Rene -- Plunder goes on across Afghanistan as looters grow ever bolder -- 12.19.03
Plunder goes on across Afghanistan as looters grow ever bolder
Trade in antiquities worth up to #18bn as thieves excavate sites
James Astill in Bazy-Kheil
Saturday December 13, 2003
It was meant to be a rare success story. According to the Afghan
minister of culture, the small mound of soft yellow earth at
Bazy-Kheil, 20 miles east of Kabul, was one of the country's few
protected archaeological sites. But as Mohammed Zakir, one of
Afghanistan's five archaeologists, puffed to the top, he saw something
was badly wrong.
A fresh rectangular pit had been cut into the side of the
seventh-century Buddhist stupa. "That's nothing... it's a hunter's
hiding hole," one of the soldiers in attendance insisted. "He's
lying," Mr Zakir groaned.
Looters discovered Bazy-Kheil two years ago as the global trade in
Afghan antiquities gathered pace. A local warlord promptly banned
government officials from visiting the site, as his troops plundered
its treasures. Then he relented, handing in 13 seventh-century buddhas
and promising to plunder no more.
But, to Mr Zakir, the evidence of that freshly dug pit was damning.
"Even these soldiers are thieves," he said bitterly. "They pretend to
be guarding this site, but when we leave they can take up their
Since the fall of the Taliban two years ago, Afghanistan has become a
grave robbers' paradise. The Taliban destroyed many world-famous
Buddhist sculptures, including the giant Bamiyan buddhas, but
protected most of the country's more than 3,000 historical sites. Now,
with the US-backed government virtually powerless outside Kabul, local
warlords in partnership with Pakistani criminal gangs are looting with
"There was looting under the Taliban, but it was nothing compared to
now," Mr Zakir said. "This is a total disaster, a complete
According to Unesco, the UN culture agency, the global industry in
stolen Afghan antiquities is worth #18.3bn ($32bn) - more than the
opium trade. Other experts dispute the figure. But none doubts that,
at the current rate of plunder, the land where east and west have
collided for millennia and a dozen civilisations flowered and fell
will soon be stripped of its heritage.
"If this situation continues, in a year or two Afghanistan will be
emptied of all its history," said Sayed Raheen, the culture and
"This is a tragedy, not only for us but for all humanity. When you put
an ancient object in an Arab millionaire's living room, it loses its
relation to history. It becomes meaningless."
The 13 buddhas of Bazy-Kheil are now in the Kabul Museum, once one of
the finest in Asia. It was ransacked by rival mojahedin factions in
the early 1990s. The Taliban stole more of its wonders - including the
exquisite Bagram ivories, a 2,000-year-old collection of Indian panels
- and smashed others. Now the museum has no roof, as it waits for
international donors to deliver promised aid.
Further from Kabul, some of the world's most important archaeological
sites are being laid bare. At Kharwar, in remote central Afghanistan,
looters have discovered an ancient city stretching for 25 miles. From
a trickle of confiscated artefacts, most archaeologists say the city
dates from around the seventh century, shortly before the arrival of
"There hasn't been a discovery like this for a century; it's the
Pompeii of central Asia," said Anna Rosa Rodriguez of the Society for
the Protection of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage, an NGO. "Can you
imagine? Even the Bamiyan buddhas don't compare to this, and
legitimate scientists cannot get there."
Several government and UN missions have been turned away from Kharwar
by local warlords. An Italian archaeological team flew in three months
ago, but was permitted to spend only one day at the site. When the
government subsequently sent nine police officers, four of them were
murdered and the rest fled.
"There could be many more such sites; we don't know because the
country's never been properly excavated," said Jim Williams of Unesco
"It's being excavated by criminals. They're the same people, the drug
barons, the warlords, who are causing all Afghanistan's problems. But
we still can't get the international community interested."
Unesco's budget for the country is #860,000, almost all of which is
being spent on stabilising the empty plinths at Bamiyan, where the
giant buddhas once stood. Afghanistan's government is only barely able
to afford Mr Zakir's salary of #23 a month; it has no budget for
protecting its historical sites.
Meanwhile the looters are growing bolder by the day, according to
analysts in Kabul. Two weeks ago a six-tonne, 1,500-year-old buddha
was intercepted at Peshawar railway station in northern Pakistan. At
Kharwar, local villagers say Pakistani dealers are arriving with
orders for specific antiquities.
According to Mr Raheen, a Pakistani general caused an uproar at an
exhibition of Afghan archaeology at the Guimet Museum in Paris by
declaring that he had much better pieces in his living room.
"The problem of this looting is like all the problems of Afghanistan,
it's another bead in the necklace," said Abdul Feroozi, head of the
National Institute of Archaeology.
"To stop it, you must do the same things as to stop the drugs and
other crime: strengthen the government, build up the police and the
national army, break the power of the warlords. Unfortunately we are
still waiting for these things."