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Afghanistan: Art Finds Refuge In Switzerland While Awaiting Return Home

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghanistan's National Museum in Kabul is in ruins, with most of its artifacts destroyed by the Taliban or looted during factional fighting. But some of the museum's archaeological and historical treasures have been preserved, thanks to individuals who smuggled them out of the country to safety. Some of the rescued artifacts are now housed in a small village in the Swiss Alps until they can be returned home.

Prague, 23 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-three years of war have seen Afghanistan's archaeological and artistic heritage subjected to every attack imaginable.

Throughout the conflicts, which include the 1979 to 1989 Soviet-Afghan war and decades of subsequent factional fighting, pilferers have taken advantage of the chaos to loot archaeological sites and museums. "The New York Times" recently reported that, by some estimates, 70 percent of the collection at the National Museum in Kabul was plundered for sale on the international market.

Most recently, during the Taliban era, the destruction of many forms of art became the goal of the country's rulers themselves. The fundamentalist militia regarded depictions of human and animal forms as blasphemous attempts to imitate God's creation, and destroyed artwork with such representations.

The most famous art victims of the Taliban's five-year rule, which ended late last year, were the 1,000-year-old giant Buddhas in Afghanistan's central Bamiyan Province. But the militia also ransacked the remaining collections in Kabul's National Museum, which had spanned thousands of years -- from the artifacts of early cave-dwellers to artwork reflecting the country's Greek, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic influences. Paintings in Kabul's national art gallery suffered the same fate.

Still, despite the best efforts of the Taliban and of art thieves, some antiquities did survive, thanks to curators and others who risked their lives to hide artwork or send it out of the country to safety. The same people preserved crates of smashed statuary in hopes that one day the priceless works could be reassembled.

Some of the rescued artwork has found a sanctuary at an Afghan "museum-in-exile" in a small village in the Swiss Alps. The museum -- in the village of Bubendorf, near Basel -- was founded by a Swiss architect who has turned his home into a safe-haven for Afghanistan's antiquities.

RFE/RL recently spoke with the museum's creator, Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, about how he became involved in the effort.

Bucherer-Dietschi said he was asked to provide a safe haven for the artwork by people whom he first met in Afghanistan in the 1960s, when he was a student there. Many of his colleagues later assumed responsible posts in Afghan society and tried to use their positions to protect the country's artwork from devastation.

He says the art rescuers at first hoped to export large quantities of endangered material legally from Afghanistan to Switzerland. But the effort was stymied by legal restrictions on sending art abroad, limiting rescuers to sending out what they could by stealth.

"We were not able to take out [much] of this material from Kabul and from Afghanistan because we had no legal basis for their export. So, most of the material which was there and should have been rescued was destroyed by the Taliban. So, what we have here in the museum is not so much the high-value, historic archaeological antiquities, but much more items of recent Afghan history of the last 150 years."

Bucherer-Dietschi says his museum now houses up to 3,000 artifacts, most smuggled out during the 1990s. By contrast, what little remains in Kabul's National Museum today is principally folk art and old guns, plus boxes of broken statuary. There are also several important collections of Afghan antiquities in Western capitals, principally in Paris, due to past foreign archaeological expeditions.

As rescued art has arrived in Bubendorf, Bucherer-Dietschi's house has been enlarged and fitted with sophisticated security and environmental controls. Financing for the project comes from the Swiss government, the Basel regional government, and from private donors.

Bucherer-Dietschi says that in its early days, the Bubendorf museum -- whose full title is the Afghanistan Museum of Switzerland -- received pledges of support from both the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and some elements of the Taliban regime in Kabul. Prior to the Taliban's collapse in November following U.S.-led bombing, the museum received visits from former Northern Alliance political head Burhanuddin Rabbani (also ex-president of Afghanistan) and from a top adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

"On the side of the Taliban, as well as the Northern Alliance side, there were Afghan patriots who did see what would happen to the Afghan cultural heritage if they did not do their best to protect it."

The Taliban visits came before the militia decided during its last years in power to step up the destruction of antiquities it considered un-Islamic. Bucherer-Dietschi believes that decision was taken under the rising influence of Al-Qaeda.

Today, the museum-in-exile has the backing of Afghanistan's interim government, as well as international agencies charged with reconstructing the country. Last year, the UN education and culture agency, UNESCO, designated Bucherer-Dietschi's house as a repository that could keep -- but not buy -- artifacts in trust until the National Museum in Kabul can house them again. The Kabul museum currently needs extensive renovations before it can again accommodate an art collection securely.

As the Bubendorf collection awaits its return to Afghanistan, it is receiving up to 200 visitors a week, most of whom learn about its existence through word-of-mouth. The museum has no budget for publicity and is staffed by volunteers. Bucherer-Dietschi's main partner at the museum is Zemaray Hakimi, an Afghan construction engineer who has been living in Switzerland as a refugee since 1996.

Those who visit the museum find several exquisite artifacts dating back to 1,500 B.C. Among the objects on display is a 3,500-year-old stone statue of a man and a bronze object dating from the same era that was probably used to imprint bread loaves. The Bubendorf museum also houses a 14,000-volume library and serves as an informal research institute for students of Afghan culture.