By Aisha Chowdhry, for USA TODAY
In 2001, the Afghan Taliban destroyed two colossal Buddhas cut into Bamiyan’s sandstone cliffs.
BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — The massive Buddhas that were carved into the sandstone cliffs here 15 centuries ago are gone, and so too are those who dynamited them into oblivion.
U.S. troops have cleared out the Taliban from this valley, but the people of Bamiyan live in fear that the strict Muslim clerics and their ruthless brand of Islam are not gone for good.
“We need the Americans,” says Haji Hussain, 40, the owner of a grocery store who says he was shot by the Taliban. “When they leave, it will be very difficult and the Taliban will come back.”
This province in eastern Afghanistan is known for spectacular mountain scenery of the Hindu Kush and deep-blue lakes that change hue as the sun moves over the sky. It is an ancient land that lies on the Silk Road, the trade route that caravans once took from China.
The people here are Hazaras, Shiite Muslims who descend from Mongols and who for years has been discriminated against by the more numerous Sunnis in the south, known as Pashtuns.
It was the Pashtuns who gave birth to the Taliban. Its adherents prevailed in a civil war in 1996 and made news periodically for edicts it said were rooted in the Quran: public executions of adulterous women; bans on music and kites; and men marrying 9-year-old girls.
Bamiyan resisted, and close to 600 of its people died at the hands of the Taliban.
In March 2001, the Taliban made world headlines, shocked archaeologists and awakened governments to the unique nature of the regime when its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, ordered the destruction of a treasure of the ancient world, the Bamiyan Buddhas. The Buddhas were carved in the 6th century by monks who meditated in the caves of what was an early Hindu-Buddhist monastery.
The larger of the two statues, at 175 feet, was the tallest standing Buddha in existence. Omar deemed them un-Islamic idols, and when machine guns failed to destroy them, they were erased by dynamite despite cries from the world community that they be spared.
Six months later, the Taliban refused another request — to turn over to the U.S. the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden. The refusal led to a U.S.-led invasion that dislodged the Taliban from Kabul and began a war that continues to this day.
More than 100 miles west of Kabul, Bamiyan in July was the first province to be handed to the Afghan security forces by NATO forces.
Today, construction abounds in the region, and new stores can be seen in a bustling downtown. A map outside the office of Bamiyan’s governor, Habiba Sarabi, the only female governor in Afghanistan, displays what Bamiyan might look like one day. It details plans to boost tourism by improving ground and air transport.
Sarabi condemns the destruction of the statues and has been a target of the Taliban, she says. “It was not only the Taliban but other hands behind that too, to destroy the identities of the Bamiyan people,” she says.
Life has changed dramatically since the Taliban was forced out by NATO. Schooling is better and more open. There are 125,000 children attending classes, and close to half are female. Under the Taliban, girls were forbidden from getting an education.
On this day, women are seen walking the streets of Bamiyan, books in hand. Hussain Noori, 28, says that is a change from life under the Taliban, which banned women from going outside without a burqa.
“They are not forced to cover themselves,” he says. “It is up to them.”
Foreign archaeologists have flocked here in recent years and have unearthed artifacts that could become a major tourist draw. In 2008, what may be the first known use of oil paint was found in Buddhist images inside some of the thousands of caves here.
The road from Kabul to Bamiyan can be a dangerous route. Better security could make it a caravan route of a different sort, one that brings tourists, income and jobs, Sarabi says.
With U.S. forces scheduled to withdraw by 2014, Afghans here are skeptical of what the future holds. Col. Hafizallah Payman, the local police Regional Training Center commander, insists that if people support the police, the police can protect them. He says the real danger is if foreign nations abandon them financially.
“If financial support stops, people will start to fight each other, there will be a civil war as illiteracy spreads,” he says.
Tahir, 18, an interpreter who says his father was killed under the Taliban, says tourism is not good.
“We don’t have much tourists now in Bamiyan because not too many people are interested in seeing the destroyed Buddhas, also the security situation is bad,” says Tahir, who would give only his first name. “If the Taliban come back, we cannot live over here.”
Army Capt. James DeCann, a U.S. military adviser, says he believes that with proper training of the police force, the people here can lead secure lives, but they will have to do it themselves. “At the end of the day, they are going to have to win this fight,” he says.