic light image of one of the Buddhas. The citizens of Bamiyan were joyful to see the Buddha return. © Abdul Latif Azimi 2015
Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.
About the Author and the Photographer:
Melissa Kerr Chiovenda is finishing her PhD in Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, for which she spent 18 months in Afghanistan conducting research on ethnic Hazara civil society activists.
A native from Bamiyan, Abdul Latif Azimi is a professional photographer and social activist. He graduated from the English Department of Bamiyan University in 2013 and has worked since 2010 with various media and news agencies, such as Republic of Silence, Kabul Press and Sada-e-Shaharwand Daily News, AFP and the Bamiyan Tourism Association. Currently, he works as photographer for the Xinhua News Agency in Bamiyan.