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Wednesday, January 7, 1998 Published at 21:59 GMT


Historic monuments under attack
image: [ Authorities are appealing for international help to protect the Buddahs of Bamiyan ]
Authorities are appealing for international help to protect the Buddahs of Bamiyan

In the snow-capped mountains of central Afghanistan, another war is quietly raging.

No blood is being spilled. No shots are being fired. This war is not fuelled by hatred, but by neglect.

[ image: The largest Buddah is as tall as a 10-storey building]
The largest Buddah is as tall as a 10-storey building
With little press and grieving, the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, thought to date from about 200AD, are slowly being destroyed.

The huge figures, carved into a cliff face, tower over a valley in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains. The site is of great historical significance, but as refugees from Afghanistan's bloody civil war settle and work to make the area more habitable, they are destroying the invaluable archaeological site.

Now local authorities are taking action, appealing to the international community to help preserve what remains of the ancient Buddha complex.

Giants of the ancient world

[ image: One of the few remaining frescoes]
One of the few remaining frescoes
Central Afghanistan thrived in the days of the Silk Road. Camel caravans criss-crossed the region as they traded between the Roman Empire, China and India.

The heart of the now-forgotten Kingdom of Kushan had been glorified by two colossal Buddha statues. They were carved into a cliff in the mountains that tower over the valley of Bamiyan.

One of the statues stands as high as a 10-storey building and has been described as the most remarkable representation of the Buddha anywhere in the world.

The vast statues were painted in gold and bright colours and decked in dazzling ornaments.

[ image: The maze of caves linking the Buddahs of Bamiyan]
The maze of caves linking the Buddahs of Bamiyan
All around there was a synthesis of Greek, Persian and central and south Asian art. There were countless rich frescoes.

On one cave wall for example, there were images of Buddhas in maroon robes strolling in fields of flowers. In another place milk-white horses drew the Sun God's golden chariot through a dark blue sky.

One thousand monks from 10 distinct monasteries carved caves from the cliff. Yellow-robed monks welcomed travelling pilgrims and celebrated festivals with fluttering pennants and silken canopies.

Under attack

Today, Bamiyan is home to a quite a different community.

Afghanistan's civil war has brought a wave of refugees to the maze of grottos that connect the Buddhas.

[ image: Refugees are inadvertently damaging the site]
Refugees are inadvertently damaging the site
Many are struggling just to survive.

One man, Janat Mir, was building a wall and a door for the front of the cave, which shelters his numerous children.

Their home near Kabul was smashed in an artillery strike that also killed Janat Mir's father. The cave is now all they have.

But like the other cave dwellers, their presence alone - the family and its donkey - are damaging the rare archaeological site.

[ image: The Mir family]
The Mir family
At the feet of the largest Buddha, the refugees have created a lorry park.

Every day lorries, loading and unloading, manoeuvre right at the Buddha's feet, sending damaging fumes and vibrations up his giant frame to the fragile frescoes that adorn the area around his head.

For a time, residents even stored large amounts of ammunition at the Buddah's feet. The figure was effectively standing on a mound of explosives.

Local authorities fight back

[ image: A lorry park at the foot of the Buddah]
A lorry park at the foot of the Buddah
Local authorities are aware that the Buddhist complex is important - if only because they know it will be a major tourist attraction if and when peace finally comes.

Conservationists continue to be deeply concerned by military activity in the area, which could at some point attract potentially devastating fighting.

The whole extraordinary, ancient Buddhist complex is in desperate need of proper preservation. It needs management to prevent damage by soldiers, refugees or thieves who might loot what remains of the frescoes.

But in poverty-stricken central Afghanistan there are not the necessary resources or archaeological know-how to care properly for the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan.

And day by day, the war continues.

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