State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016 - Case study: Hazara heritage and the uncertain future of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

By Nicole Girard

For the minority Hazaras, the Bamiyan valley – the heart of the Hazarajat homeland in the central highlands of Afghanistan, where the renowned Bamiyan Buddhas stood for centuries, carved into the side of a cliff – has long been a symbol of their identity through generations of persecution, slavery and forced displacement. As Shi'a Muslims and a visible ethnic minority, Hazaras were killed in the thousands by the Taliban, the predominantly Pashtun movement that follows a hard-line interpretation of Sunni Islam. These events followed years of systematic discrimination, displacement and targeted killings. While their situation has improved since the fall of the Taliban government, with increased access to universities and civil servant positions, discrimination against them continues and they have regularly been targeted for abductions and other rights abuses. In November 2015, for example, reports emerged that seven Hazaras, including a woman and child, had been beheaded by militants who Afghan authorities claimed belonged to ISIS.

The Bamiyan Buddhas had long been central to the identity of the Hazara community. Although not built by the Hazaras themselves, who only came to have an ethno-linguistic identity based in the region some centuries later, they have their own myths associated with the statues, unrelated to Buddhism. In Hazara folklore, the statues are of a star-crossed couple Salsal and Shahmama, whose doomed love ends tragically in both their deaths. The two remain forever separated, petrified in stone, looking across the Bamiyan valley.

However, the statues, long celebrated internationally, achieved less welcome attention in 2001 when Taliban dynamited them, leaving behind little more than empty voids. While in the western media this wanton destruction has been characterized as an assertion of the Taliban's extreme reading of Islam, whereby representations of human features in art is forbidden, the targeting of the statues was also an assertion of dominance over the Hazara and their homeland. The destruction was in fact part of a larger campaign by the Taliban to suppress the rights and identity of the Hazara. In a private order to Taliban commanders in 2001, leader Mullah Mohammed Omar specifically instructed that the Hazara's cultural heritage be destroyed, and the Hazara celebration of Persian New Year, Jashn-e-Nouroz, be prohibited. The order also included forced land dispossession, anti-Shi'a propaganda and restrictions on Hazara women, who generally maintained more freedom in their society than other Afghan groups.

After the fall of the Taliban, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the remains of the destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas a World Heritage Site. Various governments and international organizations have contributed to discussions over their potential reconstruction. Yet the debates have highlighted the difficulties in balancing restoration and historical integrity with the wishes of minorities – in particular, concerns about how to rebuild the statues faithfully and in line with conservation guidelines stipulating the use of original materials. Many local Hazara have expressed their desire for the statues to be reconstructed, not only to reassert their cultural identity but also for economic purposes as a boost to tourism in the area. Some have blamed the Afghan government for not pushing harder for reconstruction, seeing the delays and vacillation as another example of discrimination against the Hazara community.

Now, the fate of the destroyed statues hangs in the balance. The government has reportedly supported rebuilding the smaller of the two Buddhas, although when a German team began rebuilding its feet in 2013 it was asked to stop: proceeding without using original materials risked losing World Heritage status. As the debate continues, decisions have been made with little consultation with the Hazara people themselves, who Salsal and Shahmama have watched over for centuries. What is certain is that their physical destruction has not dulled the power and importance of the statues in the Hazara imagination, reflected in their continued presence in storytelling, poetry and film. However the dilemma of their future is resolved, it is essential that the community is involved in any discussions and able to communicate their own feelings about this vital part of their heritage. This would at least be a positive step towards realizing the cultural rights of the Hazara and reversing a long history of discrimination.

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