For the Buddhas of Bamiyan the end has begun. They have stood above the rugged valleys and turquoise lakes of central Afghanistan since the heyday of the Silk Route more than 1,500 years ago. By the middle of this week the two huge statues will be gone - victims of dogma, desperation and 20 years of war.
Senior officials of the Taliban militia government yesterday ignored international outrage to proudly announce that their troops were progressing well with the demolition work. 'The head and legs of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan have been destroyed,' said Qudratullah Jamal, the Taliban Information and Culture Minister.
The 53-meter (175-foot) tall, fifth-century Buddha statue located in Bamyan, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) west of the Afghan capital Kabul, is shown in an undated photo. Afghanistan's hardline Taliban rulers on Monday, Feb. 26, 2001, ordered the destruction of all statues, including this one, the world's tallest Buddha statue. The Taliban says statues are offensive to Islam. (AP Photo)
'Our soldiers are working hard to demolish their remaining parts. They will come down soon. We are using everything at our disposal to destroy them. There is no question of stopping.'
Spades, picks, anti-tank rockets, anti-aircraft guns and explosives are being used, Jamal said. Elsewhere in Afghanistan thousands of other artifacts were being smashed. Jamal said that, in accordance with a decree issued by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's reclusive, one-eyed, spiritual leader, all 'idols' were to be destroyed because they were 'un-Islamic'. Jamal said: 'Two-thirds of all the statues [here] have already been destroyed, the remainder will be destroyed in the next two days.'
The two statues in Bamiyan, 175 and 120 feet tall, are hewn from the side of a mountain. The largest, carved in the third century AD, is thought to be the world's tallest standing Buddha.
Both were damaged by artillery fire during previous fighting and have suffered at the hands of looters who have stripped them of their colourful decorations.
Yesterday the Taliban were facing fierce criticism from across the world. Leaders of many Buddhist countries, as well as Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, expressed their dismay at the destruction. India, a staunch opponent of the Taliban, accused them of 'medieval barbarism'.
Even Muslim Pakistan, which has supported the Taliban militarily and diplomatically from the movement's beginning, called for moderation. A number of Islamic countries criticised the ideological basis for Mullah Omar's edict and appealed to them to respect 'universal human heritage'. But the Taliban's resolve appears, if anything, to have hardened.
A senior Taliban official in Islamabad told The Observer that apart from the three countries - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - that have recognised the religious militia as the legitimate government of Afghanistan - the rest of the world 'had no right to complain'. 'They give us nothing... Why should we listen to them?' he said.
The issue of the future of the statues has come up before. When the Taliban captured Bamiyan three years ago, an over-enthusiastic local commander fired a rocket at the biggest statue. He was disciplined on the orders of Mullah Omar who said other religions should be respected in Afghanistan.
Since then, factions of moderates and hardliners have battled within the movement. The conservatives believe that if the country can be made to follow Islamic law to the letter then God will reward them all by bringing peace and prosperity.
The Taliban's refusal to deport Osama bin Laden, the suspected terrorist who is based in eastern Afghanistan, resulted in the imposition of sanctions in December 1999. The moderates believe aid and trade are essential and are willing to compromise to end the country's isolation. The destruction of the idols is thus a significant victory for the conservatives.
Importantly ministers in Kabul called the campaign a religious imperative. It is also a powerful symbol of the power of the Taliban, who are largely Sunni Muslims and drawn from the Pashtoon tribes. A recent rebellion in Bamiyan, whose people are Shia Muslims from the Hazara tribe, was viciously put down, reportedly with brutal massacres. The demolition of the Buddhas has unequivocally demonstrated the militia's authority.
Though many in Afghanistan oppose the destruction of the idols, few will voice any support for the West. Most Afghans feel great bitterness at the West's failure to send significant aid to their country despite a series of humanitarian crises.
Buddhist monks go on a protest march against Taliban in Bhopal India, Sunday, March 4, 2001. They strongly condemn the Taliban-initiated drive to rid Afghanistan of all statues that offend Islam. Most of the ancient Buddhist relics have been destroyed despite international pleas to save them. (AP Photo/Prakash Hatvalne)
According to many analysts it is the poverty of the country and the lawlessness that follows that has led to the rise, and considerable support for the Taliban. The UN sanctions, though aimed at the regime, have also hit the people hard.
Refugees in western Iran said last week that the Afghan currency had lost a third of its value. As Afghanistan imports the bulk of its staple foods, people simply could not buy enough food to feed their families. The worst drought in 30 years and an upsurge in fighting has created huge armies of refugees. The UN says hundreds have died in recent weeks from cold and hunger in the camps where many of the displaced now live.
On Afghanistan's border with Iran last week The Observer saw harsh evidence of the state of the country.
By the side of a dusty mountain road lay the bodies of 11 Afghan smugglers shot in a gun battle with Iranian anti-narcotics forces. The soldiers who killed them were jubilant but when a colonel tipped out a sack of the smugglers' possessions - a few stained, embroidered blankets, a grubby fistful of virtually worthless notes - even the hardened fighters of the border patrols felt some sympathy for the men who had been forced by poverty to risk, and lose, their lives for a pittance. Three of the dead were less than 15 years old.
'They keep coming and we keep killing them. They have no choice,' one soldier told The Observer as they loaded the smugglers on to a truck. 'At least they'll keep their eyes,' said another, the bodies having been collected before the birds could get to work.
If they had stayed in Afghanistan they would have their eyes and maybe their lives but little else.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001