Bit By Bit, Afghanistan Rebuilds Buddhist Statues The Taliban destroyed the historic statues a decade ago. But in a painstaking process, the two giant carvings of Buddha are being reconstructed on the side of a cliff in central Afghanistan.
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Bit By Bit, Afghanistan Rebuilds Buddhist Statues

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Bit By Bit, Afghanistan Rebuilds Buddhist Statues

Bit By Bit, Afghanistan Rebuilds Buddhist Statues

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Good morning.

A decade ago, when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, they blew up a pair of monumental Buddha statues that had watched over a valley since the sixth century. International teams are now trying to restore those statues. The project is seen as a way to attract tourists to the remote valley of Bamiyan, considered one of the safer parts of the country. But others say the rubble should remain untouched as a reminder of what life was like under the Taliban. From Bamiyan, Joanna Kakissis has the story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS: Bert Praxenthaler is leading people through a tunnel behind what was once the eastern Buddha statue of Bamiyan.

Mr. BERT PRAXENTHALER (Art Historian): We are now on top of the Buddha. There was just a wall and a small opening to go out to sit on the top or the head of the Buddha. But now there is no head, and all this kind of wall has been exploded.�

KAKISSIS: Praxenthaler is a German art historian and sculptor who has been working on this Buddha site for the past eight years. Today, workers are removing scaffolding. The team has spent months reinforcing the wall in the niche that once held one of the two monumental Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

Mr. PRAXENTHALER: And when all those tasks are accomplished, we can approach the reassembling. The archaeological term is anastylosis, but most people think it's some strange disease.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAKISSIS: Anastylosis is actually not so strange in the archaeology world. It's how the Parthenon of Athens was restored. The process�involves combining the monument's original pieces with modern material.�

Praxenthaler and others working in Bamiyan say up to half the Buddha pieces can be recovered. He and his crew have sifted through 400 tons of rubble since 2004. They have recovered parts of the statues along with shrapnel, landmines and explosives.

Mr. PRAXENTHALER: You can imagine that was a very big tank mine. It's very heavy. And you have a lot of other of these materials. You see these shrapnels, and just over there the very interesting forms.

KAKISSIS: What is that?

Mr. PRAXENTHALER: It is just parts of the explosives that had been inside the debris of the Buddha.

KAKISSIS: Some in Bamiyan - including the popular provincial governor Dr. Habiba Sarabi - support the restoration as a way to revive the impoverished area.�Others, like human rights activist Abdullah Hamadi, say leaving the Buddhas as rubble will remind people of the Taliban's violence and fanaticism.

Mr. ABDULLAH HAMADI (Human Rights Activist): The Buddha was destroyed. If you made it, rebuilt it, that is not the history. The history is the broken Buddha.

KAKISSIS: Hamadi is from the nearby district of Yakawlang, where the Taliban massacred more than 300 Hazara two months before they blew up the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.�

Bamiyan is now the safest province in Afghanistan, but people still fear the Taliban. Some in the city of Bamiyan say they'd rather the see the money for the restoration project going to services like electricity and affordable housing.

Homeless villagers like Marzia squat in the caves on the Buddha site. Marzia, who only uses one name, doesn't care about the Buddhas. She tends a goat and takes care of six children alone.

MARZIA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: We don't have a house, she says. So where else can we live?

A few enterprising villagers do use the ruined Buddhas for business. One is Said Merza Husain, who is known around town as the man whom the Taliban forced to blow up the statues.

Mr. SAID MERZA HUSAIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: We had to do this because the Taliban could kill us at any time, he says. One of my friends refused to destroy the Buddha, and the Taliban shot him.

But to get any more details about his story, he charges anywhere between 20 and $100.

Mr. HUSAIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Meanwhile, a few people in Bamiyan are making money putting the Buddhas back together. They work as laborers on Bert Praxenthaler's team. It's the last day on the site for longtime worker Ali Reza. He's here to pick up his payment. He signs his name and picks up a wad of afghanis.�Praxenthaler hands him a certificate and thanks him first in Dari, then in English.

Mr. PRAXENTHALER: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. ALI REZA: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. PRAXENTHALER: And I hope if you come again, it will be supporting again the team.

KAKISSIS: Piecing together the rubble of Bamiyan's Buddhas will take many years.�Like many rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, it will also need a lot of patience and luck.�Bert Praxenthaler's team is hoping to be back at work here as early as this fall.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

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