In the shadows of Bamiyan's Buddhas, it's showtime

Near Afghanistan's destroyed statues of Bamiyan, returning refugees enjoyed a cinematic treat.

It's that scene where Buster Keaton manages to get his ramshackle homemade house off the railroad tracks, narrowly missing the path of an oncoming train, only to place it before a locomotive coming from the other direction. The train pulverizes the house. Keaton and his wife, downtrodden but arm in arm, walk off into the distance.

"That's the story of Afghanistan," says Mohammad Hakim, a minesweeper who is among the 350 or so residents who came out to the site of the destroyed Buddha statues of Bamiyan earlier this month for an evening of short films.

"Everything falls to pieces. Every time we build something up, something comes along and destroys it, whether war or fire or earthquake," Mr. Hakim says.

The setting is surreal. In the background are the former Buddhas of Bamiyan, the gigantic 115- and 175-foot statues blown to rubble by the Taliban last year as symbols of heresy.

In the foreground are a movie projector, makeshift screen, and an audience of locals. The people have gathered to watch a series of Afghan-made educational movies about women's health, landmines, and the loya jirga (the national assembly scheduled for mid-June), as well as the Buster Keaton shorts.

Up above, a spectacular cloak of stars covers the cool night of the Hazarajat, the ancestral home of the Hazara, the mostly Shiite Muslim Asiatic people who make up about 20 percent of Afghanistan's population.

The Hazara suffered cruelty at the hands of the Taliban, who considered them idolatrous infidels. In the face of a serious regional drought, many say the Taliban probably had designs on the Bamiyan Valley's lush farmlands.

Local aid officials estimate that up to 95 percent of the residents of Bamiyan province fled their homes and villages into the mountains and camps to escape the wrath of the Sunni Muslim and Pashto-speaking Taliban. Along the nine-hour drive from Kabul to Bamiyan lie countless crushed homes, burned-down businesses, and emptied villages.

Only recently have the Hazara begun trickling back from the mountains and refugee camps to their villages. They return to their shattered homes and businesses, they visit gravesites, they cry for all that they have lost. And slowly, they begin to rebuild.

"When they were massacring people here, I was freezing in the mountains with my wife and kids," says Ahmad Jan, an affable baker who returned to town about a month ago. "Now, we're starting our life again."

Most of the people here have never seen a movie on the big screen before. And almost all of the children and men (the only women who have come are Western employees of local NGOs) who have come here are grateful and appreciative of the program, sponsored by the French nonprofit group Aina (, which has launched a series of similar screenings throughout Afghanistan.

The last such movie anyone recalls was a film about the Iran-Iraq war shown four years ago at a local school. That was sponsored by the consulate of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But it's not that these people have never seen a movie before. Satellite dishes and video CD players have arrived in Bamiyan. Afghans can rent Indian, Iranian, or even action-packed American movies at one of three video rental shops that have opened up here since the Taliban's demise.

In front of the lost statues of Bamiyan, some of the viewers are wrapped in blankets and packed tightly together, gossiping between films. Others sit in their jeeps and Toyota pickup trucks, as if at a drive-in. Many stand, their turbaned heads silhouetted on the screen.

"Sit down!" bark soldiers present at the screening. "Let the people in the back see."

All eyes are fixed on the screen. They watch an Afghan-made parable about four brothers who have a falling out over a piece of land and fight each other until bloody and near death. The audience cries together. They watch Buster Keaton do a pratfall. The audience laughs together.

"This is a place of so much pain," says Mohammad Zaki, an unemployed young man who returned to Bamiyan with his family just a few weeks ago.

"Maybe showing movies here will make it better. They should show more movies. Maybe twice a week. Maybe every night."

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