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Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 17:46 GMT
Fresh start for Kabul museum


It's a small beginning for an immense task. Two freshly painted rooms inside the wreckage of the Kabul museum.

One of the rooms is tiled, with sinks and taps, the other fitted out with desks, powerful lights and sand trays.

This is where the restoration of Afghanistan's cultural heritage is set to begin.

In the spring of 2001, the Taleban smashed nearly 2000 sculptures held here.

Some were squirreled away for safety, and other key pieces were kept in collections outside the museum, but the vast majority did not escape the Talebs' ruinous attentions.

They declared the human images an offence to Islam, and broke them into pieces.

The purge also cost Afghanistan its famed Buddha statues, in Bamiyan.

Patience

On Tuesday, in Kabul museum, government officials, workers, and supporters gathered for the opening of the newly renovated rooms, where work can now begin to reclaim some of what was lost due to the Taleban.

The British Government has paid for the renovation - its soldiers who are part of the multinational peacekeeping force in the capital helped with the repairs, and the British Museum gave advice.

On the day of the opening, one room is already being put to good use.

A museum worker, Abdullah, is sweeping clay fragments from the eye of a small Buddha face.

Its chin is broken off, and its neck is smashed. It is thought to originate from the 4th century.

It smiles benignly from a wooden tray, lined with sand, while Abdullah begins his work.

He admits you have to be patient. But such work is worth it.

"These are not things that only belong to one country. They belong to the whole international community."

'Immense loss'

Ana Rodriguez is the programme co-ordinator of the Society for the Protection of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage.

She is one of a number of supporters of the museum who have pulled together donations from many countries to ensure it is rebuilt.

She says the cost of the destruction wrought by the Taleban is immeasurable.

"These were pieces that dated from prehistory that were the symbols of the Afghan nation.

"The Kanishka king, the Boddhisattvas. Clay figures from the 7th century that were unique in the world.

"Afghanistan was for a long time a link between East and West, and that made it unique. Humankind lost an immense heritage here."

Risks

As well as the British, the Japanese have promised photographic equipment, the Greeks will rebuild one wing, the Asian Foundation will develop an inventory, and the Americans have pledged more money for a restoration department.

The United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, will work on the windows and water supply.

It's hoped that many of the statues and artefacts will be able to be repaired, with the use of new techniques, and modern equipment.

That will all require a huge investment, training and a long term commitment.

But the museum's employees have already risked everything for the collection, and they are determined that everything possible must be done to save the figures that can be restored.

Yahya Muhib Zada, who is the deputy of the national museum, recalled how the museum workers tried to befriend the Taleban and appear to assist them. But when they ordered pieces to be laid out on the table for destruction, they were given copies, and the originals were hidden away.

When pieces were destroyed, the workers lovingly collected the crumbs together, in the hope that restoration might one day be possible.

He admits they were taking a risk.

"But it was no different to the risks facing every Afghan under the Taleban. We would sacrifice ourselves anyway for our culture and our tradition. That's why we were determined to save what we could, even if it cost us our lives."


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