LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan – Authorities in a restive Afghan province have launched a unique campaign to protect the region’s vanishing archeological treasures.
Before imposing strict rules and forcing encroachers away from archeological sites in the southern province of Helmand, they are educating people about the significance of these places. Writers are lecturing villagers on the centrality of archeological sites to the country’s long history, their contribution to the country’s identity, and the possible economic and cultural benefits of preservation.
“We have launched this campaign to teach our masses the importance of our archeological heritage and artifacts,” said Hameedullah Wayar, head of the Afghan Culture and Information Ministry in Helmand. “Obviously, we will always take all legal avenues to protect our heritage sites from vandalism and land encroachment.
Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, borders Pakistan and is situated close to Iran. Its numerous archeological sites, such as the once massive mud-built fort locally called Qala-e Bost, showcase its status as a midway point between Iran and India.
But decades of neglect and a lack of professional efforts to preserve the sites along with fighting, erosion, illegal excavation, pillaging, and squatting have threatened archeological sites spanning over three millennia with annihilation.
Wayar, however, is determined to turn this around. He has gathered dozens of peasants and other residents of villages close to Qala-e Bost. Under the shadow of the fort’s prized 11th-century arch, he is explaining to them why it is important to preserve this site. The arch, now supported by a thick brick wall, still appears on the 100 afghani bank note.
“We will continue our effort until we feel that our people can understand the need for preservation,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan on July 31.
Sayed Muhammad Hairat, a local author, is one of the speakers in the public awareness campaign. He blames the central government in Kabul and authorities in Helmand for failing to preserve the province’s heritage, which is spread over 40 sites in the vast region roughly equal to the size of Switzerland.
“Article 15 in our constitution holds the government responsible for preserving archeological and historical sites and artifacts because they are considered the property of the state,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “For 15 years we have been campaigning for this, but our voice only reaches the ministry, whose local office only has miniscule resources.”
Hairat says the only path toward sustainable cultural preservation lies in creating an enduring public-private partnership. He says that as a first step authorities must enforce a ban on illegal excavations, which contribute to hastening the destruction of crumbling old fortresses and other buildings.
Noor Agha, a young villager, lives near Qala-e Bost. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that the authorities need to act immediately because awareness campaigns cannot replace the need for urgent action to preserve Qala-e Bost and other similar sites.
“The campaigns do have some positive impact, but we would like the authorities to pay serious attention and act immediately,” he said.
Hundreds of archeological sites across Afghanistan are threatened from government inaction, illegal excavation, land grabs, and corruption. More than four decades of war have also contributed to endangering the country’s cultural treasures.
In June, the largest of the 36 towers in the 13th-century imposing Citadel of Ghazni, a southeastern Afghan city, collapsed due to neglect.
In May, a flood threatened with collapse the 800-year-old Minaret of Jam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the western province of Ghor.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.