These Bamiyan cave-dwellers brace against a shifting landscape

Local administration’s move to restore the ancient Buddhist grottoes may force the modern troglodytes out.

Updated - November 19, 2016 04:35 pm IST

Published - November 19, 2016 03:58 pm IST - BAMIYAN (AFGHANISTAN):

In this November 7, 2016 photo, Marzia (30), surrounded by her children, is seen in her cave dwelling in the historical Bamiyan province of Afghanistan. The cave-dwelling families of the province, which resonates with a Buddhist past, struggle to get on with the bare minimum that is available to them. Even this bare-bones way of life is now under threat as the government relocates these modern troglodytes to pave way for transforming the ancient man-made grottoes into a global tourist site.

In this November 7, 2016 photo, Marzia (30), surrounded by her children, is seen in her cave dwelling in the historical Bamiyan province of Afghanistan. The cave-dwelling families of the province, which resonates with a Buddhist past, struggle to get on with the bare minimum that is available to them. Even this bare-bones way of life is now under threat as the government relocates these modern troglodytes to pave way for transforming the ancient man-made grottoes into a global tourist site.

Marzia and her husband Qadeer thought themselves lucky when they moved into a 1,700-year-old Buddhist cave hand-carved into the side of a mountain in Afghanistan’s central highlands.

It was clean and dry, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and there was plenty of work on the local farms. But now, even this bare-bones way of life is threatened. The family, along with another 242 cave-dwelling households dotted around the capital of Bamiyan province, also called Bamiyan, could be forced to move soon. They are what’s left of around 10,000 families who have been relocated over the past decade as part of the local government’s program to protect the unique man-made grottoes that it hopes will transform Bamiyan into a global tourist destination once Afghanistan’s war with the insurgent Taliban, now in its 16th year, is finally over.

Eyeing a better future

The couple moved here from neighbouring Maidan-Wardak province because they believed it was a stepping stone to a better future.

“We had no money and my husband couldn’t get a job,” Marzia said as she breastfed her baby. “We left because we were poor.”

But 12 years later they are still living in the cave, along with their five children aged from 10 months to 8 years, including 6-year-old Freshta who hasn’t been the same since a landmine exploded close by her four years ago. Her mental development stopped and she spends most of her time lolling on the thin mat that covers the cave’s floor.

Any original features, such as the brightly-coloured geometric murals that were painted by the monks who created these caves, are long gone. They’ve been destroyed by time, the elements and the wear-and-tear of hundreds of years of habitation, including the fires that residents build for cooking and heat.

In collaboration with UNESCO

The provincial government is working with UNESCO to restore the valley’s eight significant sites, including the Ghulghulah fortress, believed to be Bamiyan’s original staging post on the old Silk Road that linked China to India. The fortress was razed by Genghis Khan’s hoards in the early 13th Century and never regained its glory.

“Life here is difficult,” Marzia (30) said. Water must be fetched from a nearby stream, and a 9-volt battery charges a solar panel that provides light after dark. Cooking is done on a stove fuelled by a gas bottle. They have installed a door and a step up into the one room that all seven members of the family share. Smaller caves outside are used for storage.

On the rural outskirts of the city, amid the rutted fields where the province’s main potato crop is grown, the cave-dwellers do what they can with their meagre resources, determined that the next generation will have a better life.

As Shiite Muslims of the Hazara minority they have suffered historic persecution, but they have also benefited from immense largesse doled out by international charities and governments.

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