The Buddhas of Aynak: The Afghan Cultural Site That the World Does Not Care About

by Malik Achakzai

Originally published at policymic.com

One of Afghanistan’s biggest archaeological treasures may soon be turned to dust as a Chinese mining company which has bought the site turns it into a sprawling, billion-dollar copper mine.

The Buddhas of Aynak, situated in a desert region 20 minutes southwest of Kabul, is an archaeological site containing ancient Buddhist artifacts dated over 2,500 years old. It also holds rich mineral deposits, especially copper. Formerly an ancient Buddhist monastery complex, the historical center has more than 150 Buddha statues. It is of immense worldwide importance and is one of Afghanistan’s richest historical sites.

The site also has a violent and troubled history. A common rumor is that Al-Qaeda planned the 2001 September 11 attack from a camp in Aynak. The area is also a major transit route for insurgents coming from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Archaeologists have found a number of artifacts dating backing over a millennium on the site, even unearthing manuscripts that may provide evidence regarding the presence of Alexander the Great’s troops in the area.

The Buddhist ruins are scheduled to be destroyed at the end of December 2012. In November 2007, a 30-year lease was granted for the copper mine to the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) for $3 billion, making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history.

The Afghan Mining Ministry estimates that the mine holds some six million tons of copper. The mine is expected to be worth tens of billions of dollars, and to generate jobs and economic activity for the country but all of this critically threatens the site’s archaeological remains, which are now being hurriedly excavated by private organizations.

Brent Huffman, a volunteer working to preserve this archaeological site, has produced a documentary about the Buddhas of Aynak, and is busy collecting donations to boost the excavation work. In an interview with Huffman, I asked about the history and the status of the excavation of the Aynak.

 

Malik Achakzai: Could you discuss the historical importance of the Buddhas of Aynak?

Brent Huffman: Mes Aynak, or “little copper well” is a vast ancient Buddhist city 400,000 square meters in size. There are over 400 hundred life-size or larger Buddha statues, a circular monastic complex and dozens of temple (stupa) structures. 

More is being discovered daily, including hundreds of ancient manuscripts hidden inside many of the stupas. 

Archaeologists are only beginning to find remnants of an older 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site beneath the Buddhist level including an ancient copper smelter.

M.A: How important is this site for Afghanistan and the world?

B.H: This site is extremely important to not only Afghanistan but to the entire world. The incredible discoveries at Mes Aynak will redefine the history of Buddhism and Asia. Mes Aynak represents a major hub on the Silk Road where pilgrims and traders would exchange ideas and influence each other. People at Mes Aynak also mined for copper themselves using ancient mining techniques.

M.A: How long will this process of excavation go on, and how many organizations are taking part in it?

B.H: Excavation is set to end Dec. 25th, and the site is set to be destroyed by the Chinese mining company unless we do something to stop it. This should be a 30-year excavation job, but it has been a sporadic three-year rushed rescue archaeology job so far. DAFA, the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Mines are all involved.

M.A: What’s the stance of Afghan Government and the Chinese Company to preserve this important Buddha’s heritage?

B.H: The Ministry of Culture is attempting to save all small artifacts and move them to the National Museum in Kabul. All the bigger relics, statues, structures, temples, etc. are too fragile to be moved and will be destroyed after Dec. 25th.

M.A: UNESCO and other international organizations for culture and heritage — have they played any role pressuring the Chinese company and Afghan government to extend the period of excavation?

B.H: No, UNESCO has not played any role so far. There have been several international groups (ARCH, Global Witness, the Smithsonian, the Thai embassy, and my own campaign) putting pressure on MCC and the Afghan government.

M.A: Is the security of The Buddhas of Aynak satisfactory, have you or other organization felt any threat, because Taliban and other militant organizations view them as un-Islamic?

B.H: The security at Mes Aynak is very poor. Rockets have been fired at both the MCC mine and the archaeology site and anti-personnel land mines have been placed on the road at night. These attacks are all over money, not Buddhism.  

Six villages in Logar province have to be leveled to make way for this enormous open-pit style copper mine. These villagers are angry about the way this process played out – either they were never compensated for their loss or the compensation was very low. They have been partnering with the Taliban to attack the MCC mine and the archaeology site.  

The copper mine will also cause terrible environmental devastation, poisoning the land and water permanently.

Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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CityScapes: Kabul

Originally published at PakTeaHouse

The experience of any city is created by the ‘user.’ You can make any city our own. Even in a city as close as Karachi, Kabul is deemed ‘exotic’ and adventurous.  As a Pakistani, it is closer to home than most of us would imagine. However, Kabul is not for tourists, it is for travelers. But there is a romance in the air that is unmistakable. If you are in Kabul, explore something besides the ruins and war relics.

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Food Trail

Kabul, like Karachi, has only one kind of nightlife – a foodie kind of nightlife. But it can be a little bit more risqué/fun that Karachi. While Karachi asks you to bring your own, Kabul serves its own.  Kabul has a decent variety of cuisines being served across the city. Thai, Chinese, Indian, Croatian, Middle Eastern and many more.

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Kebabs are everywhere in Kabul!For traditional Afghan food head to Sufi . The restaurant is frequented by expats and visiting delegations as an introduction to Afghan food and will cost you about $10-12.  For a flavor of the aid-worker/foreign journalist watering hole try L’Atmosphere – a French restaurant serving crepes, pizzas, pastas, salads and soups. The bar area is rather popular  for obvoious reasons. The food is a bit pricey but the music is nice – starting with classics in the early evening and ending with Lady Gaga and Pitbull at night. A meal and drinks will set you back by $20.  To eat where the locals eat, try Barg Restaurant in the Khair Khana bazaar.  Barg serves Western fast food and local fare. The ground floor is for men and the upper floors are for families. Meal and drinks will cost you no more than $7.

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Golden pakoras and fries at Mandavi

 

Kabul also has fantastic street food – pakoras, fries, deep fried ‘aloo paratha’ and spicy corn on the cob – from 5 to 10 Afghani.

It is not uncommon for most ‘meetings’ to take place at lunch. It seems most offices, organizations and even ministries have their own mini-catering units, manned mostly by women. These lunches will be the best food you find anywhere in Kabul.

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Home made mantu at the FES Kabul office

 

 

Bazaars

There are plenty of bazaars all over Kabul. The cool weather makes it easy to spend hours in a bazaar but the dust doesn’t help. Mandavi, is a whole sale market selling almost everything you can imagine – vegetables, fruits, clothes, shoes, motorcycles, mattresses, biscuits – from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Iran and China. Of course, the one thing you must buy from here are the dry fruits – go for the local produce instead of those imported from Iran.

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Dried fruits and seeds at Mandavi

 

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The legendary Kandhari Anar

If you’re looking for more contemporary’ shopping then head to the Laisa Marium bazaar in the Khair Khana locality – you can find traditional Afghan outfits here, colorful, embroidered kurtas for men and women. It’s also a great place for people watching. The Shar Nau area is great for loitering around and get posters of Afghan heroes and local handicrafts. Most of the malls including Kabul Mall and City Center are also located in the area.

 

People

By far, the most interesting thing about Kabul is it’s people. The city is rich with stories. Nearly every Afghan I have spoken to in Kabul has lived in Pakistan and speaks Urdu fluently. The people on the streets are friendly and love telling their stories – even if they are a bit exaggerated. Striking a conversation is not difficult. Kabul is a microcosm of Afghan society – Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and the foreigners from all over the world. Take the time to visit sporting events, cafes, barber shops, beauty salons and markets and talk to people to get the real flavor of Kabul.

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Semi-final game of the first ever Afghan Premier League football tournament

Music  

Kabul has a thriving music scene – both local and foreign. There are some plenty of venues that host and groom young musicians. The French Cultural Center in Kabul, recently hosted the Sound Central Festival – an alternate music festival featuring bands from Central and South Asia and beyond.

The Venue is a space for young musicians to get together and jam. The Venue is run by Humayun Zadran, an avid music supporter working on several music related projects including ‘The Bridge’ – which currently brings Pakistani musicians to Afghanistan. If you are a rock music fan, look out for performances by Kabul Dreams. Kabul Dreams consists of young Afghan men, who are average musicians at best but rock and roll needs all the encouragement and support it can get. White City is another Kabul based rock band consisting of an Australian, a Brit and a Swede, who describe themselves as ‘rock therapy.’

 

The dust never settles in Kabul. There is a permanent slow moving haze. In October, the air is chilly and dry – dry enough to cut skin. Kabul is not an easy city – moving around the city is difficult and slow; the weather can be harsh; a woman’s laughter might offend someone on the street.   – but it is a city that will embrace you only when you begin to embrace it. I would love to return to Kabul and get to know it even better, because this was one of the hardest goodbyes I have had to say….

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Reluctant good bye

 

For more pictures from Kabul, check out my tumblr

I Was Born to Hate Pakistanis by Faisal Malik Moonjazer

During the last days of our exchange program in Islamabad, one of my Pakistani counterparts, Delawar Jan, asked me,” You said you really hated Pakistanis when you were in Afghanistan. Where did all this hate come from?”

For a moment, I was silent and finally words came out.

“I was born to hate Pakistanis.” He smiled at me and said, “It’s good now you don’t.”

I am from a remote area called Sar-e-Pul which was part of Jawzjan province years ago. Now, it is separate province. I was selected, along with 10 other young journalists from different provinces of Afghanistan to go to Islamabad and meet a group of Pakistani journalists. A few months ago, I had applied for another three-month scholarship in Pakistan and was shortlisted for it. However, with my pessimism about Pakistanis and sense of hatred, I didn’t provide them final documents to get into the program.

On May 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm, I received an email from one of my best friends, who was also my boss for several years, about this very FES Afghan-Pak Journalists Exchange Program. This was 10 minutes before the deadline. I saw the application links were for Pakistani journalists and so I started ‘googling’ for the Afghan journalists application but couldn’t find it.

I called one of my friends in Khost province who is working with Mediothek for help. He said he was out of office and will send me the application once he returned to work.

I finally received the application form from Mediothek’s main office in Kabul via email from a respectful and  kind man who told me I should complete the application and send it by  tomorrow morning. But I completed it and sent it  within an hour. After several days, I shockingly found out that I was selected for the exchange program. I was happy but still nervous about going to Pakistan. But I decided to go this time for the program. My family also told me to visit Pakistani and see it real life.

After a  few days of staying in Kabul and learning about Pakistan, my thinking had already changed. I learned many things. Pakistan after all didn’t seem as bad as as I had always thought while growing up. We had guests speakers who talked about Pakistani culture and its 50 years of journalistic background. Every word that said about Pakistan was positive. I thought they were doing so as they were paid by Pakistanis.

During the last days in Afghanistan, when we visited the Pakistani ambassador in Afghanistan, he was quite open to us and answered all questions with smiles. It was then, for the first time, I accepted that I had misunderstandings about Pakistan.

He shared with us facts about Pak-Afghan relations that I had never heard. This was all in my country. Things got better when I went to Pakistan.

The first day we reached Bara Gali – one of the most  beautiful places I have ever seen in my life – we met Pakistani friends from different parts of the country. My Afghan fellows were tired because of the long flights and went to rest. But I came to talk to my Pakistani counterparts. They offered me to join them at trekking. First I wasn’t interested, but when I saw their enthusiasm and friendliness, which reminded me of my childhood picnics with my school mates, I readily accepted the offer.

There, I enjoyed interacting with them, especially Ms Beenish for bringing different subjects of my interest about Afghans, so I wouldn’t feel alone being the only Afghan joining them at the time.

Seems like I have thousands of memories from each one of them being so kind to us.

I remember Ms Ayesha Hasan, who interviewed me for a report in her newspaper, on our first day in Bara Gali. Mr Haris, who recited a number Persian poems from different Persian poets. I could say if he was better than me in sense of loving and memorizing Persian poems.

One thing that made me very happy was the invitation from one of my Pakistani counterparts, Ms Sundus Rasheed, to a concert.  It was a big concert with young singers and great audience. We all loved being in the front row at the concert, especially left empty for us. I watched and enjoyed the live concert for the first time in my life.

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Pakistani singer Maria Fatima performing at the CityFM89 concert
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Pakistani band ‘Bell’ at the CityFM89 concert

Ms Rasheed also took me to the office of Pakistan’s largest English daily newspaper, Dawn, so I can freely look over Pakistani newspapers for headlines about Afghanistan in Pakistani media. When I got to the archives, I met someone special –  Mr Ramzan Ali  – the librarian. He was a man of discipline. Everything in place- newspapers were archived by alphabets.  He made me feel as if I was at my own office. I asked him for lots of files. When I asked him if I could take photos of the headlines, he smiled and said, “When it is your office, you can do whatever you want,”

I am not comparing it but I remember once being punched in my face in my country while taking photos.

Friendship, kindness, good behavior, support, humility and honesty –  these were all things I found in my Pakistani counterparts. Looking at the photos and recalling the good memories –  every minute reminds me of their smiles and kindness.

I urge the media from  both countries to let us, the people, decide who is the enemy and who is the friend. Do not feed us with enmity from the day when we are born, instead, I request them to promote a culture of peace and friendship.