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10/31/04 - RESTORING AFGHAN CULTURE - 2004-11-01

Said Makhdoom Raheen, Afghanistan's minister for information and culture, says that decades of conflict and repression exacted a terrible price. "War has destroyed our traditional culture," said Mr. Raheen.

Irreplaceable Afghan cultural treasures were destroyed or stolen during the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. Afghanistan's national museum was pillaged and badly damaged. In March 2001, the radical Islamic Taleban regime destroyed two giant one-thousand-five-hundred year-old Buddha statues at Bamiyan. "All we are breaking are stones," said Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who ordered the destruction.

Restoring Afghanistan's cultural treasures is a major challenge. Afghan culture minister Said Raheen says the problem is compounded by the fact that many of the professionals who managed Afghan cultural sites and institutions were killed or forced into exile. And despite efforts by the government, he says, "we are unable to prevent looting." The Afghan culture ministry has recruited a five-hundred-member security force to protect cultural heritage sites. Mr. Raheen said that illegal trafficking in antiquities by warlords is a serious problem, especially in the provinces of Logar, Kapisa, Takhar, and Balkh.

The U.S. is cooperating in international efforts to help safeguard Afghanistan's cultural heritage. President George W. Bush says that the Afghan people are seeking to recover their heritage:

"The Afghan people are showing extraordinary courage under difficult conditions. They're fighting to defend their nation from Taleban holdouts, and helping to strike against the terrorist killers. They're reviving their economy. They've adopted a constitution that protects the rights of all, while honoring their nation's most cherished traditions."

"I think the people of Afghanistan want their country to succeed," said U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. "They don't want to go back to the old days and that's not surprising, given the conditions in Afghanistan earlier."