Afghan cave dwellers brace against a shift­ing land­scape

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Marzia and her hus­band Qadeer thought them­selves lucky when they moved into a 1,700-year-old Buddhist cave hand-carved into the side of a moun­tain in Afghanistan’s cen­tral high­lands - it was clean and dry, warm in the win­ter, cool in the sum­mer, and there was plenty of work on the lo­cal farms. But now, even this bare-bones way of life is threat­ened.

The fam­ily, along with an­other 242 cave-dwelling house­holds dot­ted around the cap­i­tal of Bamiyan prov­ince, also called Bamiyan, could be forced to move soon. They are what’s left of around 10,000 fam­i­lies who have been re­lo­cated over the past decade as part of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment’s pro­gram to pro­tect the unique man-made grot­toes that it hopes will trans­form Bamiyan into a global tourist des­ti­na­tion once Afghanistan’s war with the in­sur­gent Tale­ban, now in its 16th year, is fi­nally over.

The cou­ple moved here from neigh­bor­ing Maidan-War­dak prov­ince be­cause they be­lieved it was a step­ping stone to a bet­ter fu­ture. “We had no money and my hus­band couldn’t get a job,” Marzia said as she breast­fed her baby. “We left be­cause we were poor.”

But 12 years later they are still liv­ing in the cave, along with their five chil­dren aged from 10 months to 8 years, in­clud­ing 6-year-old Freshta who hasn’t been the same since a land mine ex­ploded close by her four years ago. Her men­tal de­vel­op­ment stopped and she spends most of her time lolling on the thin mat that cov­ers the cave’s floor.

Any orig­i­nal fea­tures, such as the brightly-col­ored geo­met­ric mu­rals that were painted by the monks who cre­ated these caves, are long gone. They’ve been de­stroyed by time, the el­e­ments and the wear-and-tear of hun­dreds of years of habi­ta­tion - in­clud­ing the fires that res­i­dents build for cook­ing and heat. “Life here is dif­fi­cult,” Marzia, 30, said. Wa­ter must be fetched from a nearby stream, and a 9-volt bat­tery charges a so­lar panel that pro­vides light af­ter dark. Cook­ing is done on a stove fu­elled by a gas bot­tle. They have in­stalled a door and a step up into the one room that all seven mem­bers of the fam­ily share. Smaller caves out­side are used for stor­age.

On the ru­ral out­skirts of the city, amid the rut­ted fields where the prov­ince’s main po­tato crop is grown, the cave-dwellers do what they can with their mea­gre re­sources, de­ter­mined that the next gen­er­a­tion will have a bet­ter life. As Shi­ite Mus­lims of the Hazara mi­nor­ity they have suf­fered his­toric per­se­cu­tion, but they have also ben­e­fit­ted from im­mense largesse from in­ter­na­tional char­i­ties and gov­ern­ments.

Amid an in­ten­si­fy­ing Tale­ban-led in­sur­gency, Bamiyan is a haven of peace, as the Shi­ite Hazaras have suc­cess­fully kept the war off their ter­ri­tory since the end of the Sunni Tale­ban’s regime - un­der which they were per­se­cuted and much of the prov­ince’s Buddhist her­itage de­stroyed. A pro­lif­er­a­tion in re­cent years of all-cov­er­ing burqas and hi­jabs among the lo­cal women at­tests to a grow­ing con­cern about the war as it spreads else­where in the coun­try.

Freshta Ah­madi runs a school for 25 chil­dren aged 4 to 9 years old, who gather in the liv­ing room of her fam­ily’s three-room cave home six days a week to learn read­ing, writ­ing and math. Freshta is 18, in her last year of sec­ondary school and hopes one day to be­come a doc­tor. She has been run­ning the cave school since 2012 with money do­nated by Parsa, an Afghan char­ity. “These chil­dren are from poor fam­i­lies, their fa­thers are itin­er­ant work­ers, farm­ers, or refugees from other poorer ar­eas,” she said. Their cir­cum­stances don’t dampen am­bi­tion, how­ever - the chil­dren, mostly girls, stand in turn at the white­board, com­plete a few ex­er­cises in front of their class­mates, then re­it­er­ate their plans for a fu­ture as doc­tors, po­lice of­fi­cers or en­gi­neers.

Two mas­sive Bud­dhas

Bamiyan is prob­a­bly best known as the site of two mas­sive Bud­dhas, one 55 me­ters tall, the other 38 me­ters (124 feet) tall, that were carved into the cliff face above the mod­ern city be­tween the 4th and 6th Cen­turies and which were de­stroyed by the Tale­ban at the urg­ing of al-Qaida in early 2001, in a de­fi­ant show of ex­trem­ist power and hubris ahead of the at­tacks on the United States on Septem­ber 11 that year.

Their mem­ory lingers now in gap­ing niches where the mag­nif­i­cent stat­ues stood as part of an ex­ten­sive monas­tic cen­ter that in­cluded up to 12,000 caves used by monks as de­vo­tional get­aways. It formed an elab­o­rate net­work of monas­ter­ies, as­sem­bly halls, res­i­den­cies and large sanc­tu­ar­ies that were dec­o­rated with fres­cos and stat­ues, many pro­duced with tech­niques unique to this part of the world, ac­cord­ing to ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ra­sool Sho­jaei, who pre­vi­ously worked on their restora­tion with the United Na­tions’ Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

UNESCO has clas­si­fied the “cul­tural land­scape and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains of the Bamiyan Val­ley” as a world her­itage site rep­re­sent­ing Buddhist and Islamic re­li­gious and artis­tic de­vel­op­ments from the 1st to 13th Cen­turies.

The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment is work­ing with UNESCO to re­store the val­ley’s eight sig­nif­i­cant sites, in­clud­ing the Ghul­ghu­lah fortress, be­lieved to be Bamiyan’s orig­i­nal stag­ing post on the old Silk Road that linked China to In­dia. The fortress was razed by Genghis Khan’s hoards in the early 13th Cen­tury and never re­gained its glory.

De­ter­mined to de­velop on its own terms, the prov­ince hosts around a dozen in­ter­na­tional events a year, said Kabir Dadras, head of the lo­cal of­fice of the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion and Cul­ture, in­clud­ing a marathon, a ski­ing com­pe­ti­tion and a va­ri­ety of cul­tural fes­ti­vals. “Bamiyan is very pop­u­lar with In­di­ans, Ja­panese and Kore­ans be­cause of the Buddhist her­itage,” he said.

As part of those plans, he said, all the peo­ple still liv­ing in the grot­toes, and as­sessed as suf­fi­ciently poverty-stricken to qual­ify for the gov­ern­ment’s land re-dis­tri­bu­tion pro­gram, will be moved to new town­ships on the out­skirts of the city by 2018, he said.

For Marzia, it’s been a lot of talk and no ac­tion. “I’ve spo­ken with the gov­er­nor and a lot of of­fi­cials have been here to see us,” she said. “They keep promis­ing that they will give us a flat, but we’ve no idea when, or even if, it will hap­pen.”

Mean­while, her 8-year-old daugh­ter Shepha Qah, who stud­ies at the Parsa cave school, har­bors hopes of be­com­ing a doc­tor. “I have be­lief in my daugh­ter’s am­bi­tions, that’s why we left Maidan-War­dak, so that our chil­dren could go to school and have a bet­ter life,” said Marzia.—AP

Orig­i­nal fea­tures

— AP

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan: In this Mon­day, Nov. 7, 2016 photo, Marzia, 30, in blue, talks to her neigh­bor near her cave.

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