The Taliban fighters arrived with hammers and hatred. What they left behind is laid out on tables at the National Museum of Afghanistan, 18 years later: shattered pieces of ancient Buddha figurines, smashed because they were judged to be against Islam.
Museum workers in Kabul have been trying to fit them together again as a nervous country waits for the Taliban and the U.S. to reach a deal on ending America’s longest war. The agreement is expected to lead to intra-Afghan talks in which the extremist group would play a role in shaping Afghanistan’s future.As the workers pick with gloved hands through hundreds of neatly arranged shards labeled “ears,” ”hands,” ”foreheads” and “eyes,” that future feels especially fragile.Few details have emerged from several rounds of U.S.-Taliban negotiations held over the past year, and no one knows what a Taliban return to the capital, Kabul, might look like. The country still sees near-daily attacks not only by the long-established Taliban, who now control about half of Afghanistan, but also from a brutal local affiliate of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) group.
The Taliban’s five-year rule imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, denying girls education, banning music and banishing women to their homes. It ended shortly after the U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks to rout the Taliban, who had harbored al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden.Sherazuddin Saifi remembers the day the Taliban arrived at the national museum in 2001, a period of cultural rampage in which the world’s largest standing Buddha statues in Bamyan province were dynamited, to global horror.For several days, the Taliban set upon the Kabul museum’s trove of artifacts from Afghanistan’s millennia-old history as a crossroads of cultures: Greek, Persian, Chinese and other. They selected offending items that showed human forms, even early Islamic ones, shattered them with hammers or smashed them against the floor.”We could not prevent them. They were breaking all the locks, entering each room and smashing all items into pieces,” said Saifi, who is part of the restoration team. “It was heartbreaking and horrific … they destroyed their own history.”More than 2,500 statues were shattered, parts of them ground into powder. Restoration work could take a decade, Saifi said, but “we really feel happy after we put these pieces together again” and revive their meaning.Among the objects destroyed were the Hadda figurines, a notable collection of Buddhist sculptures discovered decades ago in eastern Afghanistan, near the present-day city of Jalalabad. Photographs that remain of the intact figurines, and the shards themselves, hint at delicate curls of hair or lip.The Taliban smashed them into thousands of pieces, many the size of fists or even a coin. Now some of the shattered heads are held together with rubber bands in the workshop, part of a sprawling puzzle that can take days of patient effort to join a single piece to another.