March 12, 2006

Looting of Afghanistan

Posted at 12:40 pm in Similar cases

The looting of Iraq in the last three years has already been relatively well covered by the international press. However, despite the outcry about the Taliban’s deliberate destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, since the fall of the Taliban a much more widespread destruction & looting of ancient sites has occurred, with many of the plundered artefacts being sold to private dealers in Europe & the USA.

The Sunday Times

The Sunday Times
March 12, 2006
Looted Afghan art smuggled into UK
Christina Lamb

UP TO four tons of ancient Afghan artefacts have been seized in Britain after an unprecedented wave of looting from archeological sites in Afghanistan that has exceeded the plundering of treasures in Iraq.

“All the attention has been on Iraq but this is a far, far bigger problem,” said Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley, who heads the art and antiques unit of the Metropolitan police. “Afghanistan is the main source of unprovenanced antiquities into Britain. It’s coming in by air freight, sea freight, DHL, you name it.

“It’s so widespread that I’m getting reports of people being murdered and clubbed to death on the planes in disputes about who should have the antiquities.”

As the crossroads of Asia — criss-crossed by invaders from Alexander the Great to Babur, the first Mughal emperor — Afghanistan has acquired one of the world’s richest cultural heritages.

The three to four tons of plundered items seized by British customs officials and police in the past two years include ceramics, stone sculptures, Buddhist Gandharan statues, bronze weapons and coins dating back to the 3rd century BC.

Much of this has been stored at the British Museum in London while discussions take place between the Foreign Office and the Afghan government over what to do with it. Both Afghan and British officials fear that Afghanistan does not yet have the capacity to keep it secure.

“Afghanistan is a place so extraordinarily rich in culture that almost anywhere you start digging you find things, but it is being ravaged,” said Robert Knox, keeper of the museum’s Asia collection, who has been trying to identify looted items. “The Afghan government has other priorities such as feeding people, but if they don’t protect these sites and things this history will be lost for ever.”

There was an international outcry in March 2001 when the former Taliban regime blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. The shattered Kabul Museum, where the culture minister once personally took an axe to some statues, was seen as another symbol of the evils of the regime.

However, just as opium production has increased exponentially in the four years since the Taliban was ousted and a western-backed government was installed in its place, so there has been an explosion of uncontrolled looting in archeological sites across the country.

The end of 25 years of war has opened up access to hitherto inaccessible sites, but the government’s failure to protect them and curb local warlords has halted international excavations and left the way clear for looters, often in the pay of local commanders.

Sayed Raheen, Afghanistan’s information and culture minister, says that he is now reluctant to go to archeological sites. “When I have visited a site, robbers start digging right there after I have left,” he said. “They think that if the minister visited this particular spot, then something must be there.”

A number of police officers sent to protect sites have been killed. Italian and later Japanese archeologists were driven off the old city complex of Kharwar outside Kabul by a warlord. Many sites, such as an ancient Greek settlement which was founded by Alexander the Great near Ai Khanoum in northern Afghanistan, have already been plundered.

“Afghanistan really is in danger of losing its history,” said Christian Manhart, head of communications and education at Unesco and who headed the Afghan department for 12 years. “To Afghan farmers, digging up antiquities is the same as digging up potatoes: you harvest them and sell them.”

Unesco has launched an awareness campaign for locals to protect their history, but Manhart acknowledges that the real problem is poverty.

“It’s not enough to tell people that tthey should not do this — you need to provide an alternative income,” he said.

To this end, the Afghan culture ministry and Unesco started so-called “preventive excavations”, employing local villagers on archeological digs. But the programme ran out of funds, opening the way for looters.

Although it is illegal to export artefacts from Afghanistan, the porous borders that make it so hard to control drug trafficking are exploited by antiquities smugglers using the same routes. Some go through Turkmenistan or Iran but most leave via Pakistan. Dealers in Peshawar and Islamabad send them to markets in London, Switzerland and Kuwait.

According to Knox at the British Museum, the artefacts seized in London are “just a drop in a bucket compared with what’s coming out”.

“I could go out tomorrow morning and seize 10,000 more Afghan antiquities,” said Rapley, the police specialist. “The problem is I don’t have powers to do anything about it.”

While the international community reacted with outrage at reports of looting from Iraq, sending in Interpol and passing United Nations resolutions, the same has not happened with Afghanistan.

London dealers boast of offering freshly excavated Afghan artefacts. The police have not secured a single conviction.

“It’s very demoralising,” Rapley said. “It’s sad that Afghanistan seems to have been treated very differently to Iraq.”

Both the police and the museum experts say that it is hard to put a precise value on the millions of pounds’ worth of cultural treasures coming into Britain.

“These are freshly dug so we are dealing with items no one knew they had,” Rapley explained.

Additional reporting: Tim Albone, Kabul

Cultural crossroads

  1. 330BC Invasion of Alexander the Great
  2. 130BC Kushan kings start Buddhist period
  3. AD250 Afghanistan comes under Persian control
  4. 652 Arab invasion leads to rule from Baghdad
  5. 1219 Invasion of Mongol leader Genghis Khan
  6. 1369 Tamerlane invades and starts Timurid empire, magnificent age for art, until overthrown by Uzbeks
  7. 1504 Kabul captured by Babur, founder of the Mughal empire
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