Bamiyan's Buddahs rise again - on screen

Afghans are shown film of statues' destruction by Taliban
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The Independent Online

They hadn't seen anything like it - a film about their own town projected on to a big screen. In the background was the empty niche, 52m high, that once housed the larger of two standing Buddahs in Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban five years ago.

For centuries this valley has been the crossing point of monks, travellers, tourists, invading armies and wanderers. The Silk Road, which connected China to the Mediterranean, passed through. But never before has a film - a documentary film about the Buddah statues - been shown here. The city of Bamiyan, a provincial capital, has no cinema.

Christian Frei's award-winning film The Giant Buddahs has been shown on screens all over Europe and North America - but never before in the place that inspired it, Afghani- stan. Frei traced the concept of Buddha statues back to China and filmed in Afghanistan itself, China, France, Qatar and Canada, obtaining exclusive film from the Arab television channel al-Jazeera of the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues. Cinemagoers see Taliban fighters placing explosives around the world-famous statues and lowering themselves on ropes on to their heads to destroy the priceless artefacts. The scene is as heartbreaking as it is incredible. Yet Frei recreates the statues with the help of French scientists and the film ends with their "reappearance".

Posters for the film in both Dari and English had been on the walls for weeks and a man with a loudhailerhad been going around the town and surrounding villages. Foreign and Afghan dignitaries were invited. I had travelled for three days from Toronto to be there, for I had a part in the film and wanted to witness this historic moment.

Across a cliff 2,500m above sea level where the three statues, two standing and one sitting Buddah, all destroyed by the Taliban, were located, Frei erected a screen 15ft by 9ft. He was hoping for an audience of 300, but more than 2,000 showed up. Most sat in semi-circles on a bed of fine dust or climbed up ruined walls. Others stood on the hilltop.

Zamir Moboraz, from a neighbouring village, said that the film reminded him not only of the monstrous behaviour of the Taliban towards the statues but also towards Bamiyan's people. He hid when he realised that the police were killing civilians. Bamiyan is home to the Hazaras, an ethnic minority. Shias, they are seen as infidels by the majority Sunni Muslim Taliban.

"They threw people into the wells and suffocated those who were hiding in the caves by burning hay in the caves' mouth," he says.

At the open-air screening, the Afghans sighed each time they saw the explosions which turned the statues to rubble. Most had never seen the documentary footage of the destruction. Said Mirza Hussein, who appears in the film, was among the few who heard the sound of the explosions and saw the wreckage afterwards. "First they hit the statue with tank shells, and rockets," he says. "But they couldn't destroy the entire statue." So the Taliban packed explosives at the base of the niche, which brought all the remaining pieces down. "They were celebrating," says Hussein, who watched the film with his family.

In a country witnessing a resurgence of violence, Bamiyan is safe. New generators provide limited power supplies. Foreigners are greeted with a smile and curiosity, rather than the hostility they may face in the south. It is the only province in Afghanistan to have a female governor - the first in Afghan history.

After the film, the crowd surrounded the director and those who appeared in it, shaking hands and thanking them. Frei says that he showed the film here because he wanted to give something back to the valley. No one seemed to remember the plans for rebuilding the Buddahs.

Dr Zemaryalai Tarzi is excavating a nearby site where he believes there is a sleeping Buddah. Edmund Melzl, of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, says that it's a daunting task to separate the pieces of the broken Buddhas: the cliff in which they were carved was mostly sand. "If they rebuild, they should aim for something authentic, not some kitsch creation, a Disneyland."

For now, the smashed Buddhas lie in chunks of soft, hay-coloured stone. As the Buddah himself said: everything changes; nothing remains the same.