Before I was forced to flee Afghanistan in 2021, I visited the cave-dwellers in Bamyan City, a UNESCO Heritage Site where Buddhist statues were destroyed in 2001. The way they live in those caves and struggles with daily life was not easy to witness.
According to UNESCO calculations, about 700 Afghan families have nowhere else to live.
In ancient times, the monks built those caves and tunnels for proximity to the Buddha statues centuries ago and now they are used as a shelter for thousands of local people in the valley. Among them, there are many other people who came to live in those caves from other provinces, mostly from the Kunduz Province.
31 year-old Hussain Ali, one of the thousands of cave dwellers, defines the problems which he and his family face every day. His kids, like many children of cave-dwellers, don’t go to school.
“We don’t have elsewhere to go and live, the land is super expensive for me to buy to build a home for my family, my mother is ill, and each member of my family has asthma. This is not a life, the main problem for me is to bring water from the hand pump made by foreigners or from the river”.
The history of the Buddhas of Bamyan
The Buddhas of Bamyan were two 6th-century monumental statues carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan 130 km northwest of Kabul at an elevation of 2,500m. Carbon dating of the structural components of the Buddhas has determined that the smaller 38m “Eastern Buddha” was built around 570 AD, and the larger 55m “Western Buddha” was built around 618 AD, which would date both to the time when the Hephthalites ruled the region.
The Buddhas were surrounded by numerous caves and surfaces decorated with paintings. It is thought that these mostly dated from the 6th – 8th century AD, ending with the Muslim conquests of Afghanistan. The smaller works of art are considered as an artistic synthesis of Buddhist art and Gupta art from India, with influences from the Sasanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire as well as the country of Tokharistan.
On orders from Taliban founder, Mullah Omer, the statues were destroyed in 2001, the tragedy of the erasure of the Buddhas from history was a huge loss to the world; it took them 25 days to demolish them after the Taliban government declared that they were idols. International and local opinion strongly condemned the destruction of the Buddhas.
It was a massive shock to the world, especially for the local community and highlighted the Taliban’s hardline regime, which was toppled soon after in the US-led invasion.
The Taliban’s new regime in Bamyan
Now back in charge of Afghanistan and the new regime, the Taliban are eager to present a softer image. They are running the site as a tourist attraction. But only for men, as Sharia law prevents women from visiting tourist sites. The same law already applies to Band-e Amir, the National Park of Afghanistan, and the Paghman Valley witnessed the disappearance of women also.
A group of Taliban has been appointed to these locations by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to prevent women from entering these places and encourage youngsters to grow beards.
After taking Afghanistan into their hands, they have officially launched construction work on a complex beside the cliff where the Buddha is. This action can cause huge and permanent damage to the heritage site.
They are taking action to rebuild a market from the past which was destroyed in the civil war of the 1990s. Their plan includes the building of a tourist attraction centre with handcraft shops, restaurants, hotels, and parking.
After visiting the Bamyan valley and having witnessed the lives of cave-dwellers I didn’t know what would happen to them under the new Taliban regime, would they be forced to leave the caves where they have lived for decades as they decided to make a way for the tourist attraction? Would they be recruited into Taliban? Information now suggests that they have been relocated to cities such as Kabul, Mazar and Ghazni.
Sadly, the future is uncertain for many in Afghanistan.
The yellow barrel of cooking oil that ended the two-decade war in Afghanistan
Before fleeing Afghanistan in 2021, I was employed by the British Embassy’s National Crime Agency. While on assignment in Afghanistan, I learned of a key weapon that the Taliban used to fight the two-decade war.
In 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks, an international coalition led by the United States, invaded Afghanistan. The war started with the aim to annihilate al-Qaeda under the leadership of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan, but who knew that the Americans themselves would suddenly disappear from that land after two decades of failed war. The conflict ended in 2021.
After several gatherings between Ghani’s government, Taliban officials and representatives of Western nations in Qatar, it was decided that Afghanistan would be handed over to the Taliban. This has played a key role in the return of the Taliban back into power.
Once again in 2021, the Taliban seized control of Kabul; the streets were filled with them, and I recall the words of one the Taliban soldiers somewhere in the streets of Kabul. He said, “The yellow barrel of cooking oil pushed back the superpowers of the world”.
A signature landmine bomb
These barrels were generally used for roadside mining by the US army, British Armed Forces, Afghanistan Special Forces, and the ANA (Afghan National Army) convoys. The Taliban, however, used them to make their signature explosive devices and claim that they were crucial for their victory.
On assignment somewhere in the Sangeen district of the Helmand province, our Talib guide (who was deployed by officials to keep eye on us) asked us to stop the vehicle. We thought he was going to pray but when the driver stopped the car, our guide informed us, “Come I will show you something which you have may not have seen in your life before.”
There was a man digging beside the road. After thirty minutes or so, he took out three yellow barrels of cooking oil filled with explosives which were placed by the Taliban for convoys as a landmine bomb.
We met Q., who oversaw the production and laying out these bombs, in target of the US Army, British Armed Forces and ANA. Later I asked him, “If none of these forces are in the country, what will you do with the explosives?” He replied, “We know that the war is over now and there is no one to fight with, but we will need it future”.
The Taliban recruited teenagers to their cause
I questioned our guide, a 19 year-old from Sangeen, with a similar question. “There is no war in Afghanistan and there is no one to fight with. You are a frontline fighter. What are you thinking for your future?”
He took a deep breath and replied, “My biggest dream was to blast myself, and kill the most people with me but my wish was not fulfilled, I don’t know what to do but I will follow my leaders.”
Our guide, A., was deployed by Taliban officials to give us security but also to keep an eye on us. He was just 15 years old when he joined the Taliban. He explained how they placed bombs for vehicles and carried out explosions on checkpoints.
Taliban were digging very tiny tunnels from hundreds of meters away, for example, from a ruin of a house or from a spot from where they could not be spotted towards a check point. But the tunnel would run underneath the check point; sometimes this method was not successful but most of the time it worked. Then, one of the Taliban members would be placing those yellow barrels in numbers depending on the size of the checkpoint. Our young guide claimed, “After few days of hard work we were blowing them up. It was a lovely feeling to know those soldiers were in pieces.”
After the Taliban took over, it was too dangerous to stay in Afghanistan
After the Taliban took over, I had to flee the country. As I worked with the British Embassy, I was no longer safe there. But I will continue to raise awareness of what the Taliban are doing in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban took control of Kabul it was a terrible shock and hard to believe that Afghanistan had fallen with its huge army and all war equipment in hand; the only thing which came to my mind was my safety because we witnessed what they did with those people who were captured or killed in the past two decades. Despite the chaos of Kabul International Airport, like many other Afghans I went there to be evacuated. Less than just thirty minutes before the blast, I received a call to say, “Go back home, it’s not safe to stay there, something is going to happen.” and then they disconnected the call. After few months of hiding, I managed to flee to Islamabad, Pakistan, then moved to the UK with my family,
Finally, I can breathe in safe air, a new chapter of life has started after coming to the UK. I recently moved to Glasgow after living for months in temporary accommodation and am looking to continue to work in my field.
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