Heaps of boulders and rubble mark the spot in Bamiyan where the Taliban blew up two giant statues of Buddha, Afghanistan's most famous archaeological treasures, which they condemned as un-Islamic.
The Buddhas were carved out of a brown sandstone cliff in a remote valley in central Afghanistan in the third and fifth centuries. Standing 120 feet and 175 feet high respectively, they survived conquest by the Huns and Mongols until a Taliban edict earlier this year led to their destruction.
A few small birds, their cries magnified by the echo, fluttered in the empty stone niches that used to house the statues. Somebody, presumably a Taliban adherent, had written on a rock a verse from the Koran saying that evil would be destroyed and good would triumph.
At first sight, the caves where the statues stood in the 300ft cliff looked empty. But then we saw some women in bright dresses emerge from them and scramble down the rocks to a muddy stream to fill their buckets with water. A man called Said Mohammed Hashemi said: "The Taliban destroyed my home and I am living in one of these holes in the rock with my family. I cook for the soldiers stationed here and they let me take some bread and firewood."
No part of Afghanistan suffered as badly from the Taliban as Bamiyan, a lush green valley below the snow-covered Koh-i Baba mountains. It is the centre of the Hazara community, a fifth of the country's population, distinguished physically from other Afghans by their slanted eyes and Mongolian appearance. They are Shia Muslims, which was what provoked savage persecution by the fanatically Sunni Muslim Taliban, who regarded the Hazara as heretics.
Not only the Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban. Before they were blown up, the statues looked out on the ruins of Bamiyan town. Many of its inhabitants fled and are only now returning to find that, with their houses gone, they have no alternative but to move into the caves where 1,500 years ago Buddhist monks lived and recited their prayers. "We have nothing," said Haidar, one of five farmers who had found refuge in the caves. "Two years ago the Taliban burnt our houses. Foreign aid organisations helped us rebuild a few rooms. Then this year they burnt them again. They took our sheep and our goats and put their own flocks to graze in our fields."
The Hazara still mourn the destruction of their Buddhas. Ismail Sarwary, 41, said sadly: "These statues were part of our history. They were a symbol of the Hazara. This was one reason why the Taliban blew them up." Abdul Karim Khalili, the Hazara leader, said he hoped the statues could be rebuilt and appealed for foreign help.
There is something chilling about the thoroughness with which the Taliban went about obliterating the remains of a religion that has had no adherents in Bamiyan for a millennium. We heard that there was a third, smaller Buddha at a place called Kakrak in an isolated valley. But here also, at the end of a long winding track, there was the familiar empty niche. "They heaped mines around it," said Mir Zajan, a farmer herding three donkeys. "They destroyed it completely."
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