Afghanistan's Buddhas still under threat

Seven strangers pulled into town a few weeks ago with a keen interest in a nearby Buddhist temple. They asked the local villagers why they wanted to work for pennies when they could make hundreds of dollars stealing Buddhas instead.

The villagers' response? On May 16, they called the cops and had the outsiders arrested. But by then it was too late. Heads and torsos, hands and feet were removed, leaving behind only the delicately formed draped clothing of a once-exquisite, now-defaced, Gandhara-style clay Buddha.

And this is where the mystery begins. The arrested men were carrying official permission letters from the Ministry of Culture. And through pressure from the Culture Minister himself, the men were released, never to be seen again.

Culture Ministry officials say it's all a misunderstanding. Local police say it's a case of corruption at the highest levels. And foreign diplomats say it's an indication that today's Afghan government may be no better at protecting Afghanistan's historic treasures than was the radical Islamist Taliban regime.

"There are people working at the Ministry of Culture who know where these Buddhist places are, and they can help the thieves to find the artifacts," says Noor Mohammad Pakteen, the police chief of Logar Province, where Mis Ainak is located. "It's not just that one place. There are so many other places in Logar that have Buddhas. But the problem is that we don't have enough police officers to protect them."

That there are any Buddhas in Afghanistan at all, of course, is a minor miracle. The 12th-century Afghan conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni did his best to destroy all "idols" in his native country, and traveled as far as India to destroy some of theirs as well. The 21st century Taliban followed in Mahmud's footsteps, setting off tons of explosives over three weeks before finally bringing down the historic Buddhas of Bamian in March 2001. But it's the charges of weakness at best and corruption at worst within the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai that most frustrates historians.

"There is corruption in this government, no question about it," says one Western diplomat in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But Mr. Karzai himself is determined to stop it, and he promises that he will be acting soon to remove corruption."

Given Afghanistan's numerous challenges it is hardly surprising that protecting Buddhas is a lower priority, this diplomat adds.

For his part, villager Inzoor Gul has no doubts that the Buddhas were stolen with the help of Afghan officials. He says the strangers made it perfectly clear that their intent was profit, not preservation.

"They told us that if we do this work for them, without the government finding out, they would share the money with us," says Mr. Gul.

Police chief Pakteen says he conducted a thorough investigation into the arrested men, and is convinced that they were thieves. They were carrying letters from the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Culture, and the leader of the group - who spoke pashto with a Pakistani accent - even claimed to work for the US Embassy in Kabul. All of their paperwork, except for the Culture Ministry letter, was false.

"The thief came to me and said, 'There is something I want to tell you but not in front of the others,'" Pakteen recalls. "When we went a little distance he told me, 'I am from the US Embassy.' These smugglers always use this technique, whether it's drugs or Buddhas. They use the name of a foreign embassy as power, they want us to be afraid of them and let them go."

In any event, the accused thieves were eventually released. Pakteen sent the men to Kabul into the care of the Ministry of Interior, whose security chief released the men after a personal appeal by the Minister of Culture.

Mohammad Nadir Rasooli, director of archaeology for the Culture Ministry, admits that the accused men were not employees of the ministry, but that they were local men who had found the site and had offered to show it to officials. It was all a misunderstanding, he says.

"They were our guides, they were local people who brought information that there were Buddhas in Logar and by the time we got to the site, they [had been] arrested by the police," says Mr. Rasooli. "I personally don't have any relation with them to know whether they are good people."

If the Buddhas are now stolen from Mis Ainak, he says, it was probably Pakistanis who stole them. "The smugglers want to sell Buddhas abroad, and Mis Ainak is a case like that," he says.

In the tiny village of Mis Ainak, tribal chief Mohammad Arif says it doesn't matter much who took the Buddhas; what matters is that a vital part of his heritage is now gone.

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