Will the Taliban unleash another artefact massacre?

By Syed Moazzam Hashmi, The News, Nov 30, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- “Striving for your service,” reads a signboard outside a Taliban police station at a bazaar in Swat. Beside it a masked Kalashnikov wielding oxymoron was pointing the assault rifle straight at the onlookers.

One wonders, if the “services” promised by the advancing Taliban might not paint their future bleak like the pitch-black background of the signboard. The continuing skirmishes and security forces retaliation against the “highhandedness” of the local Taliban, who with the assistance of Uzbek, Chechen, and Tajik volunteers had rolled down from the warlords’ governed tribal areas to the mainland Pakistan right into the heart of historic Swat valley.

As the military put boots on ground in the scenic valley to cut the attention hungry extremists to size in the strife torn region, the possibilities of militants drifting to repeat their ugly tactics of destroying artefact increases many fold. Particularly, when they retreated to choose to go underground in woods for guerrilla warfare, according to the latest reports.

Fear of elimination looms large over the rare priceless historical artefact of Buddhist, ancient Hindu, and remains of Alexander the Great that spread all over the North West Frontier Province and east Afghanistan. These sites have also been listed under Unesco’s world heritage.

In the presence of the elimination of twin Bamiyan Buddhas and the one in Ghazni by Taliban in year 2001, one does not need to go that far back in the recent history to understand the gravity of the issue.

On October 9, this year unknown militants allegedly belonging to the banned Tehreek Nafaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) obliterated the face of the 23 foot high colossal image of a 7th century seated Buddha in Jehanabad (Shakhorai) village in Swat district.

The most complete and priceless inspiring symbol of Gandhara art suffered irreparable damage to its head and shoulders in the second episode of extremists attack on November 6. After the historic Bamiyan statues, the Swat Buddha was the sole example of Buddhist cultural heritage, a disappointed official of the NWFP archaeological department said.

The incident was promptly reported to the police with a little hope for any progress in a scenario where the law enforcers are themselves being threatened. The Gandhara School is probably credited with the first representation of the Buddha in human form. The portrayal of Buddha in his human shape, rather than shown as a symbol.

With security forces trying to maintain the law and order in the disorderly region plagued with extremism stemming mainly out of poverty, the fear of destruction and loot of the artefact lurks in the hearts.

Tourism mainly oils the economy in this Switzerland of the East, the Swat valley that has now seized to exist. Certain reports indicate theft and smuggling of the rare artefact in the whole Gandhara art region, the great kingdom that lasted from 6th century BC to the 11th century AD.

The NWFP government website proudly displays an image of a statue of Buddha as a representative heritage the province enjoys and attract tourism. Most of the precious sites, particularly, those in Malakand region are directly or indirectly threatened by the approaching rampage.

The Ghazni statue was even spared by the 11th century tempest of conqueror Mahmood Ghaznavi, infamous as idol breaker in the history. When Taliban razed that statue even the locals protested despite regimes fear but to no avail.

Walking tall in the footsteps of predecessors, the Taliban’ are not deficient in setting more irrational, unimaginable examples of religious intolerance and disrespect for culture and heritage.

Are we prepared to take this shame? Is the question, rather a wake up call that warns that it would be a little too late, if we continue waiting for the Mother Nature to automatically heed the possible massacre of the artefact. The nature does not forget those who forget their history and fail to learn from it.