Buddhas | Florence Aubenas
Buddhas Print
Florence Aubenas   
  Buddhas | Florence Aubenas Florence Aubenas was born in 1961. Foreign correspondent for French daily newspaper Libération, she is the author of three books: On a deux yeux de trop (Rwanda, juillet 1994), La fabrication de l'information with Miguel Benasayag and Résister, c'est créer. She is currently writing a novel.

From a yellow cliff eaten up by snow-charged clouds the story emerges. Sunk into the rock on either side--two gigantic sarcophagi, emptied like two graves since March 2000 when the Taliban pulverised the buddhas which had stood inside for more than fifteen hundred years. Nothing remains of these colossal sculptures but an all-pervading dust, and an echo of the worldwide outcry which followed.
In the shadow of this extinction, something in the cliff seems to stir, a movement almost imperceptible in this outsized landscape. A couple of pebbles roll. Perhaps nothing more. Then men appear. In rock holes, grottos, and ancient cells once occupied by fourth-century Buddhist monks, dozens of families have taken refuge since the fall of the mullahs in winter 2001. The lame, the harassed, the lost have burrowed into the remains of two ghosts the world raised to martyr status.
On a rocky ridge a line of men squat, motionless, like birds on a branch. This one had land, much land, which is to say he owned a hectare. Another was a big. cattle owner – he had four cows. And this small bearded man who goes without shoes had two rooms, a stove in each one. Today, some of them don't even have finger – they fell one by one into the snow, frozen. “In the war we ourselves fell to pieces,” recounts an old man, once a regional manager in agriculture. “One of my brothers was killed. A child froze to death.” He himself has only one hand 1eft; his wife lost a leg; “When there was nothing left, it was our bodies we strew along the way. Unlike the buddhas, we made no noise.” Everyone looks at the cliff. “When I saw the Buddha gone, it was as though they’d cut our noses off. They’d disfigured us,” says one. Everyone nods. No one in Bamiyan, capital of Hazarajat central Afghanistan, believes the statues were destroyed for the reasons Mullah Omar gave, that non-Muslims would turn them into “objects of worship”. “They wanted to smash our history, our identity, the identity of the Hazaras.”

Their way barred by mountain peaks and starving soldiers, it wasn’t until 1998, two years after Kabul had fallen, that the Taliban broke through the lines around the massif of Hazarajat for the first time. “When we saw them coming down the mountain from Bamiyan, we scattered. I put on my wedding dress, hoping it would save my life somehow,” says a primary school teacher. “They chased us on horseback. Those they captured were asked, “Are you Tadjik or Hazara?” The Hazaras had their eyes gouged out, then they were stabbed to death.”
With their Mongol features, Hazaras – Shiite Muslims in the middle of a Sunnite majority – account for that 15 percent of the Afghan population which everybody else, regardless of ethnicity, agrees to call “The Others”. Sold as slaves only a century ago, long barred from schools and administration, they were accorded the work usually set aside for animals. It’s perhaps for this reason that Hazara leaders were the first to embrace the ethnicisation of Afghan politics after the Soviet withdrawal at the beginning of the eighties. The only man in the entire district who doesn’t belong to a Hazara party is Fakir, sitting on a stone, arms folded. “He doesn't count: He's too poor, in money as in family,” Abdul the butcher explains. “Otherwise every true-born Hazara obeys the Hazara party – he knows that only his own people will look after him.”
During the first two months of the Taliban occupation “we lived hidden near the summit,” the primary school teacher takes up again. “The youngest and oldest died from the cold. From there we saw the Taliban climb above the Buddhas’ heads, grab our flag and plant their own.” When the Taliban sent an emissary promising them the lives, the Hazaras went down the mountain, to towns and hamlets reduced to ashes.
The Taliban authorities, made up of local notables who had paid for their office, had to keep the mullah army supplied with wheat, wood, meat and men. Often these conscripts found themselves in the firing line acting as human shields – two Hazaras for one Taliban – unarmed because the Taliban feared they would turn on them. “If you didn't want those closest to you conscripted, then you had to pay,” says Ahmed, a farmer.Two months after the fall of the mullahs, he is still making repayments on the life of his son, to a cousin in Kabul
In the streets of Bamiyan, no one could look a Taliban in the eye. “They insulted us, they said, ‘What are you doing in this country?’ It’s not yours, you must be killed.” We knew, though, that the Buddhas in the cliff had features like ours – their faces were ours. They were proof that our history goes back much longer than anyone else’s, and that we are the true Afghans.” Just back in Hazarajat after exile in Pakistan, Doctor Ali Khan tells how, at the beginning of the last century, King Abdul Rahman had murals destroyed in the grotto of the Buddhas, smearing them with tar the better to burn them, smashing the heads of statues to bits – “Those which depicted us, our daily life. No one in Afghanistan could tolerate images of the Hazaras.” Holed up in the mountains, several hundred Hazara soldiers – led by Karim Khalili, warlord and chief of the main Hazara Party, Hezb-e-Wahdat – organised a guerrilla army and attacked Taliban garrisons at nightfall. For months, Sidikh, formerly an officer in the royal army before the flight of Zaher Shah in 1973, went from family to family in the province’s remotest hamlets. “I looked at the sons and to their: fathers; I said, ‘They’ll be killed anyway. Better they die in our trenches than in your homes.’” After twenty years of successive conflict, war is part of the very fabric of life. Red Army tank treads are used as bridge railings or as speed bumps at checkpoints. Empty mortar shells become traffic cones. In every house, pieces of tanks, shells, and mangled machine guns are used to give potatoes a stir or to hang up blankets. “We had almost nothing, but our leaders said. ‘In order to become human you must accept that you may be killed.’ We agreed. We too wanted to walk into Kabul with our heads high,” says one soldier. So the families gave up one son, two, sometimes more. In four years the region changed hands five times. But Hazara troops could only hold their positions a few days, a few hours, at a time.
Near a small landing strip on the heights of Bamiyan, a wide plateau stretches off towards the surrounding peaks. The way is blocked by great blankets of snow against which a man or donkey stands out; hillocks rise up whenever the slope flattens out a little. These are villages. If the mountain is red, the houses are too. If it's ochre, there are ochre houses, so intimately does one blend into the other it’s difficult to say what is wall and w hat is rock. There on a ledge is a large mound of earth, with standing stones, fluttering flags. In the cemetery, kids know how each person died – hundreds of them. “When the Taliban took the region, the reprisals began each one worse than the last. We had to die, sell our belongings, supply them endlessly with food. In the end we begged our own soldiers to stop – ‘You don't have the means, don’t attack’.”
At the local barracks, which Hazara troops have occupied since the American bombardments, a private is ripping a door off its hinges for firewood. “At that moment we had no other choice but to go back to the towns. We weren't even able to feed ourselves.” In 2000, at the feet of the buddhas, members of a family from Turkmenistan had their throats cut. Tourist, they were accused of spying. The local Taliban commander posted a decree. “The Buddhas create disorder, bring in outsiders. It is forbidden to admire them.”
In January 2001 the Taliban, having withdrawn, return again. “It was deep winter,” says a peasant woman from the district of Fulladi, “the snow was two metres deep. It was clear we wouldn’t survive without roofs over our heads. We put out white flags and begged for mercy.” No village is spared though. In Jakawlang, the town closest to the lines the Hazara had fallen back to, the most systematic massacre is carried out. “They rounded up the men near the bazaar, tied them up two by two. It lasted only a couple of hours in all.” For six days, the women are not allowed to collect the bodies, all two hundred of them. The region empties, a frenzied and deadly eight-month exodus ensues. Bamiyan loses nine-tenths of its seventy thousand inhabitants. Only Taliban, Tadjiks, and some wealthy Hazara families who have agreed to collaborate remain. “They needed to be waited upon, so they let a few of us live. We were their slaves,” says Muhammed Ghadir. He has nothing left: “only women – my wife and two daughters.” It is the beginning of February 2001.
From the moment they arrived in the province, the Bamiyan Taliban never liked to get too close to the Buddhas. Long used as arms dumps by the Hazara army, they were believed to be booby-trapped.
“One morning, fifty of them turned up, very organized. They set up an artillery battery and began firing,” says Fahim, who wasonce a farmer. For several days after this they drove up and fired off a few rounds into the eyes, without getting out of their 4x4s. “It was as though there were some Taliban who didn't really want to destroy them. But then the heavy weaponry came out again. That lasted a month. In the end they brought in a lorryload of explosives every day. Buddha had lost his legs, but was still standing.”
On March 6, Mohammed Ghadir is in town delivering eggs to a Tadjik shopkeeper. “The Taliban strapped dynamite to the statues and fired on them with rockets. We wanted to close the shop. They forced us to watch and slapped us in the face when we closed our eyes. I was filled with horror. If Buddha can't survive, how am I supposed to?” In Hazarajat, after four years of Taliban rule, nearly fifteen thousand people were dead.
Twelve thousand families have returned, with on average a week’s supplies to see out the five months of winter. In the snow, half-naked children sort berries and herbs to be boiled up later.
“As long as we’ve got water…” The dust of the Buddhas mixes with that of the town, in ruins too, blown-up like the statues. In some villages, a visit from a mobile Médecins Sans Frontières unit is the first time a doctor has ever been seen. “Since the civil war in 1992, governments have given aid only to regions whose military support them, or whose alliances they want to break up. Today the new interim power mistrusts us too much to send anything. Despite what they say in Kabu, regional loyalties are never guaranteed.” Back in the capital the minister of culture, Raheem Makhdoom, is clearly in favour of restoring the buddhas. “The decision will be made after a convention of international experts and if a special international fund is set up, notably by UNESCO. I think the West is keen on this.” More discreetly, one of his civil servants comments, ''Materially, I don't think it’s possible. It’s our way of showing other countries that we've changed, and of keeping the UN happy.” No financial aid for the the Hazara community is foreseen.
In the grottos of the cliffs of Bamiyan, all that’s left of the giants are dust-flows leading to the frozen rive. A woman looks at the snow which is beginning to collect in drifts.
«The buddhas died, just like men do. We live like stones.”
Décembre 2002 Florence Aubenas