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The Killid Group
A smugglers paradiseWritten by Mohammad Fahim Haidari
Saturday, 01 October 2011 09:46
Plunder goes on fuelling the global trade in Afghan antiquities
Three decades of war have left a destructive footprint on what was once ancient and medieval Afghanistan. Museums, monuments and historical sites have been looted; local commanders and strongmen have smuggled the treasures out of the country. Herat, Takhar, Ghazni, and Logar are among the archaeologically rich provinces in the country.
The Killid Group has investigated the abuse of ancient ruins in these provinces, which became rampant under the Mujahedin government. Since 2001, as a result of the continuing insecurity, the plunder of historical places has not stopped.
This is a paradise for smugglers. According to Abdul Ahad Satak Serweri, a member of Hakim Sanayee Association, most excavations reveal things of great interest to archaeologists. Even when people construct their houses, they find ancient ruins in the ground. Local people have used the gravestones from many of the old graveyards in the province in the construction of their homes. He says that smugglers organised excavations last year, together with security forces, in Ghazni city, and carted away heaps of important finds.
Abdul Baqi Hilaman Ghaznawi, a researcher in Ghazni province, says: "Based on a UNESCO report, 90 percent of ancient monuments in Ghazni province have been looted." Looters have not spared even the shrines and have hacked out precious stones.
Afghan artefacts are sold in antique shops in Pakistan, he says.
Satak Serweri claims: "Things from the tomb of Sultan Masud, son of Sultan Mahmood, that was looted during Taleban years from the Ghazni museum, have been taken to Peshawar."
Sometimes the original is stolen from the museum and replaced with clever forgeries, Ghaznavi says.
According to him, "Most of the people who sell antiques are involved in smuggling."
Satak Serweri confides that Asadullah Khalid, former Ghazni provincial governor, who is now minister of tribal affairs, had "identified several antique sellers who were smugglers." Killid tried to speak with Khalid but did not succeed.
Aai Khanum is one of the most important historical places in the province. But excavations here have been mainly for looting.
Habiba Danish, an MP from Takhar, says: "Most of ancient monuments during the years between 1995 and 2000 have been dug by strongmen, local commanders and Taliban and smuggled out of Afghanistan. In 2005 and 2006 foreigners who were not identified made excavations in Aai Khanum. They dug in the shrine of Taluqan king."
Aqebatullah Adibyar, the director of information and culture in Takhar, says: "Local governments during Mujahedin years illegally dug areas in Aai Khanum. Some of these people are still in the area."
Residents of Dasht-e- Qala district are concerned about the illegal activities of local commanders.
They point fingers at commanders like Mamur Hassan, Subhan Qol, Piram Qol and Kabir Marzban who they say have illegally done diggings in the Aai Khanum area. But a few of the local commanders who spoke to Killid denied the allegations.
Mamur Hassan, who lives in Aai Khanum, says there has been no smuggling since the time of the interim and transitional government (in the wake of the fall of the Taleban regime "Smuggling ancient artefacts took place during the Resistance years and before that by commanders who had influence in this area," he said.
Mamur Hassan admits he was among the commanders actively plundering the area. "I was under the influence of people who were senior to me and had greater powers," he said defensively.
He said that following an excavation by a French team several pillars and pillar heads were illegally obtained.
Judge Mohammad Kabir Marzban, a local commander who is currently serving as an MP in Wolosi Jirga, acquired some other things. They were moved to Khaja Bahawoddin district in 1992. Currently, they are used in a hotel there.
Asked why he had not handed over the artefacts to the Ministry of Information and Culture, Marzban replied: "They would have been destroyed by locals (who do not understand the historical worth). I prevented that and had them transferred to a private museum in Khaja Bahawoddin. In fact, it is a service (I have done). It is worth mentioning that so far, no government official has asked me any questions regarding this."
Marzban strongly believes the Ministry of Information and Culture cannot safeguard Afghanistan's ancient treasures.
Marzban was provincial governor, battalion commander and Jehadi commander in Takhar for a period of time.
Meanwhile, Mohammad Omar Sultan, deputy culture in the ministry of information and culture, said private museums that are not licensed by the ministry are illegal.
Subhand Qol, another local commander in Takhar who denied he was involved, said: "Those who find ancient artefacts never inform the government. They transfer them outside Afghanistan through private contacts."
Abdul Wase Ferozi from the Archaeological Research Institute of Afghanistan says: "No one will dare to disclose names of these individuals".
Maryam Kofi, an MP from Takhar in Wolosi Jirga puts the blame for the pillage on the government, which has not once taken serious action against antique smugglers.
The province has made a few arrests of people involved in smuggling artefacts including Ajmal, director of historical heritage for assisting smugglers. He was later released. Wali Shah Bahra, Herat's director of information and culture and Mohammad Omar Sultan, cultural deputy, ruled out the possibility of Ajmal's culpability. Still, Bahra maintains: "Ordinary individuals cannot smuggle without assistance of professional smugglers. Therefore, important figures are behind them. I believe that even foreign hands are involved in smuggling in Herat."
There seems to be less clandestine digging and smuggling in the province in the past year. Bahra says: "Three years ago a person was arrested in connection with stealing from the National Museum in Herat. He died mysteriously at night in police detention." The case was never solved.
Continued insecurity in the province has made it even more difficult to protect Logar's mainly Buddhist statues and monuments. Ferozi of the Institute of Historical Research believes smugglers - both local and foreigners - are very active in the insurgency-affected areas.
In 2003, the interior and information ministries constituted a special force of 500 soldiers to safeguard sites but they have not been able to get to Logar.
Colonel Enayathullah, commander of 012 Operation Unit, says they have made 28 arrests at different ancient sites, including a French national in Bamyan province.
There have been rumours of the involvement of ISAF personnel, but the spokesman General Carlsten Jacobson, has denied the charges.
When will the plunder of archaeological sites stop?