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Saving the Buddhas of Mes Aynak

In a race against time, archaeologists are working to save a Buddhist site of immense significance in Afghanistan, slated for imminent destruction by a Chinese mining firm.

Jonathan DeHart
Saving the Buddhas of Mes Aynak
Credit: Brent Huffman

Outside the village of Mes Aynak, in eastern Afghanistan’s mountainous Logar province, a burgeoning Buddhist center once flourished. In its heyday, this Silk Road hub thrived on trade between the Middle East and Asia, and hosted Buddhist pilgrims who helped spread the faith.

As The New York Times noted, while Europe was crawling through the Dark Ages, Afghanistan was home to Nestorian Christians, Persian Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews and, finally, Muslims, in a tolerant, prosperous society.

According to The Guardian, the 2,600-year-old site contains fortified monasteries, a Zoroastrian fire temple, several Buddhist stupas, more than 1,000 statutes and walls featuring frescoes of donor portraits and scenes from the Buddha’s life. Not to mention smelting workshops, miners’ quarters (even then the site’s copper was well known), a mint, two small forts, a citadel, and a stockpile of Kushan, Sassanian and Indo-Parthian coins.

Today, this treasure trove of cultural and spiritual heritage stands at a crossroads. One way leads to the development of a tourist hotspot: a win-win scenario that would breathe life into the local economy while preserving the integrity of the site. The other path is colorfully illustrated by Brent Huffman, a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University, who asks us to hypothetically imagine the following scenario taking place at another site of similar value: Machu Piccu.

“Imagine Machu Picchu at dawn cloaked in fog. Now imagine the fog slowly lifting to reveal an enormous ancient city perched on the edge of a mountain,” he wrote for CNN. “Picture a sense of mystery being immersed in thousands of years of history as you walk between antiquated hewn stone structures. There is tranquility in the wind-blown stillness of the primeval site. You feel a renewed sense of kinship with the past and with your ancestors and feel a deep reverence for their lives and accomplishments.”

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He continues: “Now imagine the menacing sound of bulldozers closing in and men at work. Their heavy machinery rattles the ground. You hear workers rigging dynamite to these massive stone structures. There is a brief lull and then the deafening blow of multiple explosions as Machu Picchu is razed to the ground.”

“Be at ease,” he added, “Machu Piccu is a UNESCO protected site. But a very similar 2,600-year-old Buddhist site in Logar province, Afghanistan isn’t so lucky.”

Unfortunately, Huffman’s guided visualization is no exaggeration. In 2007, the Chinese state-backed China Metallurgical Group paid $3 billion to the Afghan government – its largest contract ever – for mining rights to Mes Aynak (“little copper well”), which contains an estimated $100 billion worth of copper. To reach the coveted natural resource, the firm plans to dig a 500-meter-deep crater that would effectively wipe the archaeological treasure off the map.

Mes-Aynak-5At present, excavation of the site is only 10 percent complete and the bulk of the more significant findings would traditionally come to light in the remaining 90 percent of work. But here’s the problem: the remaining 90 percent of excavation would take an estimated 25 to 30 years to complete, while the mine project is slated to begin shortly. While the group initially planned to begin the project this month, Huffman reports that Mes Aynak has received a stay of execution.

“Two things are happening,” he told The Diplomat. “All the bad publicity plus logistical problems are holding up the Chinese project to an extent.” But keeping the project at bay is not a long-term solution, he acknowledged.

““My goal is full preservation of the site,” he said. “Rescue archeology, which is taking place at the site now, is very destructive: breaking structures to get what’s inside, chipping off small pieces of artifacts…While it is good that we are at least doing this, the bigger fight is to get it to become a UNESCO site. That would be the dream situation.”

Having already produced videos on the story, including this op-ed documentary short for The New York Times, Huffman’s real mission in the Mes Aynak drama is completing a feature-length documentary, funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, which will explore the unfolding fate of the site from multiple angles. The project is ongoing and Huffman hopes to wrap it by summer’s end. Huffman is sharing 10 percent of the funds raised with the hardworking Afghan archeologists on site at Mes Aynak, who have used the capital to purchase computers, cameras and other equipment.

After its Silk Road apogee, Mes Aynak was abandoned, only to be discovered again in 1963 by a French geologist based in Kabul, who stumbled on its ruins during a survey of the area’s copper deposits. The Marxist coup of 1978, the Saur Communist revolution of 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan conspired to prevent a full investigation of the site.

In recent decades, Mes Aynak has served as an outpost and training ground for al-Qaeda’s fresh recruits. Professional Pakistani art thieves capitalized on the chaos, lifting what appears to have been a massive payload of Gandharan Buddha images from the site. And according to the Journal of Art Crime, Mohammad Atta, 9/11’s lead hijacker, purportedly tried to sell looted artifacts from Afghanistan to a German archaeologist to bankroll his flight training course in Florida.

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“Local people are upset that smugglers excavated and took these things to Pakistan,” Javed Noorani of Integrity Watch, an NGO that monitors the extractive industry, told The Diplomat. “One of the people who used to be a smuggler told me that he used to sell these things in Pakistan. But now he regrets doing this with something that is so priceless.”

Against this tumultuous backdrop, Mes Aynak has become a hotbed of competing interests, involving archaeologists, black market hawkers and even the Taliban, who were responsible for demolishing two giant Afghan Buddha statues carved from a cliff side in 2001. Archaeologists at the site report facing danger to this day. According to Noorani, 1,700 members of the Afghan Public Protection Police have been hired to protect the site.

“Last year, my colleagues and I received repeated message on our cell phones from a Taliban commander who asked us to pay money, or else our vehicles would be blown up by an IED,” Abdul Qadeer Temori, head of the Afghan Institute of Archeology, told The Diplomat. “Initially we didn’t take the text seriously, but we started receiving the messages again and again so we informed the ministry and the ministry in turn informed other security organs. Three times we missed an IED by a few minutes.”

But it is the copper mine project that threatens to deal the final blow for Mes Aynak. While the loss of cultural heritage cannot be quantified, the money involved is a huge incentive to proceed with the project.

The issue is complex. Destroying an irretrievable part of a nation’s cultural heritage is unconscionable. But Afghans need to work and they need jobs to get their economy back on its feet.

“It’s a war-torn country,” Huffman said. “Young people need work. Most people are interested in the financial side of the site. The Buddhism-Islam division has never come into the conversation. Even members of the Taliban – some of whom I’ve talked to – have never expressed any anger towards the Buddhist aspect of the site. It’s all about money and politics.”

“No country in the world would like to lose such a historic site,” said Temori, who supports the project, nonetheless. “Afghanistan is a war torn country and the economy is very weak and dependent on the international community. I myself am very happy that Afghanistan can use its own mines.”

Temori added, “Common people who are jobless want the mining project to start as soon as possible. The Chinese have “promised job opportunities, schools, clinics, roads and many more facilities and privileges to the people of Logar.”

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This developmental push is the rallying cry of the project’s proponents.

“We will use it to build infrastructure – agriculture, electricity – and strengthen the Afghan security forces,” Abdul Aziz Harib, a Ministry of Mines official who is responsible for Mes Aynak, told The Diplomat. “In short, this project will help Afghanistan to stand on its own feet and make us self-sufficient.” According to Harib, some 7,000 Afghans will be directly employed by the mine, while 35,000 will work for the project indirectly.

Whether these benefits will ever truly materialize remains to be seen. According to statements made late last year by Afghan finance minister Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan government could pocket $300 million annually from the project by 2016. Rumors of corruption have haunted the project from its inception, however, with the former minister of mines resigning after accusations swirled that he allegedly took a $30 million bribe.

Moreover, “Chinese companies have a history of making false promises,” Huffman notes. “They buy the right people off, they’re on time, they’re reliable.”

Integrity Watch’s Noorani says, “I think a multi-stakeholder approach with civil society present in the process is urgent to see that things are monitored well and money spent on the intended project.” Given Afghanistan’s record of corruption, this doesn’t seem likely.

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Beyond the loss of cultural heritage, the mining project has the potential to wreak tremendous havoc on the local environment. Says Huffman, “In a lot of ways it will look like what happened in Butte, Montana, at the Berkeley Pit. It’s a crater that is so toxic nothing could ever live there again.”

Meanwhile, Huffman has been busy. Besides the documentary, he is drumming up support for a protest against the mine that will take place in Los Angeles on June 16.

“Lots of young people, especially Afghans and Buddhists, plan to attend,” he said. But he admitted that he fears “it will be like the Bamian Buddhas that the Taliban destroyed in 2001: after it happens, people will say ‘how terrible!’ But people aren’t doing much about it ahead of time, while there’s still a chance.” Elsewhere, particularly in Buddhist Asia, fervor to save the Buddhas of Mes Aynak is strong.

Further, what is happening in Mes Aynak serves as a wake-up call to protect similar sites, some quite nearby.

Philippe Marquis, head of Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), told The Diplomat, “Every archaeological site is in certain ways unique but nevertheless there are many sites in Afghanistan that are as important as Mes Aynak, even possibly more important and which are equally in danger of destruction.”

Huffman added, “Mes Aynak could set a very troubling precedent of corporations bribing officials to set up the conditions they want, regardless of the impact.” He continued, “Mes Aynak is unique in terms of the size – a massive ancient city – but it’s not just the Chinese or Mes Aynak.”

Sanjay Kumar, The Diplomat’s New Delhi correspondent, contributed to this report.