Afghanistan: Focus on Bamyan cave dwellers

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
BAMYAN, 11 February (IRIN) - Conditions for hundreds of families living in the caves near the destroyed Buddha statues in the central Afghan province of Bamyan remain bleak - with many wondering if help will ever arrive.

"Things are terrible. We don't have food - all I have is some beans that were given to me by a neighbour," mother-of-six Majan told IRIN from one of the caves. "But I just keep silent and go to try and find bread for my family."

Crouched in front of the cave, a stone's throw from where the once great statues stood, her seven-year-old son Jawad picks up his shoes. They don't fit. They don't even match. But that doesn't matter now as they are about to be put on the fire, which his mother, is trying to boil tea on - the only fuel the family can find.

According to the Central Afghanistan Welfare Committee (CAWC), an Afghan NGO working in the area, despite severe winter conditions, some 250 families like Majan's continue to shelter themselves in the caves that once housed Buddhist monks. The group maintains the international community has yet to adequately respond.

"It's the 21st century - how long should people continue to live in these caves?" Hayatullah Hayat, the NGOs deputy director asked IRIN, calling on the international community to do more.

Thousands of Bamyan residents have returned to the area since the demise of the Taliban at the end of 2001. Earlier that year, to international outrage, the hard line regime blew up the two giant statues that towered over the valley, saying they were an insult to Islam. Today while the world continues to debate whether they can now be restored, Hayat said people were languishing in the caves because there was no other housing available.

In the last three months, CAWC has completed more than half the 105 houses it has been contracted to build for cave dwellers in Bamyan, but says many more homes are needed. Each house provides shelter for a family of up to eight and costs about US $700 to build. According to the group, there was plenty of land for new housing complexes, but finance was urgently needed for construction to begin.

Despite that call and although the world remembers what happened to the statues, the hundreds of Afghans still living in the caves feel the world has forgotten them. Many have been there for months, even years, hoping for houses to save them from the snow and bitter cold.

Although some cave dwellers have been fortunate and moved to permanent houses, their places on the cliffs are quickly taken by new arrivals in search of work or assistance from the many NGOs in the region. Commenting on the situation, Ahmad, a field assistant protection officer for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IRIN in Bamyan that virtually all the cave dwellers had come to the town for economic reasons, and were not actually refugees or internally displaced persons. As a result, the refugee agency was hesitant to give them direct aid, because doing so would only encourage others to follow suit.

"The best way to help stop people living in the caves is to help the vulnerable people in their own villages," Ahmad explained. However, UNHCR was expecting an influx of more than 1,000 families in the spring - mainly displaced Tajiks and Pashtuns returning to their Bamyan homes, and many of these could end up living in the caves if there were no houses, he observed.

According to Huyghen Van Den Eertwegh, a Red Cross field delegate in Bamyan, emergency food distributions to people such as the cave dwellers had stopped, and everything was now on a cash-for-work basis. "Basically, people become lazy, and the incentive to work becomes less and less," he told IRIN, adding a reasonable harvest had meant there had been a reduced need for food distributions.

Local people had "coping mechanisms" for the harsh life in the area, and such things as the drought were not new for them to have to overcome, he explained. "It's not going to be luxurious, but people will be able to pass the winter."

However for Seyyed Mohammad and hundreds of others living in the caves there was real concern over whether they would be able to survive the winter without help. "We haven't even seen whether the colour of our lentils is red or yellow, let alone anything else," he told IRIN. His family of six has lived in its 12 by three metre cave for the past six months, protected from the winter weather only by a piece of cardboard and a blanket, which act as a door. Although he's desperate for a house, he wants the world to help rebuild the Buddhas, as this will provide work for the locals if nothing else.

But his neighbour in the cave above, 60-year-old Ziyadeh was more practical, saying any money should be spent on helping the homeless first. "We have nothing to keep us warm, and fear the snow, and hope to receive some quilts. We still believe God will provide," she told IRIN.

Meanwhile, Jim Williams, the Senior Cultural Programme Specialist with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), told IRIN in the Afghan capital, Kabul, that nearly 700 people had been taken out of the caves by local authorities in April 2002 and promised new houses. But after living for several months in tents on a windswept ridge, many had shifted back into the caves, because no houses were built. "In a way it's better that they remain there for the time being, but of course they want houses," he explained.

UNESCO had never wanted the cave dwellers driven away, in many ways they added to the security of the site, which had been plundered by looters, Williams maintained. He estimated that in the last 30 years, nearly 85 percent of the fine wall paintings in other caves had been cut away and sold or destroyed by the Taliban.

A decision on whether the Buddha statues could be rebuilt would be taken by the Afghan government at a meeting in May, but Williams doubted there were enough remnants left to reconstruct them. His preference was for the Buddha niches to be strengthened, but to remain as they are, and the remaining stones to be put in an open museum at the site.


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