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Afghanistan – In search of the Lost Buddha’s

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Text by David A. Adams
Photography by David A. Adams

Adams hitches a ride with the Taliban to cris-cross Afghanistan: a country where few westerners dare to go. He finally reaches the Bamiyan Buddhas, just before they are destroyed.

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Afghanistan is a place where few travellers dare to tread. A place that’s been locked in bloody conflict for nearly thirty years. But beyond the conflict is a land of extraordinary beauty, a place that was once the fountainhead of one of the world’s oldest beliefs.

The country is breathtaking in its beauty – its savage loveliness and wild terrain reflect the nature of this land’s people; the flinty air filters the sunlight, making dawn and sunset an awe-inspiring experience. This is a picture of Afghanistan very few westerners see – or expect. It’s an ancient realm of extraordinary culture, landscape and people.

Six years before, I had come to Afghanistan with a very different purpose – then, I was a freelance war correspondent and I was covering the bloody civil war that was tearing Afghanistan apart. But I knew that beyond the bombs and bigotry was a hidden treasure: a place from where an ancient religion took its creed to the world. Six years before, I had sworn I would return one day to see Afghanistan properly and seek out the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Afghanistan’s location, landlocked and nestled between Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, is rather unfortunate. It always lies on the way to somewhere else. Armies have crossed its mountain passes since time began: from West to East – Darius the Great, Alexander, the crusaders – and East to West – when Genghis and his Mongol hordes came sweeping through the Khyber pass, and the Silk Road caravans snaked slowly through the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The British, Ottomans, Russians, Soviets and Pakistanis have all either invaded Afghanistan or done their very best to use it as a political chess board.

But the Afghans are a notoriously fierce race, and even when hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered they have always succeeded in repelling the invader – albeit at a very high price. The war with the Soviets went on for 10 years, much to the surprise of the Russians who expected it to last only a few months, and ended with the super-power limping back across the border, having learned a hard lesson. A lesson that may soon be taught to Western forces.

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghan ferocity turned inwards and unleashed a 5-year civil war. With the rise of the Taliban in South-eastern Kandahar, the warring factions were one by one swept under its control.

This marked a turnaround in Afghan history with Afghanistan finally taking its fate into its own hands: no longer would foreigners invade or manipulate its people, no longer would it be the regional victim. The borders closed, outsiders were shunned, even when the West imposed economic sanctions. To the West, Afghanistan is the protector of terrorists, the home of Islamic fanaticism, of human rights abuses, especially towards women. To Afghanistan, the West is just another foreigner trying to impose on it a way of life for which it never asked.

Before the latest episode in these disagreements – the attacks on the US, orchestrated, or at least inspired, by the notorious Osama Bin Laden taking refuge in Afghanistan – the issue was not one of terrorism, but of saving face. Literally. Because deep in the heart of this war-torn land, along the ancient Silk Road in the Bamiyan Valley, stood the most ancient Buddhas in the world. Carved out of solid rock and standing at 54 metres, these statues watched over travellers with benevolent omniscience for nearly two thousand years. When these ancient effigies, considered idolatry by the Taliban, were demolished, an international outcry followed.

Just before they were destroyed, however, I was able to gain entry into Afghanistan against all odds. I was permitted to film in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, and photograph and climb onto the Bamiyan statues before they were destroyed in March 2001. I didn’t realize until much later, when the Buddhas disappeared and the borders closed, how extraordinarily fortunate I had been.

I also discovered that Afghanistan’s people are slowly recovering in the aftermath not just of the recent civil war, but of millennia of war – and it is likely that their long journey to peace is not over yet. Afghans are a hardy people indeed. Having little reason to love westerners, the hospitality and generosity they showed me were all the more remarkable.

 

THE KHYBER PASS

My voyage started on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, in a legendary place: the Khyber Pass. It’s a road well-trodden by armies, smugglers and spies. And it’s not just the armies that came through here. This was a funnel for culture and religion and over the last 2000 years Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam spread down from here over the plains of India, to South-east Asia – then on to the rest of the world. It’s an incredible place.

Six years before I had stood in this exact spot on my way to Kabul to cover the civil war. Times were different then. This time, however, I crossed the border in an ancient brightly-coloured bus that wheezed and spluttered laboriously across the steep mountain passes. After crossing the border, the first sight to meet me was a burned out tank that was never moved. It seemed to warn newcomers: beware, stranger, for you enter a harsh land. As a westerner, I was obliged to take an armed guard with me on the bus as kidnapping and banditry was still rife in this part of the world.

After 40km I got off the bus to meet my travelling companions: Aziz the driver and Abdul the guide and translator, and we switched the camera gear to a jeep adorned with two white doves of peace on the front. Abdul’s English was excellent and he mediated with a group of child-entrepreneurs awaiting foreigners at this end of the Khyber Pass to exchange US Dollars for Afghan Rupees – and making quite a killing in the process.

A savvy ten-year-old offered me 10,000 Afghanis to the Dollar when the exchange rate was 40,000. After being so pleasantly fleeced by a bunch of kids, I at least had Afghan money and, armed with driver and translator, I was now ready to begin the trip of a lifetime through one of the most inaccessible countries on earth. We headed towards the spectacular Hindu Kush and on to Kabul.

As the road snaked through the mountain passes, I got a terrible sense of déjà vu. Six years before, the threat of ambush had lurked round every bend. Back then, the roads had been controlled by the warlords of the Mujahadeen. All along the road were check-points and if you refused to pay the toll, it would have cost you your life. This time around, the Khyber Pass was relatively peaceful – soon I would get my first glimpse of the capital: Kabul.

 

KABUL

Kabul was quiet. Unlike six years before, bombs were not pummelling or shaking the ground, no longer did the ak-ak of machine-gunfire echo through the valleys surrounding the capital. But the city was still a pock-marked shadow of its former self and you didn’t have to go far to see evidence of war. Everywhere there was rubble. We filmed discreetly – photography of humans is officially banned by the Taliban – and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves: because of the trade sanctions, first levelled against Afghanistan several years ago, westerners were not popular.

Abdul described the problem to me: “The people have no food to eat. Some of them are deprived of human needs. So of course some of them are not happy and of course they are blaming western countries. They feel totally abandoned. We didn’t commit any crime. Why do they have to impose sanctions?” Today of course, the situation has far less prospect of improving.

We drove straight to the Continental Hotel – the only hotel where westerners were allowed to stay, and the same place in which I had stayed six years ago. I received a warm welcome though: the staff awaited me outside the entrance in a surreal ceremonious line-up. One of the great tenets of Islam is that all visitors must be honoured, whatever their country or creed. Six years before, this hotel had been a hive of activity: journalists, film crews, dignitaries were all staying here. Now the hotel was ghostly: aside from me, it was completely empty of foreigners – a deserted monument to Afghanistan’s international isolation.

After years of shelling, many windows were still covered in plastic – there was a shortage of glass. I asked for my old room and of course it was no problem, I had the pick of the hotel. And I got the best view in town! The balcony looked out over what had been a panorama of battle six years before. It was incredible now to see it at peace.

While Abdul went to the Ministry of Information to negotiate for clearance to film in the country, I went in search of what had once been the front line – the killing grounds of Kabul, where I’d witnessed so much death and suffering. Today, the streets were alive with people – men only (women needing permission from their husbands to go outside), dressed in long robes, head-wraps and all boasting very impressive beards. In fact, it is illegal in Afghanistan for men not to have a beard.

My steps took me to the city zoo. Astonishingly, there were still animals there, caught in the crossfire six years before but they had survived. A brown bear and a scarred old lion were some of the pitiful attractions. It was a miracle these animals were here at all because during the battle for Kabul the zoo had been the front line surrounded by trenches. The zookeepers stayed during all that fighting and tended the animals. They even protected the trees because everyone cut them down for firewood. The bear was unharmed, but the lion was blinded when a grenade was lobbed into his cage.

It was here that I first encountered the Islamic warriors whose leaders control the country – the Taliban. They turned out to be a bunch of young guys, smiling and friendly – not at all the fierce, uncompromising champions of Islam as demonised in the western media. And in a place where photography is rigidly policed and rarely done in public, they were naturally enough intrigued by my camera.

To place all Taliban in the same fundamentalist camp is not to understand where they’re coming from. The Taliban originally started as a small group amongst many other warring factions. As the Taliban’s star rose, others began to join them – while they are largely Pashtan, they also include Sunni, Shia and other ethnic groups. Most of them are just young men who have nothing else to look forward to than to join the Taliban – because the Taliban are, of course, immensely powerful in Afghanistan.

Amid the rubble I saw a group of young scamps, dirty, dusty and wearing enormous smiles as I took their pictures. If Kabul is your playground, you run the serious risk of losing a leg – a high price to pay for having fun.

The next morning in Kabul revealed a shattered city. And the delays with the Ministry of Information were making me wonder if the Ministry too hadn’t just been reduced to a pile of rubble.

And there were Taliban everywhere, recognizable by their black turbans. The word ‘Taliban’ means religious student and, even though they’ve only been around since 1996, their rules for living are based on an 8th Century text: the Q’uran, which they learn by rote at Q’uranic schools. There is almost no educational alternative, so the Afghan people’s single-minded attitude to the west is perhaps not so surprising.

But time was running short so I decided to change tack: if an army marches on its stomach, perhaps I could appeal to the Taliban’s gastronomic juices. Hidden in a back street was a kitchen, and I love cooking pasta. The Taliban head honchos, including a man from the Ministry of Information, were all invited and I busied myself in the kitchen to make Puttanesca, my favourite Italian pasta dish. The recipe involves a lot of tomatoes and onions, which I chopped on the chopping board as Afghani youngsters laughed at me through the window.

Fruit and vegetables in Afghanistan and in many third world countries are totally organic. There are no preservatives or bug sprays, so they taste incredible, really fresh. There is a funny story about a guy who wanted to smuggle opium out of Afghanistan, and to hide the smell he actually hid the opium under a truck-load of onions. But when he got to the border he was arrested for smuggling onions, because you’re not allowed to take onions out of Afghanistan.

The moment of truth arrived: I served the Puttanesca as we all sat on the thick-carpeted floor of the room off the kitchen. The Taliban (who were mercifully unaware that Puttanesca means ‘whore’s pasta’ in Italian) seemed to approve, what with their smiling, nodding and occasional “Very nice” or “Taste’s hmmme excellent” in broken English. And what about Abdul? He asked: “Did you forget the salt…?”

It seemed the meal worked. Significantly, the next day the green light came through and I was summoned to see Mr. Faiz Mohammed Faiz, Taliban Head of Information and spokesman for the Foreign Ministry: the Head Honcho of Honchos.

He told us what he wanted the world to understand about the administration in Afghanistan: “The Taliban from the very beginning has brought stability and security to the country. It treated all anarchy, disorder and chaos. We have put an end to civil war in our country,” he said. “Not only journalists, but tourists can freely visit all corners of the country and they can succeed to go wherever they want to go.” This was all part of the drawn-out diplomacy, but Mr. Faiz was also a religious scholar and a strict adherent to Q’uranic law. On the one hand this law forbids the depiction of any human image on camera – on the other he wanted to rebuild tourism and promote Afghanistan to the world. That was his dilemma: he didn’t want to be filmed, but to get his message out he had to be…

But we got the go-ahead and to celebrate, Abdul took Mr. Faiz’s photograph with my Polaroid camera; an image of a religious scholar who upholds strict Islamic law…

Mr. Faiz neglected to tell us, however, that we were still not allowed to film people in towns. Nor did he warn us that he had no control over the most powerful government agency in Afghanistan: the dreaded Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Their spies are everywhere and if they found us out, I would have been flung out of the country, my cameras smashed. So making this film and taking photographs was going to be difficult – much of it would have to be done in secret.

But we did have the go-ahead and finally I was off to one of Asia’s ancient seats of learning: Herat. It is also where one of the great spy games in the world was played out.

 

HERAT

Herat, 400 miles on the other side of the country due west of Kabul, has long been the centre of learning in Afghanistan. Home to astronomers, mathematicians, poets, scholars and artists, its University was a beacon of culture in the Middle Ages – right until the British burned it to the ground in the 19th Century, that is. When we arrived, all that was left was a series of tall pillars breaking up the monotony of the landscape, rather like the legs of an upturned table, and some minarets which even Soviet mortars couldn’t destroy.

We arrived in Herat and faced the next stage of delays. Yet again, permission had to be sought from the local Taliban commanders who, due to Herat’s proximity to the border with Afghanistan’s old enemy Iran, were tougher and were not likely to be impressed with only a meal.

Abdul went off to make our case to the local commander, but not before reminding us we were not high on the Taliban’s list of priorities. “The Taliban right from the beginning were under criticism from western media. That is why they are paranoid.” He went in search of the commander while I waited and waited in a restaurant specializing in boiled sheep brains. The minutes turned to hours and another day was wasted.

I, meanwhile, killed time in a time-honoured fashion: I went shopping. And not just in any old shop: this was the mother of all junk shops. A junk shop of history, filled with discarded objects from Afghanistan’s turbulent past. Its proprietor greeted me with a big smile and the rapid-fire words “Welcome! It’s a big shop, there are many things to see, just yell out, just looking?”, as my eyes grew bigger and bigger when I saw the treasure trove inside. Coins minted in the times of Alexander the Great, bank notes from Imperial Russia, shoes from a shah’s harem, huge Giselle guns with 1.5 metre-long barrels from the First World War, and blue glass – lots and lots of blue glass.

This was what I was after: it was completely unique to this little shop, because out back was the kiln, run by family members, and whose dusky lapis glassware was a well-kept secret dating back to the time of the Sultans and handed down from generation to generation. “This is one dollar – One dollar?” I asked, not believing my luck, and I assured the shop-owner that I would be buying quite a lot…

Beaming proudly at my hoard of new acquisitions, I hurried back to meet Abdul who told me I could at last film what I came here for: the Great Citadel, where British and Russian spies played out the Great Game back in the 19th Century, as immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

I was surprised: this was a military base and pictures of it would be of strategic interest to an enemy. Yet they let us film – on one condition: that every person be removed before we entered. The guns, however, remained in place…

I’d always wanted to explore this fortress because of its role in a forgotten slice of 19th Century history: the secret spy wars between Britain and Russia known as the Great Game. Afghanistan was the gateway to British India – a gateway whose control was fought over by the British and Russian Empires in a game involving spy-masters mapping the trade-routes and making alliances with warlords and fiefdoms. It was a time of intrigue, adventure and heroes – anything was a possible to an enterprising young man. Men like Lt. Eldridge Pottinger, who saved the day during the siege of the Citadel by the Persian forces.

It was a black day: the Grand Vizier, aligned with Pottinger, sat slumped on the ground, dispirited and ready to yield. Pottinger grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and, armed only with his sword, marched him outside through the Citadel gates to yell abuse and wave his scimitar at the Persian army camped outside. This act terrified the Persians who fell back, and it went down as one of history’s great moments of insane heroism. Mad Dogs and Englishmen…

To me, the Great Citadel symbolized Afghanistan’s centuries-long fate: to be fought over, invaded and manipulated by other powers. The place had seen soldiers come and go since it was first built – the armies and their weapons had changed, but not much else. If these stones could have spoken…

 

THE ROAD TO MAZAR-E SHARIF

But we were on our way again – this time due north-east towards Mazar-e Sharif, by the Uzbeki border. As we bounced along the appalling roads, I thought it a miracle that any army managed to cross this mountainous terrain at all.

We slowly approached the battlefront and the killing fields – the legacy of the recent decades of wars. We were quickly reminded yet again of the flotsam and jetsam of conflict: landmines and refugees were thick on the ground here. Old forts perched on hillsides were scarred by mortars – I didn’t go walkabout because the savage beauty of this area belied the deadly mines scattered all over the place. I did meet up with a team from the Halo Project, a non-governmental organization specializing in the clearing of landmines.

It’s estimated that there are still around 10 million mines to be cleared in Afghanistan, and every day someone somewhere steps on one. At the rate they’re being cleared, it will take 22,000 years before the country is mine-free… Much longer, if hostilities escalate further. Clearing mines is very slow going, but there is no way of speeding up the process, as the guys from Halo Project told me. They were in the process of clearing a small valley and, after 3 years had already cleared it of 1800 mines, 3000 unexploded bombs and 70 anti-tank mines – but they estimated it would take another 10 years before the high priority areas of the valley would be safe.

But on top of the mines and sanctions, Afghanistan’s people face another problem: drought. We came across a small group of refugees huddled by a forlorn military barracks in a battlefield, far away from any town or village. They had fled their villages high up in the mountains and had come down into the valleys to look for food, trying to skirt the heavily mined areas as they went – not always successfully. An old man clutched his two children and broke down in tears as he told us that three of his children had already died in the previous two weeks. “Still not enough to eat; they are hungry.”

Some of the statistics coming out of Afghanistan are shocking: life expectancy is 45; infant mortality is 149 deaths per 1000 (where Ethiopia’s is 101). The number of Afghan doctors working in the country is around 1100, although – before the hurried evacuation of aid agencies from the country – foreign NGOs had tried to improve health care in the rural areas. Refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan currently hold around 2 million Afghan refugees, with another 2 million in Iran. Truth may be the first casualty of war, but the ordinary (wo)man in the street is surely a very close second.

Abdul summed it up: “Peace is a very important thing. Everything comes from peace. If you have peace, you have school, you have work, you don’t have to be a refugee.”

 

MAZAR-E SHARIF

After two days of gruelling driving, the crew finally arrived in Mazar-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan. We were here to film one of the only buildings to remain intact despite all the bombing during the Soviet and civil wars – the Blue Mosque. Of course, the same rules governing photography applied: no people in the shots. The Taliban cleared everyone out of the mosque, even though the noon muezzin was about to call for prayer. But rules were rules: no one could stray in front of the camera.

Living up to its name, the Blue Mosque’s azure blue tiles make for a pointillist effect which, close up, reveal a breath-taking attention to detail. Muhammad’s son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, is buried here and its vivid-blue symmetry makes it one of the most sumptuous mosques in the entire Islamic world.

Soon after I stepped out from the mosque, I heard the news that the US had threatened a cruise missile strike at one of the camps nearby Mazar-e Sharif, in retaliation for the attack on the US navy in Yemen. Confirmed by the UN, the news struck a note of paranoia throughout the city and it all jarred with the harmony and peace I had just experienced in the mosque. The UN and other foreign aid agencies evacuated from the city, leaving me to wait for two days in the hotel until the all-clear was sounded. Thankfully, it was only a false alarm, but it all served to illustrate how this region, even then, was living on tenterhooks on a daily basis.

But with the crisis over, I went to one of the world’s oldest cities: Balkh. It was once called “The Mother of All Cities” although it could also have been called “The Mother of All Cemeteries”. Because Balkh was built on bones and the place is still littered with them – some ancient, some very new. All around its crumbling walls are the bleached remains of human habitation – every time the city was sacked, what was left of the population would simply rebuild it. Until 1220 that is, when Genghis Khan arrived and the city walls never rose again.

If anything sums up the fate of Afghanistan, it’s Balkh: over 3000 years, it’s been sacked an unbelievable 700 times. Is it any wonder the Afghans are crying out for peace? The next day I would be heading for my final destination: the sacred valley where a religion that stood for peace was once practiced. I would be in Bamiyan.

 

BAMIYAN

After a day’s drive, I finally made the approach into the Valley of the Gods, alive with trees, water and colour: I was astounded by its beauty. This was an Afghanistan few people ever see and I was one of the first westerners for a long time to be allowed in. And last, as it turned out.

From the crest of the mountain from which I descended into the valley, I could already see it: the largest of the Bamiyan Buddhas, standing at an immense 54 metres and dominating the valley below.

Huan Tsang, a 7th Century traveler, wrote in 632 AD: “Beyond the Bamiyan Valley and towering over its northern face is the rock-face honey-combed by scores of cells and cave-faces scooped out of the rock. Majestically standing above them are two of the world’s largest statues of Lord Buddha. The faces of the giant Buddha figures are covered with gold and decorated with precious gems that dazzle the eye.”

Even from this distance, I was equally impressed by the colossi. After centuries of weather-erosion and half-hearted attempts at defacing the Buddhas, they were still regal and imposing. They were no longer covered with gold or gems, but their height and workmanship was still astonishing. The taller of the two was half the size of the statue of Liberty, which, when placed in the harsh beauty of its surroundings, made for an awe-inspiring sight.

Next stop: the Taliban commander (of course), to get permission to film up close and I climbed the Bamiyan Citadel to plead my case. The Taliban had told me this place was also called the City of Noise – so named because of the cries of the people slaughtered here by Genghis Khan 800 years ago. The killing went on for days. Today, you can die just as horribly because the whole mountain side is full of mines.

The news from the Taliban commander was bad: the Buddhas were of military importance and access was denied. I had travelled for many days only to be refused at the very end; I was bitterly disappointed.

While Abdul kept up the pressure, I went off to play a game of volleyball with the locals. All sports are forbidden in Afghanistan, so this was no ordinary volleyball game – this was quiet rebellion. The ‘locals’ in question were the Hazzarah, Shia descendants from Genghis Khan’s warriors and notorious for their take-no-prisoners attitude during the battle for Kabul. Even the Taliban are wary of them. The reason for this (and partly for the Buddhas’ demolition) is geo-political: the Hazzarahs largely make up the Northern Alliance rebel group. Previously led by Ahmad Shah Mas’ud – the man who lost Kabul to the Taliban in 1996 but, before his death in September 2001, still mounted raids against them – the Hazzarah control the Panjsher Valey, whose Shalang tunnel is the main road north from Kabul. The only other road available is through Bamiyan… So when the Hazzarahs of Bamiyan blocked this road, Taliban reprisals were swift and ruthless. Since the Bamiyan Buddhas remained largely under Hazzara care, their destruction also served as a warning from the Taliban: don’t cross us, or we destroy you.

We filmed the volleyball game discreetly, and it ended without incident. Another day went by, waiting for permission.

But the next morning, we were given an urgent summons – it seemed that permission had at last been granted, on one condition: that I take the commander’s photograph. This request, coming from one whose religion equates portrait photography with false worship, was a little contradictory but this was not the time to point out inconsistencies in anyone’s reasoning or logic!

I took the Polaroid photograph as the Taliban members jostled laughing in front of my camera and then showed it to the commander, who was very pleased as his own smiling face became visible. My end of the bargain fulfilled, I ran off towards the Buddhas with my camera before the commander could change his mind.

The Buddhas and the honey-comb of niches surrounding the base of the rock-wall were carved out of the rocks between the 4th and 7th Centuries by Buddhist monks. After carving the body, the figures were draped with mud-plaster on ropes and, when dry, were painted the colour of bronze. The magnificent heads were sculpted in stucco, painted in gold and fitted into place. The monks’ cells and worship-halls around the statues numbered more than a thousand.

These Buddhas, before they were completely demolished in March 2001, were not only the biggest in the world, they were also the oldest. For it was here in the Bamiyan Valley that Buddhism was first visually expressed in the statue of the Buddha – before, Buddhism had mostly been symbolized by a wheel, statues of humans having been considered image worship.

But from about the 7th Century, the statues became increasingly defaced – literally. The irony is that the very nature of these sculptures was the cause of its destruction because both Christians and Muslims alike abhor the worship of idols – so from about the 7th Century, Muslim pilgrims coming through this valley simply obeyed their religion and slowly carved away what they could from the faces of these Buddhas.

I clambered upwards and found myself in the rabbit warren of niches and tunnels whose walls were covered with frescos, some of which were still vibrant and colourful. This entire mountain was full of tunnels and they all led to chambers which monks would have lived in or prayed in. The top of the Buddha’s face was carved off though – it may have been Genghis, it may have been pilgrims or perhaps it had been done more recently. But it was still an incredible sculpture.

Then I was told the reason why the Taliban were so reluctant to let us film – underneath the Buddhas was a Taliban ammunition dump! I was only allowed a couple of hours, but it was all I needed. Suddenly all my frustrations were forgotten.

Before we left, Abdul had an unpleasant task to perform: it seemed our driver’s assistant had been spying for the religious police. Maybe it was why we had had so many problems getting permission. Abdul was outraged; not only because the man had been spying on us, but because he had broken a cardinal rule of Islam by being inhospitable to honourable guests. We paid the man off and headed back to Kabul.

As we headed back up the Khyber Pass, I realized what we’d achieved. We were one of the few documentary teams who had not been thrown out of Afghanistan by the Taliban: largely because we had tried to stick to the spirit of their rules. While we had found some of those rules frustrating, they had respected us for trying to stick by them. They may have restricted what we could film, but never once had they tried to censor what we wanted to say about the country.

And while it was unusual enough for an Australian television crew to have gained access here, it was even more astonishing to hear three months later that the Bamiyan Buddhas were gone forever – and to realize that I had been the last westerner ever to set eyes, foot and camera on them. Had we known that, we would have been even more grateful than we were for this unique experience. Sadly, one of the many facets of Afghanistan is now gone – Buddhism, whose very essence is about Peace.

To Afghans, their country’s history is one of being manipulated, invaded, judged, scorned and abandoned by the international community, and the only thing they have been able to rely on is the Q’uran and Islamic law. The West was right in deploring the Buddhas’ destruction, but it begs the question: if you show a man nothing but disrespect, how can you be surprised when he repays you in kind? This was about more than the demolition of a lump of stone. As for the pending hostilities, history – or whoever ends up writing it – will be the judge.

In 1933, Robert Byron wrote of Afghanistan: “At last, here is Asia without an inferiority complex.” Afghanistan’s fiercely proud and warm heart does make this country extraordinary. At the time of my visit, it still seemed to be caught in a dilemma: its longing to shed its embattled image and emerge from its chaotic isolation on the one hand; its intransigence and fierce independence on the other. Indeed, it was struggling to keep the inferiority complex at bay. Unfortunately, violence has been visited upon the world since then, and it seems likely that Afghanistan’s history – with all its judgement, wrath and hatred – will be repeated once more.