BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN—Sayed Merza Hossain crouches on a dirt and gravel hill. Behind him is the maze of steel pipes and stacked wood boards from the scaffolding that fills the gaping hole left by the massive ancient Buddha statues he says the Taliban forced him to blow up more than a decade ago.
The 40-year-old, who now works as a bicycle repairman in the local market, says he regrets what he did as a Taliban prisoner over the course of 25 days in March 2001, and yet he’s almost eager to recount the story of how the statues, carved into the limestone cliffs back in the fourth and fifth centuries, were erased from the face of the earth.
In fact, he has the story down to an art. “Meet me in front of the [larger] Buddha at 4 p.m. The light will be perfect for your footage,” he tells me when I asked to interview him in July. As he recounts a story he has told countless times, Hossain stares straight out into the potato field-covered valley ahead. Only rarely, when he needs to convey the magnitude of what happened, does he turn to face the vacant niche behind him. “Half of my home, my country, was destroyed.”
It’s a reference to the statues that for centuries looked out onto the province, but it could also speak to the many conflicts that have ravaged Bamiyan. They span Genghis Khan’s brutal takeover of the now-ruined citadel city of Gholghola, the jihad against Soviet occupation, the civil war that followed, the rise of the Taliban and the U.S.-led invasion of 2001. UNESCO declared Bamiyan a World Heritage Site in 2003, but efforts to rebuild the Buddhas have stalled in part because so little of the original statues remains.
There’s hardly any doubt that the Taliban orchestrated the demolition of the Buddhas in a quest to rid the world of any religious symbols that weren’t Islamic. But how they actually did it during those few weeks in 2001 has always been something of a mystery.
I had heard countless secondhand tales over the years. But this summer and fall, I went to Bamiyan to try to piece together the story myself. While there, I found several people who claimed to have played a role in blowing up the statues. Over the course of 10 days, each told his own Rashomon-like tale. As with any mystery, as some things became clearer, others became murkier.
Hossain describes a decades-long familiarity with what were once the world’s tallest standing Buddha statues, at 150 feet and 120 feet, carved directly from the majestic cliffs, with a coating of paint applied to their heads to enhance their facial expressions. He recalls the three-hour walk from his home village to the weekly market in front of the monuments.
It was during those trips that he saw foreign tourists from then-Soviet states, as well as Germany and Japan. “We had a sense that these must be important symbols in the world that people from so far away would spend their money to see them,” Hossain says.
During the decades of violent conflict in Afghanistan, war and poverty forced Hossain to take residence in the small caves that dot the cliffs between the two statues. In those years, two of Hossain’s children, aged 3 and 7, died from cold and hunger. He says he buried them near the same dirt paths along which he later carried the explosives that ultimately blew up the Buddhas.
In 1998, Hossain says, the Taliban arrested him. “My only crime was being a Hazara,” he says of his capture. “They would say: ‘They are Hazaras. They are infidels. They worship Buddhas.’” Throughout much of Afghan history, the Hazara, an ethnic group that makes up the majority of Bamiyan’s population, were persecuted and made into the servant class of a mainly Pashtun elite.
For three years, he says, he was detained in a single room with 110 other mainly Hazara prisoners. He says he saw a fellow prisoner suffer a heart attack as he was lifted by a rope to plant explosives at the head of the statue.