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Meet the Afghan Workers Restoring Historic Landmarks Destroyed by the Taliban

Khan Ali — a simple bricklayer whose only previous experience was working on construction sites — and his team have become experts in restoring Afghanistan's landmark cultural sites.
Photo Ali M Latifi

When Khan Ali first looked out onto the niches and crevices where the once-towering Buddhas of Bamiyan stood, the task ahead of him seemed monumental.

Ali wondered how he — a simple Afghan bricklayer whose only previous experience was working on construction sites — could help stabilize the niche that housed the 53-meter high "Solsol," one of two massive Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001 following an edict from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar against "un-Islamic" images of humans and animals.


"When the Taliban blew up the Buddhas, they had become dislodged from the mountainside itself, we had to erect the scaffolding and support beams to keep them from further damage," Ali told VICE News.

That first year — spent drilling several meters into the niches in order to pour a mysterious "substance" that Ali said would help secure the metal rods for the scaffolding — was overwhelming.

Slowly, though, over the course of a year, the then 45-year-old learned skills that took him from one of the central province's historic sites to another.

Not only did Ali's economic state improve with each job, he soon became a specialist in restoring ancient landmarks.

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Bamiyan, Afghanistan. (Photo by Ali M Latifi)

"These workers may look like ordinary villagers, but over time they have all become specialists in a discipline that requires precision and attention to detail," said Mujtabah Mirzai, a 33-year-old Afghan-German archaeologist who has worked with Ali for nearly a decade now.

The experience Ali and the other workers have gained is especially important, Mirzai said, because of the premium each reconstruction project puts on using the same naturally sourced materials and techniques the original builders utilized at each site.

Khan Ali admits that growing up he thought little of the Buddhas or Shahr-e Gholghola — an ancient citadel built into cliffs that was sacked by the forces of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century — where he has been working for the last two years.


But now, such sites are a source of economic and cultural pride for Ali and the two dozen other Bamiyanis currently working to restore the Gholghola.

"These places are beneficial to us as a people, they show that we have an ancient history full of ingenuity and talent that dates back hundreds of years," Ali Reza, who has worked alongside Khan Ali for nearly 10 years, told VICE News.

Workers on the job in Bamiyan. (Photo by Ali M Latifi)

In a province where more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, these reconstruction jobs have long served as an important source of income.

However, with international donors hesitant to continue providing aid to Afghanistan, the workers say the boon days of the last decade are now becoming an increasingly distant memory. Projects are too few and far between to be a truly sustainable source of income anymore.

"Working one month here, a couple of weeks there, isn't enough to last through the winters," Reza said.

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Workers restoring a site in Bamiyan. (Photo by Ali M Latifi)

As the snow falls and temperatures plummet, much of the work in the agriculture-driven province dries up for nearly five months a year, which means the money the workers make at each job site must stretch as far as possible.

"Things are much more expensive now. You may be able to save 200 Afghanis (roughly $4) here and there, but that doesn't add up to much for the winter," Reza said.

At $12 ($25 for seasoned workers who can train newcomers), the daily income of the reconstruction workers far outpaces the $5 average for shopkeepers and day laborers in the city.


But the workers say with one kilo of meat costing $4.31 and each kilowatt of electricity costing 28 cents (compared to half a cent in Kabul), their wages cannot feed their large families or heat their homes during the winter, when the cold causes construction projects to shut down.

With a slowdown in foreign aid for the reconstruction efforts, their experience becomes both a gift and a curse for the workers.

In the past, they were criticized for becoming Buddhists or accepting "unholy" money to repair the Buddhas, but Mohammad Ismail, another worker on the Gholghola site, said that because of their affiliation with The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) they are now branded "government workers" when they seek standard construction jobs around the city.

"They will say: 'You work for UNESCO, you have money,' or 'you will leave as soon as a restoration job comes around, we can't count on you,' so we can't even work on non-restoration sites anymore," Ismail told VICE News.

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Gen. Ghulam Ali Wahdat, the governor of Bamiyan. Photo by Ali M Latifi)

All the workers VICE News interviewed at the Gholghola site said after more than a decade of service, UNESCO should provide the workers with some sort of income in the cold winter months.

"It would be like an insurance, something to get us through the long winter," Ali said.

Beyond UNESCO, the workers say they have asked the international community to look to them — locals from the area who have become experts in highly specialized work — as a reason to continue investments in the preservation and reconstruction of Afghan historic sites.


Gen. Ghulam Ali Wahdat, the provincial governor of Bamiyan, told VICE News he has made the case for continued investment in "peaceful provinces" such as his.

"So much of the attention is on the South and the East where there is an active war, but the international community has completely forgotten the peaceful provinces where their investments won't be at risk of destruction," Wahdat said.

Wahdat previously spent three years in the southern province of Kandahar, and said he often saw newly built schools and hospitals there destroyed "within months" in the ongoing fight between Afghan National Security Forces and the armed opposition.

Despite security concerns on the road to Bamiyan — caused by warring militias and Taliban fighters — Wahdat said "hundreds and hundreds" of domestic tourists visit Bamiyan each year. He hopes it can be an inspiration for the rest of Afghanistan.

"If they see development here, these people would return to their own provinces with a sense of why peace is important and what it can bring," Wahdat said.

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye