Treasures In The Tombs

The headlights shone on a mud-brick compound as Bismallah Khan, head of the Afghan National Guard, stepped out of his car. Khan was taking a few steps toward the compound when Mustafa Faizi, 39, emerged from the structure. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Khan asked Faizi if he was armed. No, Faizi explained, but there were some weapons inside. "What's going on here?" Khan asked. "You can see what's going on," Faizi replied. Nothing more needed to be said. Khan reached into his jacket and pulled out an arrest warrant personally signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Culture minister, Seyed Makhdoom Rahin. The charge? Illegal digging with an intent to traffic in antiquities.

Since the Taliban's fall last November, Afghan artifacts have become one of the country's most profitable, albeit illegal, exports. Smuggling networks first took root during the mujahedin rule in the early 1990s and continued under the Taliban--when they weren't busy blowing up the massive Bamiyan Buddhas or smashing statues at the Kabul Museum. Now there is political will to halt the trafficking, but widespread lawlessness in the countryside makes the task difficult, if not impossible. "Smuggling has increased dramatically since the time of the Taliban," says Jim Williams, a senior program specialist for UNESCO. The Karzai government, strapped for cash, can't afford to police the hundreds of archeological sites dotting the country. Many of the provincial authorities, who have yet to receive a paycheck from Kabul, are suspected of collaborating with tomb raiders to line their pockets. Like most Afghans, these local officials are struggling with the challenges of the present--food shortages, poor health care and a dismal economy. But, if the smuggling goes on unchecked, when the country does get back on its feet it may realize that it's already lost large parts of its past.

The smugglers' motive isn't hard to understand. "The soil of this country is one of the richest in the world in terms of archeological remains," says Culture Minister Rahin. Take Kafir Kot, a 2,000-year-old ancient city and fortress in southern Logar province: the site sprawls across 25 square kilometers of hilly terrain, which is used by locals today for grazing ground. The Ministry of Culture got a tip earlier this year that the landscape was being combed over by profiteers. Local farmers, who may have been working with the looters, had kept quiet. After none of UNESCO's member countries volunteered to help excavate the ruins, armed guards were dispatched to protect the site. But it was already too late. So much illegal digging has taken place that the low hills around Kafir Kot, pockmarked by raiders' holes, now look like a beehive. In one abandoned chamber, the legs of a large Buddha statue, which may have been up to six meters high, have been chipped away by amateur diggers. Mohammed Zahir Seddiqi, 55, the Ministry of Culture representative for Logar province, says it's impossible to estimate the loss from the site. (In fact, the Ministry of Culture officially refuses to estimate the value of smuggled artifacts for fear that placing a price tag on the practice will encourage the trade.) One item carted off by the raiders, a golden sculpture of a horse and chariot, was priceless, says Seddiqi. Even the guards there, who haven't been paid since being posted, occasionally give in to temptation. On the day NEWSWEEK visited Kafir Kot, one of the guards offered to sell a piece of pottery emblazoned with a female figure wearing a crown.

Artifact smugglers run their operations much like the country's drug lords. Smuggling dons in Pakistan and elsewhere contact an Afghan middleman, usually the local military commander, to organize the movement of goods. Locals are then hired to handle the grunt work, sometimes with strict conditions--no artifacts, no pay. Valuable finds are moved out through clandestine border crossings, often the same trails that have been blazed for smuggling narcotics. Once at a clearinghouse, usually in Pakistan, the artifacts are distributed all over the world. According to UNESCO, London, New York and Tokyo are the biggest markets for Afghan antiquities. "The Pakistani smugglers have detailed maps of all the sites," says Faizi, who claims a Pakistani map led him to the dig site in Kabul. "Most of them speak good English so it's easy to move the stuff out of Pakistan."

Haji Jamaluddin, 75, did well enough as an Afghan middleman that he was able to retire. He and his partner--known as the engineer--made their biggest score four years ago. They successfully smuggled a large shipment of Afghan Buddha statues, jewelry and artifacts--valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars--inside huge drums of honey. The cargo moved from Afghanistan to Peshawar and finally to the port of Karachi. Once there, for a bribe of 4 million Pakistani rupees, or some $66,000, a Pakistani Customs officer looked the other way, and the "honey" was shipped to its buyers in Dubai.

Not all the ancient wares travel that far. In a dusty corner of the Andar Shahr market in Peshawar, Haji Ehsanullah, 60, peddles ruby, amber and lapis-lazuli rings in his small shop. But if asked, he will show a customer a back room with an entirely different kind of stock--Buddha carvings and stone statues smuggled from Afghan-istan. Ehsanullah--a 20-year veteran of the artifact-smuggling trade--says business in this precious contraband is returning to the volume it enjoyed in the early 1990s under the mujahedin. Antiques stores such as his have sprung up throughout the region since the departure of the Taliban. American soldiers and NGO workers are good customers, says one dealer. Another shop owner, who asked to remain anonymous, has a direct sales pitch: "Tell us what you want and we'll find it."

Afghan authorities are beginning to crack down on the treasure hunting. In a recent raid in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, 24 statues from Kafir Kot were found in a house. "These statues were en route to Pakistan," says Mohammed Ishaq, Gardez security chief. "Smugglers pass through Paktia and Khowst to take the goods into the Pakistani tribal areas." The statues, many of which are well-preserved Buddha heads, have now been relocated to the Kabul Museum. But isolated raids and sting operations will only make a small dent in trafficking of this scale. Minister Rahin understands this all too well. He points out that the first step toward conservation must be taken by villagers who live near the sites. "People have to be given incentives to stop digging" says Rahin. "If there are education and job opportunities, we can cut down on smuggling."

But such programs will not take root overnight, and for now Afghanistan's antiquities are easy picking beneath the people's feet. From his prison cell, Faizi--one of the few smugglers brought to book--knows how big a temptation it can be. "This is free money. It's not like killing somebody or robbing. It's just digging." Which is precisely the type of rationalization that officials in Kabul fear most. "When I'm in bed at night I feel a pain in my chest from the loss," says Rahin. "There are just too many sites to protect." It'll be some time before he can rest a little easier.

Treasures In The Tombs | News