Last cave family struggles for life among Buddha ruins

People's Daily, Aug 18, 2006

Bamiyan, Afghanistan -- Roqya sits quietly with her four children in front of the cave in which her family resides, about 100 metres east of the ruins of the gigantic Bamyan Buddha Statue in central Afghanistan.

"Life is hard here. We have no power. It is very cold in winter. We want to move away but we don't have money to build a new house," said Roqya, who despite only being in her 30s has a forehead covered with wrinkles.

Roqya's family is the last still dwelling in the 1,000 caves in the cliff where two world-famous Bamyan Buddha Statues used to stand. Taliban extremists destroyed the two statues, the tallest standing Buddhas in the world, in March 2001, dealing a huge blow to Afghan heritage.

Thirteen people live in the cave, which hangs 20 metres above the surface. Owner Ismal and his sons earn little over US$2 a day at a nearby work site.

"We have to fetch water from a stream hundreds of metres away from the cliff. By the time we get the buckets home they are only half full as lots spills on the way back," Roqya, Ismal's daughter-in-law, said.

Just beside her, Ismal's daughter was squeezing and washing clothes in a basin, in which the water had become muddy.

Worn red carpets lay on the floor of the cave, where the family sleep, and colourful quilts were piled in the corners.

The only household items lay on the carpet, an old radio, a locked iron box and some old clothes,

There are two small caves on the right of the main living cave. One is for feeding livestock, the other for toasting Nan, a crusty bread that is the staple food.

Taliban extremists killed many residents and burned villages when they occupied the Bamyan region in 1998 after encountering fierce resistance.

In order to avoid harassment and persecution, the Ismal family moved all over the region while the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001.

After the regime's collapse in late 2001, they went back to their hometown, only to find their house was totally destroyed.

The family then decided to move into the caves neighbouring the ruins of the Bamyan Buddha Statues.

Mohammed Hussein, a local policeman, said that many families had experienced the same problems.

Many rushed to the caves in the cliff, and at the peak nearly 100 families lived in there.

Since 2002, due to safety reasons and the need to protect cultural heritage, the local government asked families to leave the caves and provided free land for them.

After one year, all families except Ismal's had moved out.

While Ismal's family found sanctuary in a cave, thousands of families devastated by conflicts fled to other countries such as Pakistan and Iran to become refugees.

Of Afghanistan's 30 million population, at one point six or seven million were refugees.

Nowadays, many of these families have returned to their homeland and restarted their lives. However, Ismal and his family are still leading a tough life in their cave.

"We have all along dreamed of moving out of the cave, but we don't know when the dream can come true ," said Roqya.