It is tragic that these treasures of Buddhist history will be lost forever. However, compared with the abject poverty faced by the population, perhaps industrial development is the more humane thing to do.Mes Aynak, in Afghanistan's Logar Province, boasts one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world. But it is also home to vast archeological ruins, including 5th century Buddhist monasteries and even older Bronze Age settlements. Preservationists -- working furiously to excavate the nearby ruins before they are buried under mining rubble -- have urged restraint in developing the copper deposits. But those focused on Afghanistan's economic development have urged the country to move full speed ahead, citing the dire need for the $1 trillion in revenue that the mine could bring to the impoverished country. Is the potential for economic growth worth more than the loss of cultural heritage?
Professor Brent E. Huffman, a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who has been making a film at Mes Aynak, says there is little hope that much will be saved when the mining begins in earnest. Here, we take a an inside look at the 2,000 year-old Buddhas, temples, and other relics that could soon be destroyed.
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Abdul Qadeer Temore has been tirelessly working at the excavation site in the windswept moonscape of Aynak, Afghanistan for nearly a year. He hasn’t received any pay for the past four months from the Afghan government, but gets daily death threats from the Taliban on his cell phone demanding cash for his life. Abdul pledges he will keep digging until he is forced to quit.
Aynak, a desert region 20 minutes southwest of Kabul, is an archaeological treasure trove of ancient Buddhist artifacts dated at over 2,500 years old. An ancient Buddhist monastery complex, extensive wall frescos, devotional temples known as stupas, and more than 150 Buddha statues comprise a discovery of immense global importance and one of the country's richest historical sites. But it is also a site with a violent and troubled history. It was here that al-Qaeda planned the murderous destruction of 9/11, an event that became the catalyst for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
At the same time, Aynak is home to the largest undeveloped copper reserve in the world. Directly beneath the Buddhist site lie mineral deposits worth an estimated $100 billion. Following two years of aggressive bidding, China Metallurgical Group Corporation, a Chinese government-backed mining company, beat out all international competitors and was awarded an exclusive contract in 2008 by the cash-strapped Afghanistan government to exploit the site.
The fate of the ancient Buddhist artifacts hangs in the balance as the Chinese begin planning their destructive open-pit style copper mine.
Under immense international pressure, the Chinese company gave Afghan and French archaeologists three years to excavate and move the artifacts before the copper mine gets underway. But with extremely limited resources, the dedicated archaeologists have made little progress.
“We have only discovered the tip of the iceberg, a mere 10% of the site,” says French specialist Philippe Marquis, who believes this could easily be a ten-year excavation project. Efforts to save and preserve the site have been drastically scaled back to a project whose best hope is now merely to document what is known to exist at the site before the Chinese begin construction, which they are planning to do in 2012. The remaining cultural relics, which are both too large and fragile to be moved or are still underground and thus, undiscovered, will all be destroyed.
The Buddhas of Aynak will follow several main characters to tell this dramatic and multi-layered story: Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist leading the effort to save the Buddhist statues; Abdul Qadeer Temore, a leading Afghan archeologist at the Afghan National Institute of Archeology working to protect his cultural heritage in Aynak; Liu Wenming, a Chinese manager working for China Metallurgical Group Corporation in the compound at Aynak; and Laura Tedesco, an American archaeologist working for the Kabul-based U.S. Embassy, who is using a million dollars of U.S. military funding to attempt to save the Buddhist ruins.