Afghans Struggle to Rebuild National Museum Efforts to restore the National Museum in Kabul are not unlike the struggle to rebuild Afghanistan itself. Two and a half years after reopening, the three-story building at the edge of Kabul has more scaffolding than exhibits.
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Afghans Struggle to Rebuild National Museum

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Afghans Struggle to Rebuild National Museum

Afghans Struggle to Rebuild National Museum

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Afghanistan's national museum in Kabul is a good metaphor for that country's struggle to resurrect itself.

Two and a half years after it reopened, the museum still features more scaffolding and rubble than exhibits. What wasn't demolished by the Taliban, looted by smugglers or damaged by shelling is mostly in storage. But members of the staff have chiseled their determination onto a marble post in front of the museum. It reads: A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Kabul.

(Soundbite of stone hitting ground)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It's a challenge with little reward for this Afghan technician in the national museum's restoration room, finding which one of the hundreds of excised rocks spread out before him broke off from the one he holds in his hands. Over and over the Afghan picks up gray colored stones from the plastic covered table, hoping one will fit.

On this morning the match eludes him. At one time this pile of stones was a statue of Buddha. But like some 2,000 other artifacts here, it was destroyed by the Taliban six years ago. The staff says the demolition teams came to the museum almost every day for nearly three months. Their actions still haunt museum deputy director Yahia Mohib Zada.

His eyes moisten as he points to a 3rd century clay Buddha-like figure in meditation. The reconstructed statue, which sits in a glass case in the entrance hall, has few original parts. Mohib Zada says it was the first statue the Taliban destroyed. One of them yanked the Buddha by its crown, he says, sending it crashing to the floor. His accomplices finished the job with axes and hammers.

Mr. YAHIA MOHIB ZADA (Deputy Director, Kabul National Museum): (Through translator) When they broke the first statue, I cried. I felt they were ripping my arms out. I realized the history and culture of this country were being destroyed.

NELSON: It wasn't the first time. Director Omara Khan Massoudi says his museum, once a repository of Afghanistan's rich history as crossroads of Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, was torn apart piece by piece over the last 15 years. Rockets lobbed by warlords during the civil war of the 1990s destroyed the top floor of the three-storey museum. Looters made off of most of the remaining pieces.

And then came the Taliban, who decided that Islamic law required them to destroy what was left. Massoudi, who has worked here for 28 years, says he is determined to bring the museum back to its original grandeur.

Mr. OMARA KHAN MASSOUDI (Director, Kabul National Museum): It is too difficult, but daily these things happen. There was no chance for us. We have to have a lot of patience. We have to try our best for rehabilitation, for repairing of these pieces. We have to do it.

(Soundbite of hammering)

NELSON: Work on the museum building itself is almost finished, although workers are still renovating the third floor. Afghan workers are restoring artifacts under the guidance of foreign experts.

Holland and Japan recently donated glass display cases. And last Friday, the museum staff got their biggest thrill yet - the return of more than 1,400 artifacts held in Switzerland over the past decade for safekeeping.

This week the staff catalogued the items, rewrapped them and put them in storage. Deputy director Mohib Zada says things just aren't safe enough in Afghanistan yet to risk them being stolen or blown up in some suicide attack. But Massoudi says perhaps his most difficult challenge will be to get Afghans to come back to the museum. Only a handful of visitors trickle in on any given day, and almost all of them are foreign.

Author Rory Stewart, who heads Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a nonprofit group that is working with the museum, is optimistic. He says the key is to reconnect ordinary Afghans with their heritage.

Mr. RORY STEWART (Turquoise Mountain Foundation): None of this has been done for generations. It requires an extraordinary amount of investment and diligence and care with objects which perhaps don't mean so much to people anymore.

NELSON: Stewart says he plans to help by luring Afghans with their favorite pastime, an afternoon in the park. His group was tapped to restore the museum's garden, which he plans to make into a small park with a water fountain and teahouse.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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