BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (AFP) – In a huge cavity dug into the side of a cliff, workers search through the rubble to exhume the remains of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan.
At the scene of the crime carried out in 2001 all evidence points to Osama bin Laden as the mastermind.
“This is the terrorism of the Taliban,” says Rahim, an official at the work site in front of the empty niche of the biggest of the two statues, one of which stood 55 metres (182 feet) tall and the other 38 metres.
Wearing a hard hat and a mask over his mouth, one of the workers, Rajab, is trying to save the remains of the destruction in which one of his family members played a part.
“The Taliban took Ali Reza, one of my relatives, and they suspended him from a cable at the side of the Buddhas. Then they forced him to beat at the statues with an axe and an iron rod,” he says.
“They took four or five like him, to punish them for having fought against them.”
He says there were Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens among the Taliban fanatics who oversaw the demolition of the ancient relics — until then the largest standing Buddhist statues in the world — carried out on the orders of the head of the Taliban regime because they were deemed idolatrous.
One of his colleagues, Abdul Ali, adds: “The Taliban were the executors, but the masterminds were the Arabs and the Pakistanis.”
At the nearby village of Sangchaspon, where the government has sent people who once lived in caves dug into the cliff around the Buddhas, two more witnesses give a similar account.
“They started with tanks but that did not do much damage so they brought in explosives,” says Mirza Hussein, another of the prisoners the Taliban brought in to destroy the Buddhas.
“There were Arabs and Pakistanis,” says Hussein, who was present for all 25 days it took to demolish the statues. As he recalls it, the foreigners “came by helicopter”.
It is no secret that Osama bin Laden moved around Afghanistan in a helicopter. Indeed, former Tunisian footballer Nizar Trabelsi told investigators ahead of his 2003 trial in Belgium on terrorism-related charges that he accompanied bin Laden on a day trip to Bamiyan aboard the Al-Qaeda leader’s personal helicopter.
Trabelsi, who was sentenced in September 2003 to 10 years in prison for having planned a suicide attack on a military base, described in great detail how he and bin Laden had used the statues as targets for shooting practice.
Documents found in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban attested to the influence exercised by bin Laden and Al-Qaeda on Mullah Mohammed Omar, head of the Taliban regime, that led him to decide to demolish the monuments.
The destruction of the Buddhas was an expression of the ultraconservative salafi Islam, whose followers believe it to be a pure form of the religion, according to Afghan specialist Olivier Roy, who adds that Al-Qaeda followers are salafists.
The destruction of the Buddha, he said, was proof of the influence of the terror network on the Taliban.
“It is at the same time an alignment with Al-Qaeda in the field of ideas and also an endorsement of the protection of bin Laden,” he said.
In 1999 Mullah Omar issued a decree that the Bamiyan statues “shall not be destroyed but protected” because Afghanistan’s Buddhist population no longer existed and so there was no possibility they would be worshipped as idols.
But a resolution passed by the UN Security Council in December 2000 demanding the extradition of bin Laden and toughening of sanctions against the Taliban regime seems to have inspired a reversal of that hands-off policy towards the Buddhas, not only in Bamiyan but nationwide.
A few weeks after the Security Council resolution was passed, the Taliban issued a new decree ordering the destruction of all statues across Afghanistan because they “may be turned into idols in future”.
The destruction of the two Bamiyan Buddhas allowed Al-Qaeda to drive the Taliban to a point of no return with the international community.
“It was a direct response to the demand of the Americans to hand over bin Laden,” says Roy of the pounding of the Buddhas.
“This attempt (to have Bin Laden surrendered) was done for from the moment at which they destroyed the Buddhas.”