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Thursday, Mar. 10, 2005 - 9:36 a.m.

The cliffs surrounding the Afghani town of Bamiyan form a long horizontal portrait of sheer white rock lying across the sky. There are numerous caves and recesses cut into the rock, hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old. These recesses were once the rooms of kings, the place of the queen, and the home of the standing buddhas, tall and ancient statues carved into the cliff-face, looking out over the plains and the snow-covered mountains beyond. For all their buddhist wisdom, even the statues do not know the words to describe the harsh, impossible beauty of the landscape. They merely set their stone palms at right angles to each other, and meditate on the passing of wars and time.

A convoy of white United Nations jeeps and Toyota pick-ups fitted with racks of rocket propelled grenades stop at the foot of the cliff. Guards with Kalishnikovs hop off the pick-ups and watch the horizon for the rising sands of other vehicles, while UN officials disembark and take in the dry air. Among them, an elderly Japanese man, a representative of the Japanese government looks at the broken statues for the first time and is filled with pain. Half a pair of legs is all that is left standing under a sheltered arch of rock. The other statues are no better. He turns the wooden loop of buddhist prayer beads between his thumb and forefinger, as the UN men begin the narrow path up the cliff, stepping over spent shell casings and disused, leaking sandbags. The refugees who live in the caves come out from their holes and perches; women in weathered Burkas talk rapidly to one another as the men-folk eye the visitors.

One of the refugees starts singing in Dari, intent on showing off his singing voice. He is an old man with a thin white beard and a lopsided scarf wrapped around his head. He is approached by one of the strangers, who asks if he knows who built the statues. He looks at the man from UNESCO and says, as if revealing a great secret, "The statues were built long before I was born. They were built by someone, someone who saw it fit and wanted to build them."

The old Japanese man remains at the foot of the cliff and sits in a foldable chair, with a large clipboard and drawing paper across his lap. He begins a charcoal sketch of the sheltered arch, and has to imagine what the statues looked like based on what little is known about them. There are no photographic records of the statues, only written descriptions and a grainy video of Islamic militants, firing a large Katyusha rocket from a truck into their serene faces. The UN men will take photographs, ignore the plight of the refugees, declare this a world heritage site, and bring in artisans to restore the statues. They will be carefully re-built according to the sketches made by the Japanese man, every shattered visage and every crumbled hand. As he places each considered stroke on the paper with the piece of charcoal, the Japanese man will never guess that long ago another man once stood in the exact same spot, looking at the smooth, virgin cliff-face. In the time of that other man, paper had not been invented and so he could only sketch the statues across his imagination, removing the rock bit by bit with his hands until the giant, monastic figures quietly appeared.


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