Afghanistan's Buddhas: But Little Said About Dying Children


So it wasn't theology, after all, that made the Taliban smash the Buddhas of Bamiyan, but rather rage at the world for offering money and expertise to save the statues but not for the people dying daily throughout drought-stricken Afghanistan.

"Seven hundred of our children died a month ago because of malnutrition and the severe cold weather, and the world did not care, but now everybody talks about the statues!" said Sayyid Rahmatullah Hashemi, a 24-year-old Afghan envoy now touring the United States.

"When your children are dying in front of your eyes, you don't care about statues."

That logic can cut through even the thick wall of animosity we have erected towards the obscurantist Taliban for their gross human rights violations, particularly against women.

Hashemi's visit is a breakthrough. Speaking on campuses and to media, he is presenting an insight not usually available in the anti-Taliban drone of the American media and in the tripe of bejeweled and scented Hollywood stars striking feminist poses on behalf of poor, destitute and dying Afghan women.

According to a transcript of Hashemi's address to students at the University of Southern California, and an interview he gave the New York Times, what prompted the Taliban clerical hierarchy to destroy the statues was a visit last month by a delegation of European and UNESCO envoys, offering money and expertise to save, restore, or even move the artifacts.

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In their four-year rule, the Taliban have restored a semblance of law and order, and demilitarized the population -- at a huge cost to human rights, no doubt.

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"The scholars told them that instead of spending money on statues, why didn't they help our children who are dying of malnutrition? They rejected that, saying, 'This money is only for the statues' (because of the American-led, United Nations-imposed economic sanctions).

"That made our people very angry . . . They were really pissed off. They said, 'If you don't care about our children, then we are going to blow up those statues'."

"I know it is not rational or logical to blow up statues in retaliation for economic sanctions. But if the world is killing our children and destroying our future, they have no right to worry about our past."

Hashemi may only be offering a post-fact rationale for an irrational act. But, as he noted, the Taliban have been in control of that area for some time and could have moved against the Buddhist relics earlier.

"If we had wanted to destroy those statues, we could have done it three years ago."

This line of thinking must make eminent sense to a people who have been through Hell on Earth in the last 30 years. Prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion, Afghans suffered a decade of Communist oppression and repeated purges. The war against the Soviets left 1.5 million dead, out of a population of 18 million. Another 1 million were maimed, mostly from Soviet landmines. About 5 million were made refugees -- 1.5 million went to Iran and 3.5 million to Pakistan. Post-Cold War, the vicious warfare between competing militias caused at least 100,000 casualties, and created another 1 million refugees.

In their four-year rule, the Taliban have restored a semblance of law and order, and demilitarized the population -- at a huge cost to human rights, no doubt.

Using summary justice, they even managed the miracle of wiping out opium production, something Colombia and the United States have failed to do, despite monumental bi-lateral efforts costing billions.

As late as 1999, opium production in Afghanistan was running at 4,580 tons -- more than three-quarters of the world's supply. At about $40 a kilo, it was worth about $180 million, the nation's chief source of revenue.

Under world pressure, the Taliban bulldozed the crops and banned further production. And recently, the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention certified that opium has indeed been virtually eliminated.

This self-inflicted economic wound brought the Taliban no outside economic balm because, by this time, the world was busy implementing the sanctions.

Meanwhile, a drought that swept a wide swath of West Asia, from Syria to Mongolia, has hit Afghanistan the hardest. About 1 million people face starvation. Hundreds of thousands are wandering towards the bigger cities. About 100,000 are huddled in emergency camps near the western city of Herat, which is where the children died.

Almost 500,000 Afghans have crossed into Pakistan (which already has 2 million refugees from the 1980s). Others are trying to enter Iran (which still has 1.2 million of the original refugees). About 12,000 are stranded on two islands on a river that's the border with Tajikistan.

Afghanistan needs 40 million tons of food grains, but has only 2 million tons. The United Nations appealed last fall for $230 million; it has pledges for only $18 million, mostly from Arab nations. Canada promised a mere $600,000 more.

On Monday, Hashemi met with State Department and National Security Council officials, and called for improved relations, including finding a way out of American insistence that the Taliban hand over alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden.

As much as the Taliban's philistinism and their gender apartheid are good fodder for fiery American rhetoric, it is not for the sake of Afghanistan's heritage or even for Afghan women that the economic sanctions were imposed. They were slapped on primarily because of American obsession with Bin Laden.

It is useful to keep that in mind when listening to the anguished voices of Afghans like Hashemi. Or when trying to make some sense of this week's decree by U.N. officials implementing the sanctions that a bread distribution program in Kabul is suspended until the Taliban permit the hiring of women to survey poverty in the Afghan capital. By the time they resolve the dispute, there may be nobody left to survey -- men or women.

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Haroon Siddiqui is Editorial Page Editor Emeritus of The Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper. This column originally appeared in the March 22 edition of the Star and was re-produced with permission from the author.


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