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Italy throws Afghanistan a lifeline for restoration in the Bamiyan region

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A multi-million dollar Italian-funded Unesco project in Bamiyan has resumed after being abruptly suspended when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021.

In November 2022, cultural heritage experts from around the world gathered at a conference in Florence, with the main objective of exchanging ideas on how to meet the challenge of preserving Afghanistan’s vulnerable heritage sites. while the country remains isolated by strict sanctions and a government largely unknown internationally. . Particular attention was given to the Bamiyan Valley, whose cultural landscape and archaeological remains were inscribed on the Unesco List of World Heritage in Danger in 2003.

The conference, organized by the University of Florence and the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), ended with an unexpected, but welcome, announcement from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to review its funding commitment to Bamiyan . The government approved the budget in the new year and the program was relaunched at the end of February.

The project has several objectives, including conservation work at several Unesco World Heritage sites in Bamiyan, as well as the establishment of infrastructure to improve security at the sites, improve the experience of potential visitors and develop a conservation management plan. Central to the project are the Bamiyan Cliffs and Shahr-e Gholghola, a 6th-10th century citadel, both of which are in desperate need of intervention. The work should provide much-needed humanitarian aid in the form of jobs for around 100 residents who are currently living through one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

“In addition to generating income, the goal is to develop skills that will put [local people] in a better position to pursue future livelihoods and employment, as well as addressing the long-term sustainability of the World Heritage property, which will be a source of employment for generations to come, if protected and appropriately managed,” said a UNESCO spokesperson. The arts journal.

Most foreign investment and projects were halted after the Taliban took over the country, due to investors’ fears of unwittingly violating sanctions imposed on the country. As a result, the Afghan economy collapsed and it was isolated from much of the outside world, especially the West. Although Unesco and private foundations have pursued some heritage projects in the country, Italy’s decision to revive the Bamiyan project would make it the first country to approve conservation funding in Afghanistan.

“First of all, this decision helps to safeguard the [country’s] heritage. Second, it introduces economic stimuli with potential consequences in terms of tourism development, especially from China. Thirdly, politically, the decision facilitates a kind of dialogue with the local authorities: basic communication is better than nothing”, explains Mirella Loda, coordinator of the Bamiyan strategic master plan project and one of the organizers of the Florence conference.

Loda says restarting the project will provide continuity for the past 20 years of commitment and spending while creating the opportunity to reach the most moderate voices among the country’s new leaders.

“Indirectly, actions like this support forces interested in reducing the isolation of local society from the rest of the world,” says Loda.

Mawlawi Saifurrahman Mohammadi, director of the Taliban Ministry of Information and Culture for Bamiyan, says his government has done everything possible to protect and secure Bamiyan and other heritage sites across the country, but stresses that it needs international support to do the job.

“We don’t mind if it’s Unesco or any other international organization that wants to come and help preserve our heritage sites – the most important issue for us is that these sites are safeguarded,” says Mohammadi. “There is no doubt that heritage preservation projects will have a positive impact on the social and economic situation of Afghans and we support them,” he adds.

Bamiyan Buddha Statues

On March 11, 2001, the Taliban destroyed Bamiyan’s monumental 6th and 7th century Buddha statues. Although the group has never publicly expressed regret for its actions, the Ministry of Information and Culture marked March 11 as Cultural Heritage Preservation Day and even held an event at the National Museum this year. of Afghanistan from Kabul during which officials stressed the importance of safeguarding all heritage sites. , including pre-Islamic.

“Bamiyan is important not only for its precious heritage but also for its symbolic significance: it represents the worst face of Taliban power as it emerged in 2001. Convincing the new rulers to safeguard Bamiyan’s legacy is tantamount to measuring the distance between today’s Taliban and the Taliban of 2001,” says Loda.

Unesco says that while it continues to operate in the country, it is “deeply concerned” about the situation in Afghanistan and is only working within the confines of the Transitional Engagement Framework (TEF), a planning document package for UN assistance in the country. . The plan prioritizes humanitarian aid and supports the preservation of cultural sites but limits the current government’s commitment and acts of recognition.

In Afghanistan, Unesco currently has projects in Jam, in the west of the country, financed by the Swiss Aliph Foundation (International Alliance Foundation for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones); and in Bamiyan, funded by Italy and Japan. It is also active in the protection and emergency conservation of sites in Zabul, Kandahar, Ghazni and Kabul through the Unesco Heritage Emergency Fund.

Unesco is also implementing a water management program in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations aimed at rehabilitating the traditional canal systems in Samangan and Zabul.

“This activity has an important component of intangible cultural heritage because these systems have been developed, managed and maintained through generations of knowledge passed down over hundreds of years. This knowledge and other aspects of intangible heritage risk being lost if not documented and supported,” says Unesco.

Ongoing Unesco projects in Afghanistan employ about 80 people in Jam, 60 in Samangan and 60 in Zabul.

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