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Afghan pride may save ancient Buddhist city

religioner      |      16/08/2013

Excavation work might be challenging enough in itself. When the excavation site is located in a part of Afghanistan containing rich reserves of copper, the archeologists also have to cope with greedy Chinese mining companies, corrupt officials and the Taliban, with their landmines and rocket propelled grenades. 

By Adrian Plau.


The finds in Mes Aynak are both beautiful and historically illuminating, but will there be time to save them all? Photo: Brett E. Huffman.

In these days, Afghanistan is witnessing a colossal race against the clock to save one of our time’s most comprehensive and unique archeological sites. What is special about this site, and why the rush? We have spoken to documentary filmmaker Brent E. Huffman, who hopes to save the ancient city by mobilising the power of Afghan national pride, but time is swiftly running out.

A unique insight into the past of Central Asia

In Mes Aynak (“Little Copper Well”), a valley a couple of hours southeast from Kabul, lies the ruins of a 40 hectar big Buddhist city. The city appears to have been settled in the centuries around the start of the common era, and remained so for close to a thousand years. Archeologists have found both temples and monastic complexes, and areas of trade. Among the finds relevant to the history of religions is a large number of Buddhist statues, several of which bear witness to periods of Buddhist history not formerly known, and fragments of manuscripts which may shed new light on the early history of Central-Asia and, in extension, the world.

The site is home to one of the world’s largest copper reserves.

From the invasion of India by Alexander the Great in 326 BCE and to the massive contact between Indian and Chinese Buddhist monks in the early middle ages, firmly helped by trade along the silk route, Afghanistan and Central-Asia have been important stages for some history’s defining intracultural encounters. The breadth of the findings at Mes Aynak, and the large span of time they cover, offers a unique opportunity to study these encounters, and the cultural expressions they originated.

However, only a small portion of Mes Aynak have been excavated; about 10 percent, according to Philippe Marquis, the French head of the international team of archeologists. The area was not discovered until the early 1960s, and there was no opportunity for large scale excavations until the previous decade. At the same time, the archeologists are working under heavy time constraints.

Huffman LS city

An oversight of the excavation area. Photo: Brent E. Huffman.

Situated in an area rich in copper – unfortunately

The reason the city was settled may now also be the engine of its demise: The ruins in Mes Aynak were discovered by French geologists in search for information on the copper resources in the area. Findings of ancient copper workings may indicate that it was this natural resource which attracted the settlement in the first place, but geological research undertaken in the 1970s revealed its full extent: The site is home to one of the world’s largest copper reserves. There are different figures for its actual size, but the lowest reckoning we have come across puts it at 6 million tonnes of copper. The World Bank estimates that mining in the area may generate more than 500 million dollars a year for the struggling Afghan state finances.

Mes Aynak is in a Taliban heartland, and both archeologists and Chinese workers have been targeted in attacks with landmines and rockets.

In 2007, the governmentally-owned, Chinese mining business China Metallurgical Group (CMM) won a lease for 30 years of mining in the area. The prize tag was 3 billion dollars, thereby said to be the largest foreign investment in Afghan history. MCC has constructed a worker’s camp near to the site, and intends to start mining in 2014. The archeological site, and any loose objects which are not moved at that time, will then be destroyed.

The archeologists are now doing an extensive piece of rescue archeology; it’s about excavating as much as possible, as quick as possible. These are not at all ideal conditions, made worse by the political situation. Mes Aynak is in a Taliban heartland, and both archeologists and Chinese workers have been targeted in attacks with landmines and rockets. At the present time, the site is being guarded by 200 armed guards.


Brent E. Huffman is trying to raise awareness about Mes Aynak, both internationally and amongst the Afghans themselves.

A key figure in the work of making the international community aware of the situation, is the American documentary film maker Brent E. Huffman. Between july 2011 and april 2012 he followed several of the archeologists in their daily work at Mes Aynak, and talked to representatives for both the Afghan government and MCC. The footage resulted in the film The Buddhas of Mes Aynak. The film is expected to be completed in fall 2013, while early versions are already beeing screened at universities and film festivals.

– Initially I was just interested in the culture crash between the Chinese and the Afghans, and that the Chinese company was setting up in this very dangerous area, Huffman relates on the phone from Chicago.

–I only found out about the Buddhist city later. I eventually got access to this city at Mes Aynak, and I was just blown away. The site is absolutely incredible, awe-inspiring. I was really moved and touched by seeing this incredible site, and I couldn’t imagine it being destroyed. So a part of making this film was seeing what I could do to raise awareness about the site. I do interviews like this to raise awareness, to get people to care about this location, and my goal is to save it.

Huffman Rare wooden Buddha

Rare wooden depiction of the Buddha. Photo: Brent E. Huffman.

The mining enterprise will probably not benefit ordinary Afghans

There are those who would argue that the funds MCC’s copper mining will bring to the struggling Afghan economy are more important than the less measurable value of historical artifacts. Huffman acknowledges the argument, but does not agree.

– I see that logic, and if we were talking about a different country, maybe that logic would make sense to me, he argues. –But there are two problems: corrupt officials within the government and within the Chinese company. I see that all the money that will come from this is going to disappear into the pockets of a few officials. I don’t see how locals will benefit from this, in any way. They’re already being exploited.

Several villages have been forcibly moved to make room for work on the mine, and several more will be moved. This also contributes the heated up atmosphere in the area.

The Chinese companies wants to take all these valuable resources out of the country and bring them back to China.

– There will be tremendous environmental devastation at Mes Aynak, Huffman continues. -No one is ever going ot be able to live in this area again because of the toxic pollution that will be left. And I don’t see any plan to include local people in this. Chinese companies have a history of employing Chinese workers, bringing in Chinese immigrants to work. That is also true at Mes Aynak, at least all the high level positions were Chinese labourers, and there’s only a handfull of lower level, terribly paid positions that the Afghan workers got. Unless that changes, I don’t see how Afghanistan will see any benefit, Huffman argues.

– And I fear that China will have a long term interest in all the natural resources in Afghanistan. Chinese companies are already extracting oil in the north. Afghanistan has lithium, oil, iron, natural gas, copper. The Chinese companies wants to take all these valuable resources out of the country and bring them back to China. And I fear that when Afghanistan grows internally, and needs these resources, they’re going to have to buy them back from countries like China. So honestly, I see Afghanistan losing on all accounts in these mining deals.

Huffman earlier made a documentary for Al-Jazeera on the impact of Chinese investments in Senegal, and sees the same tendencies there.

– The Chinese companies are smart. They see cheap labour, they see undervalued resources, and they work on a massive scale. They are pulling all these resources out of Africa and I saw that in Senegal too. In Africa, just like in Afghanistan, people think this is going to be–  the greatest thing in the world, that China is the saviour, but the companies are just interested in China, they’re just interested in profit. But honestly, US businesses would do the same thing. It’s not like the Chinese are doing something the rest of the world wouldn’t do. The US would do the exact same thing, except it doesn’t have the budget or the resources to do this kind of thing anymore.

The renowned British historian William Dalrymple, who in 2012 published a book on the British war in Afghanistan in 1839-1842, recently visited Mes Aynak, and wrote about his experiences there in an article for The Guardian. One of Dalrymple’s informants describe the Chinese representatives of MCC in Mes Aynak as unprepared, confused and scared. Huffman does not share this impression.

– Things are going badly for the Chinese in Mes Aynak, but I think they will use this as leverage to renegotiate for better terms. For the Chinese, Mes Aynak is a stepping stone; whatever happens there, they will try to replicate.


There are many hidden treasures in Mes Aynak, but time is running out for the excavators. Photo: Brent E. Huffman.

An appeal to Afghan pride

An important aspect of Huffman’s work is spreading information about Mes Aynak to the Afghan locals. Though the work is difficult, he believes the message comes across.

– Part of my campaign to save Mes Aynak has been to try to send a message to Afghan news agencies, and there is a news station called Tolo which has used some of this material and broadcast it to local people, in Dari. The message that has to come across, is that eventhough its Buddhist, this site is your history, it is Afghan heritage, and its something you should be proud of and that the world is interested in. I think still more has to be done on that end, but we have been pushing for print stories, TV stories, radio stories. And you see in some of the interviews [in the documentary] that young people are aware of the site, they have heard of it, says Huffman.

The US military has killed so many civilians that the local people don’t trust the US government.

– But there has been a lot of misinformation too. Sometimes, when they have seen my work and heard my story, I’ve heard that some Afghans think that I’m trying to hurt the Chinese company so that a US company can exploit the copper instead. They think I have some kind of ulterior motive to steal the copper or hurt the Chinese company. And the US, for good reasons, has a terrible reputation in Afghanistan. We have done terrible things there. The US military has killed so many civilians that the local people don’t trust the US government. The sum of that is working against me. They see this message as coming from an outsider, and they’re distrusting. So its tough. I think we have to recruit an Afghan spokesperson to really bring this message through in a bigger way.

Huffman Stupa

Stupa. Photo: Brent E. Huffman.

Could the archeological finds be used in Afghan nation-building? 

In the 1920s, archeological excavations in northwestern India and Pakistan of today led to the discovery of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. By showing that large, urban settlements existed in the area far earlier than supposed, the sites reframed the history of South Asia. This proved to be stimulating to the Indian independence movement, and also later as a basis for national sentiment for the post-independence country. Is it possible to think that the site at Mes Aynak may prove to play a similar, symbolic role for Afghanistan in the coming times?

– I hope such things are going to be the outcomes, Huffman replies. I think the locals are proud of what is there, and even though they are Buddhist, they see that as part of their own history. A happy ending would be that the rescue excavation would stop and that Mes Aynak would become a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, so tourists could have the same experience as I had, visiting the site. The truth is that there are other threatened Buddhist sites in Afghanistan, but destroying Mes Aynak would set a precedent that it’s OK to destroy these ancient heritage sites, and that no one cares about them.


A sign of hope? A peaceful demonstration in Thailand in support of the preservation of Mes Aynak. Photo: Brent E. Huffman.

Petition reached the president

There are glimmers of hope. A petition for to save Mes Aynak at the webpage resulted in 72 000 signatures. This summer, the signatures were handed over to a representative of the Afghan government.

– The signatures were handed over by Javed Noorani, who has done fantastic work for Mes Aynak, Huffman relates.  After he turned in the signatures, he actually did get a call from President Karzai, who said “Thank you for doing this”, and that he’s taking it into consideration. Now will anything good come out of this? I’m a pessimist. I don’t think this is gonna fix things, but I do think it sends the message that the international community cares about this, says Huffman.

I’m a pessimist.

– I was afraid that they could just destroy Mes Aynak and that nobody cares about these old, dusty ruins, but this sends the message that people do care and that if they would destroy the site, they would have a PR nightmare. I hope that makes some difference, but, as I said, I’m pessimistic. And there’s big change happening in Afghanistan now, so I don’t know.

As it stands, the rescue excavations will continue until 2014.

For more information, visit Huffman’s Facebook page.

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