National Geographic : 2008 Feb
At the heart of Afghanistan isan empty space, a striking absence, where the larger of the colossal Bamian Buddhas once stood. In March 2001 the Taliban fired rockets at the statues for days on end, then planted and detonated explosives inside them. The Buddhas had looked out over Bamian for some 1,500 years. Silk Road traders and missionaries of several faiths came and went. Emissaries of empires passed through -Mongols, Safavids, Moguls, British, Soviets often leaving bloody footprints. A country called Afghanistan took shape. Regimes rose and col lapsed or were overthrown. The statues stood through it all. But the Taliban saw the Buddhas simply as non-Islamic idols, heresies carved in stone. They did not mind being thought brutish. They did not fear further isolation. Destroying the statues was a pious assertion of their brand of faith over history and culture. It was also a projection of power over the peo ple living under the Buddhas' gaze: the Hazaras, residents of an isolated region in Afghanistan's central highlands known as Hazarajat-their heartland, if not entirely by choice. Accounting for up to one-fifth of Afghanistan's population, Hazaras have long been branded outsiders. They are largely Shiite Muslims in an overwhelm ingly Sunni Muslim country. They have a repu tation for industriousness yet work the least desirable jobs. Their Asian features-narrow eyes, flat noses, broad cheeks-have set them apart in a de facto lower caste, reminded so often of their inferiority that some accept it as truth. The ruling Taliban-mostly fundamentalist Sunni, ethnic Pashtuns-saw Hazaras as infidels, animals, other. They didn't look the way Afghans should look and didn't worship the way Mus lims should worship. A Taliban saying about Afghanistan's non-Pashtun ethnic groups went: "Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan,"the graveyard. And in fact, when the Buddhas fell, Taliban forces were besieging Hazarajat, burning down villages to render the region uninhabitable. As autumn 118 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * FEBRUARY 2008 began, the people of Hazarajat wondered if they'd survive winter. Then came September 11, a tragedy elsewhere that appeared to deliver sal vation to the Hazara people. Six years after the Taliban fell, scars remain in the highlands of the Hazara homeland, but there is a sense of possibility unthinkable a decade ago. Today the region is one of the safest in Afghanistan, mostly free of the poppy fields that dominate other regions. A new political order reigns in Kabul, seat of President Hamid Karzai's central government. Hazaras have new access to universities, civil service jobs, and other avenues of advancement long denied them. One of the country's vice presidents is Hazara, as is parlia ment's leading vote getter, and a Hazara woman is the first and only female governor in the coun try. The best-selling American novel The Kite Runner-now a feature film-depicted a fiction al Hazara character, and a real Hazara won the first Afghan Star,an American Idol-like program. As the country struggles to rebuild itself after decades of civil war, many believe that Hazarajat could be a model of what's possible not just for Hazaras but for all Afghans. But that optimism is tempered by past memories and pre sent frustrations-over roads not built, a resur gent Taliban, and rising tides of Sunni extremism. A project is now under way to gather thou sands of stone fragments and rebuild the Bud dhas. Something similar is occurring among Hazaras as they try to repair their fractured past, with one notable difference: There are pictures of the destroyed Buddhas. The Hazaras have no such blueprint, no sense of what a future free from persecution is supposed to look like.