A YEAR OF LOOTING DANGEROUSLY

Afghanistan's warlords are abandoning opium-selling in favour of a more lucrative fund-raising activity: looting and smuggling their country's archaeological treasures. Culturally, the effects have been catastrophic; and that is not the worst of it. The conduits opened by the drugs and artefacts are now carrying a much more lethal cargo. The latest illegal trade is in material for nuclear arms

BALKH has been called the "mother of cities". Set on the edge of the central Asian desert, in the lee of the Hindu Kush mountain range of northern Afghanistan, it was for many centuries an impossibly exotic crossroads of civilisations. Zoroastrianism, Greek pantheism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam have all held sway in Balkh; since 2,000 BC, wave after wave of conquerors - Persians, Greeks, Indians, Mongols - have destroyed and re-built the city, leaving behind a layered testimony of man's history as clear as the rings on a tree. Today, only ruins remain.

But what ruins: these are the sort that have archaeologists down on their knees, excitedly scratching away at the earth with a toothbrush. In Afghanistan, however, there are no longer any archaeological expeditions. Instead, on a rainy hillock, a few Afghan mujahedin, shaggy barbarians with AK- 47s, stand guard while more than 100 men and boys swarm over a ruined mound. Shovelling, burrowing, and gouging with pickaxes, they churn up the muddy testimony of two millennia. In their frenzy for gold and silver antiquities, they smash perfume vials of iridescent glass that might have proved the existence of trade between Carthage and central Asia. As their shovels split little clay idols in the mud, nobody stops to wonder what gods Balkh's early inhabitants worshipped. The chance for scientific investigators finding out how these civilisations lived - and perished - is being lost for ever.

Balkh is one among hundreds of historical sites in Afghanistan that have been divided up by rival mujahedin commanders to be despoiled. These warlords operate like armed claim-jumpers during the California Gold Rush; discovery of a precious item often leads to gun battles. Some use bulldozers to raze ancient tombs. Some encircle their digs with Russian tanks or use landmines to keep away intruders (landmines are cheaper than fences). Others think nothing of knocking the head off a life-size Gandhara Buddhist stone - circa third century AD and worth well over pounds 500,000 - to fit the statue on the back of a pick-up truck.

Nancy Dupree, an American scholar who has been writing about Afghanistan for more than 20 years, is one of many Western academics who believe that such wholesale looting of the country's treasures is a matter of international importance. "If you're interested in world art," she says, "in the evolution of ideas and religion, then Afghanistan's past is worth saving from these looters." One does not have to be a scholar to share her concern, because there is much more to this tragedy than mere archaeological malpractice.

An art collector in London or Tokyo, eyeing a silver Greek bowl he has bought from a smuggler for nearly pounds 1m, may feel a connection between himself and its unknown craftsman 1,000 years ago. But that moment of aesthetic epiphany comes with a dangerous price. For that art object to have reached the collector's salon, or, more likely, his bank vault, it has had to pass along a chain of corruption and piracy that extends around the world, through all levels of society - and makes the world a much more dangerous place.

The usual route from the Afghan soil goes south to Pakistan (where buyers and documentation are most easily obtained), then back through Afghanistan to the former Soviet republics (where customs checks are most easily evaded) and out from Russia to western capitals such as London (where end-purchasers with serious money can most easily be found). It is thus not just the Afghan peasant who finds the silver bowl - and has it snatched away from him by the local mujahedin commander - who is involved; nor just the smugglers. There are also corrupt archaeologists, Afghan, Pakistani and Western, who use their PhD knowledge to tell the militias where to dig; and, in Pakistan, corrupt government officials who, if bribed, will forge export licences; not to mention attaches at foreign missions in Islamabad who, for similar considerations, will send objects out in secure diplomatic bags. If the treasure is too bulky - say, a 11/2 ton stone Buddha - then senior army officers must be paid off to haul it by military lorry down to Karachi port. In London, art restorers are hired by prominent dealers to repair the damage done to pieces by clumsy mujahedin.

Nor is that the end of it. Perhaps the most disturbing thought is that thepressures of 14 years of war and the near anarchy that has followed, combined with more than a century of contact with Western acquisitiveness may have obliterated Afghans' capacity for moral judgement. Now, it is all the same to Afghans whether they are smuggling opium, as they have traditionally done, or looted antiquities - or, for that matter, nuclear weapons parts stolen from military installations in the former Soviet Union. And Afghans smuggle all three.

The greed which drives the villagers to loot their own heritage, the smugglers to smuggle, and western collectors to collect, is potentially more destructive than the players imagine. The same conduits and social forces which allow the illicit trade in antiquities to take place are also involved in the more hazardous process of arms looting.

"It works like this," a western diplomat told me wearily. "First, an Afghan offers you some beautiful old Buddha head, then a Stinger missile for about $80,000, and then, if they see you're still in the game, they'll offer enriched uranium or some other nuclear goodies." He himself has been approached by several Afghan nuclear salesmen. Some he considered to be bogus, some emphatically not.

BUDDHA HEADS or bomb parts, they all end up in or around the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar, whose proximity to the Khyber Pass has made it the gateway between the West and East - and a gathering-place for smugglers - for centuries. In the lanes of the old bazaar a few weeks ago, I pushed my way past shops selling caged fighting grouse, gunmakers, and money- changers, past a crazy, booming-voiced mountain man with two live scorpions crawling in his matted, dirty hair. Eventually, I reached the gold and antiques market - more than 100 stalls of it. This is where first-time foreign antiquities buyers go.

The dealer pulled a curtain closed, hiding us from the curious onlookers in the lane. Then he reached for a cheap teapot. From the pot he carefully fished out a few small items, wrapped in tissue: a terracotta goddess with round cheeks; Greek coins; a few flakes of ancient gold. Some of his offerings were obvious fakes. "What's your price range?" he inquired. "$100? $500? $5,000? I sold one coin from the Kushan period [second century BC to second century AD] to an American. He paid me $20,000."

Experienced dealers from London, Tokyo, Bonn and New York seldom trifle with this bazaar barter, I subsequently discovered. An antiquities dealer who wants to pick up the really big stuff around Peshawar - say, an illegally unearthed stone Buddha from the Gandhara period (between the first and fifth centuries AD) - needs to be prepared to wear native disguise and to have the ability to think straight after lung-bursting quantities of hashish smoke.

The ritual seldom varies for these buyers. First, a driver pulls up outside the Pearl-Continental or Dean's Hotel in a Toyota Landcruiser with an extra set of baggy Pathan clothes and a Chitrali woollen cap that looks like a pie crust. This disguise will see the dealer past the dozens of police checkpoints leading into Pakistan's tribal territories, the jagged mountain ranges beyond the law's reach, where nearly every man is armed with a Kalashnikov AK-47. The dealer is driven for an hour or so to a high, mud-walled fortress where there are more large, bearded men with guns.

While gunmen prowl on the fortress roof, the dealer is led into a primitive, earthen-floored room with cheap, synthetic carpets and pillows. (These Afghan and Pathan antiquities smugglers may possess some of the world's most exquisite art treasures, but you could not guess their wealth from their living conditions; they prefer to spend their money on buying cars, extra wives and the loyalty of more gunmen.) Over tea, the room's many shutters are opened to reveal lighted cabinets containing a trove of plundered items. It is not unusual to be offered third century BC gold jewellery from Graeco-Bactrian burial mounds, a silver bowl from the easternmost Greek outpost of Ai Khanoum, lifesize terracotta Buddhas from the seventh century, and third century AD ivories of buxom Hindi dancers. The starting price for such antiquities is usually more than $1m. Their cultural and historical value is incalculable.

Once a price has been struck, a mat is spread out on the floor and steaming mutton served. Then, as one foreign dealer who has had the experience told me, "They take a chunk of hashish as big as my hand and toss it on the fire. You're supposed to stand up in this hashish cloud and breathe in. I'd say easily we went through a kilo that night." Light-headed after the dope, the smugglers handed out small, ancient Buddha heads and first century AD silver Kushan coins to their guests as if they were after-dinner mints.

Further along the smuggling chain, there is no shortage of sophisticated dealers in Islamabad and Europe who are prepared to buy and sell such plunder. In Islamabad, Professor AH Dani, an adviser to the Pakistan government and one of the world's greatest scholars of Gandhara Buddhist art, is frequently asked to comment on looted pieces by high-class dealers who have millionaire clients lined up in London and Tokyo. Usually, they want to know if their Peshawar contact has sold them a fake.

Professor Dani is a member of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Architectural Heritage (SPACH), a group trying to break the chain of greed and corruption by buying back stolen treasures, with financial help from the UN. Unfortunately, as SPACH representative Brigitte Neubacher explains, "We just can't come close to the prices that most of the big dealers in Peshawar and Islamabad are demanding."

When dealers bring him pieces that are genuine, Professor Dani tries to persuade them to donate them to a museum. He rarely succeeds. "They tell me that they are saving these objects from being destroyed in Afghanistan, that their rich collectors will take care of them," he told me ruefully. Perhaps they will. But, unlike the many treasures pilfered from various peoples by 19th- century European explorers, these objects will be taken care of not in the public domain of a museum, but in private, beyond the reach of scholars.

THE FRENCH, in the early Twenties, were the first to realise that great archaeological treasures lay hidden inside Afghanistan's savagely beautiful deserts and mountains. For several decades, they quietly enriched their knowledge and their museums, while other Oriental scholars lobbied in vain for permission from the Afghan monarchy to dig in Afghanistan. Then, after the Second World War, the French hold on Afghanistan loosened. Italian, British, Japanese, Soviet and American expeditions all poured in. Dozens of important sites were discovered, yielding not only magnificent treasures - the largest Greek coin ever minted, for example - but also proof that, 11,000 years ago, man's earliest civilisations, along the Tigris-Euphrates rivers and in the Indus Valley, had links through Afghanistan. In Tillya- Tepe in northern Afghanistan on the Silk Route into China, Soviet archaeologists found evidence that the caravanserais were much more than simply centres of trade: they were culturally and intellectually rich societies. It seems that it was only after Buddhist artisans beheld statues of Greek gods in Afghanistan that they thought to depict Buddha in human form. (Until then, he had always been symbolised by a riderless horse, an umbrella or footprints.)

One of the most fabulous finds in Afghanistan occurred by accident. In the Fifties, the women of Mir Zakah - a barren mountain village in the south-eastern province of Paktia where the farmers' only crop is cumin seeds - were complaining that they kept drawing up flaky metal lumps when they drew water from the well. A government archaeologist was dispatched from Kabul who found that the well contained a treasure trove of over 1,800kg of gold, silver and bronze coins, some dating back to fourth century BC. All of this was in due course moved to the National Museum in Kabul.

After the Afghan communist government fell in April 1993, the guards posted at Mir Zakah drifted away, and the elders of the local tribe, suspecting that there might be other treasures around the well, decided to go into business for themselves. Each family in the tribe chipped in with 50,000 rupees (about pounds 1,000 - a fortune for an Afghan). This was used to buy a tractor, a pump and generators - not to mention landmines.

Over the past three years, the people of Mir Zakah have extracted more than a ton of coins and artefacts from the well - and sold it all for a pittance. One Mir Zakah man complained recently to a visitor, "Dealers have come from Pakistan and other countries, but we've lost out on this. I've only got 30,000 rupees back so far. Some lads accuse our elders of taking our share. In these days, an elder's not an elder any more, and the mujahedin are no better than dogs."

No doubt; but the truth is that the Mir Zakah folk are clueless about the worth of the hoard. John Butt, a BBC editor based in Peshawar, recently tried to take pictures at the site. "The people were convinced that a photo was worth as much as the object itself. They don't really understand what is going on," he said. Numismatics value the Mir Zakah trove at over $60m, in its entirety. The people of Mir Zakah sold their share of the haul to dealers by the kilo.

SINCE THEN, the Afghan's willingness to smuggle anything with a glimmer of value has taken a new and dangerous turn. Having set up an underworld pipeline for weapons, heroin and antiquities going into Russia, the traders are bringing back whatever illicit goods might sell in Asia. And what sells best is nuclear equipment - some of it of weapons-making calibre - pilfered from the former Soviet republics. Reports have been circulating for some time to the effect that, since the crack-up of the USSR, nuclear material has been looted from reactors and military installations and sold on the black market. In Peshawar, those reports take on a frighteningly specific reality.

Several months ago, an American art expert from Islamabad who had come to do business in Peshawar was expecting the usual hashish odyssey into tribal lands. Instead, he was taken on a startling detour. Told by his go-between that he had something extremely valuable to show, this American - who prefers not to be identified - was still being driven through Peshawar when the Landcruiser pulled off on a muddy lane into a busy neighbourhood with fruit carts and boys playing cricket. The car halted at a large house in a crowded residential area, and the dealer was shown inside. The gunmen were there, but everything else was different. The smugglers were more tense, secretive.

Floorboards were lifted up, revealing dozens of metal strongboxes. One was opened for the puzzled westerner who, after all, had come expecting antiquities. "They had Russian writing and looked like medicine jars. Each jar contained enriched uranium. Hidden in this house, these guys had 1,200kg of enriched uranium from the former Soviet Union which they were trying to sell. They asked me if I might know of any buyers. They had Iranians who were interested, but they didn't like the Iranians," the art expert told me.

Although the smuggler was vague about the exact origins of the uranium, or whether or not it was of weapons-grade quality, he claimed that it had been slipped out of a high-security plant not far from Moscow, in the Ukraine, by one of the plant managers. From there, the uranium had been moved, jar by jar, along the old smuggling routes through Turkmenistan and into northern Afghanistan before it crossed the Khyber Pass into Peshawar. Some of the smugglers - the same ones who smuggle antiquities - still use camels and donkey trains to cross the mountainous Khyber. As the BBC's John Butt puts it: "For centuries the Afghans have been smuggling. They love the challenge of it. It doesn't matter to them whether they're bringing in Bokhara rugs or AK-47s." Or, it now seems, nuclear weaponry.

Enriched uranium is not the only nuclear material coming down from the former communist countries. In Peshawar, contrabandists are also offering to sell other bomb-making materiel such as ultra-powerful magnets and catalysts and alloys used for thermo-nuclear warheads. "There are Iranian majors and colonels walking around the streets of Peshawar with Samsonite suitcases stuffed full of $100 bills," said one western antiques trader.

Along with Iran, those hunting nuclear bargains in Peshawar reportedly include Pakistan and its enemy, India. All three are believed to be secretly making nuclear weapons. There is also no shortage of possible terrorist buyers: the 14-year war between the Afghan mujahedin and the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul made Peshawar a jumping-off place for religious extremists from Kashmir, Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria, many of whom are still there. And then there are the Western government spies keen to stop the ex-USSR's nuclear technology from falling into the wrong hands - just like SPACH, trying to outbid the antiquities dealers.

Some Westerners play down the danger. "A terrorist would want to buy a fully functional nuclear device," says one diplomat whose embassy in Islamabad has been approached by arms pedlars. But others admit to being concerned. "This nuclear material is supposed to be strictly controlled," another Islamabad diplomat told me, "and if the Russian mafia or somebody else is smuggling this out, then it's very serious." He added, "Many of these things being hawked around are radioactive. We're worried about a disaster."

Pakistani officials admit that Peshawar is turning into a nuclear arms bazaar, and that the source is the former Soviet Union. "Even this morning, there was someone here offering these things. They bring photographs and things, though not the material itself," General Naseerullah Babar, the interior minister said.

Nor is Peshawar the only city involved. In Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, an American aid worker was approached several months ago by an Afghan who swore him to secrecy and then showed him what he claimed was enriched uranium. "He wanted to know how much it was worth," said a scientist connected with the same relief agency. "I guess how much it's worth depends on how badly someone wants it."

Like those who buy looted antiquities in Peshawar, those who buy looted nuclear weaponry are wary of fakes and swindles. Some diplomats said that Afghan traders in Ukraine, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan may have been duped into buying worthless - but highly dangerous - radioactive waste as enriched uranium.

The reckless way in which the Afghan smugglers move around and store the radioactive material is also worrying. One Western antiquities dealer reports that a trafficker boastfully pulled a matchbox full of uranium from his shirt pocket and opened it in front of him. "I told him to get it the hell away from me," he told me. Another western military expert added scornfully: "These Afghans end up irradiating themselves, then dying six months later because they don't know any better. They're crazy."

THE fallout of a collapsing empire is adding to the agonies of a society whose values, and very fabric, have already been destroyed by war.

Most of the Afghan antiquities unearthed by foreign archaeologists over the past 50 years used to be safeguarded in the National Museum of Kabul: it had one of the finest collections of antiquities in Asia. With the fall of the communist regime in 1993, various mujahedin factions closed in, fighting each other for possession of Kabul. The mujahedin have been scrapping ever since, with daily rocket-fire, tanks and machine-gun fire. Much of the worst fighting has been around the museum. Inevitably, its treasures have been looted.

Dr Najib Popal, the museum's erudite director, reckons that nearly 70 per cent of the museum's finest collections have been stolen by the various factions who have controlled the battered building during the changing tides of battle. Much of what they did not steal was smashed by rockets. One shattered a majestic lion of greenish granite at the museum entrance. An unexploded shell lies beside the lion's haunches, in a shallow, watery crater, and Dr Popal warns us away. "We found 57 unexploded shells in the museum," says Dr Popal. Inside, showcases are somersaulted, and the corridors are filled with fragments of Grecian and Islamic pottery and, inexplicably, the remains of a modern lavatory.

For Dr Popal, the notion that there might be one or more criminal archaeologists telling the Afghan commanders and dealers where to dig and what to steal from the museum is not so far-fetched. "When the Kabul museum was looted so many times, there must have been specialists showing the mujahedin which things to rob. There were thousands of books in the museum library. Most of the mujahedin can't read, yet all the books which had illustrations of the museum's best pieces were stolen.

"I'm also sure that the dealers and the commanders have hired archaeologists to mark different sites around the country," he added. Meanwhile, many prize pieces from the Kabul museum are turning up in the international art markets. Still unknown is the fate of 20,000 golden ornaments from the Tillya-Tepe burial mounds, once kept in the museum. The hoard is now supposed to be locked away in Kabul's bank vaults by President Burhannudin Rabbani's besieged government, but the government does not allow scholars to ascertain that the collection is still in the vaults, and dealers in Peshawar's gold bazaar claim that many baubles from Tillya-Tepe are now up for sale in Peshawar, Islamabad and London.

Driving away from the museum on roads pitted by mortars, in a rumbling Afghan taxi, Dr Popal lapsed into silence and then said quietly: "I've been feeling a pain in my heart since the museum was first burned. This museum was life for me and my friends. Now it's a cemetery."

As we drove on through miles and miles of bombed-out city streets, I saw a boy flying a kite in the devastated landscape. A mujahedin wandered up, and, with a grin, began blasting holes at the boy's airborne kite with his Kalashnikov.

A few days later, in the gardens of the blue-tiled mosque in Mazar-e- Sharif, I met a young Afghan of Mongol extraction with a wispy little moustache. He was named Ahsan. He took me aside and showed me Polaroids of a stone relief of Minerva, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and a white marble statue of the Aryan sun god, Mithras. Of course they were for sale - a steal at several thousand dollars. Then, Ahsan said, "I have uranium, too." In space, he marked out an object the shape of a tool box. "Three have gone already to Peshawar. I have one box of uranium left."

Afghans will sell anything - their past, and also their future. !

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