Click to enlarge. Buddha statues discovered inside an ancient monastery in Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar, Afghanistan. 2010 photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
When documentary filmmaker Brent Huffman first visited the Buddhist archaeological site of Mes Aynak in eastern Afghanistan in June 2011, he was awed by the 2,600-year-old city, how it stretches for 100 acres, encompassing artifacts, monasteries and more than 200 statues.
On Thursday, he’s on his way back to bear witness to its last days.
Mes Aynak, as it happens, sits on a rich copper mine worth more than $100 billion. In 2007, a 30-year lease was granted to China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) for $3 billion, the largest foreign investment made in the country, according to the Afghan Ministry of Mines. MCC has given archaeologists until the end of December to excavate the site, but according to lead archaeologist Philippe Marquis, a proper excavation of the entire site would take 30 years.
Huffman has been documenting the story of three archaeologists who are working to save the site. He follows Marquis, a French archaeologist leading the effort, J. Mark Kenoyer, an American archaeologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Abdul Qadeer Temore, an Afghan archaeologist who is also trying to preserve his cultural heritage. The documentary will also feature Zhenguo Liu, an MCC manager working in the Mes Aynak compound.
Huffman is an award-winning director, writer, editor and cinematographer. He is also an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. We recently spoke to him about Mes Aynak, from its history to the current the situation:
Tell us about Mes Aynak and what it’s like to be there.
Brent Huffman: First off, it’s difficult to get there. It’s about 90 minutes from Kabul, even though, in terms of miles, it’s only 25 miles southeast from Kabul. The roads are really bad and they often get washed away if it rains. You also have drive slowly through villages, many of which have been known to be Taliban friendly, so it’s very dangerous. You also have to go down roads that are often land-mined, and sometimes people will shoot rockets at cars that drive through. It’s really dangerous to get on site.
But once you get to Mes Aynak, it’s absolutely incredible. It’s awe inspiring. It reminds me of Machu Picchu in Peru in terms of massive structure. You’re looking at a very large Buddhist city about 400,000-square meters in size. It encompasses mountain ranges, a monastery complex and dozens of temple structures. There are 400 life-size or larger Buddha statues on site. They’re finding manuscripts inside some of the structures, so they’re constantly pulling out amazing new things.
What got you interested in Mes Aynak?
Brent Huffman: I’ve been interested in China for a long time. I use to live in China, reporting there, making documentaries. About four or five years ago, I became really interested in China’s push into other countries, looking for natural resources, exporting workers and goods. I started in Africa, looking at China’s presence there, and made a documentary called “The Colony.”
So initially what interested me in Afghanistan was China’s presence. There was a New York Times story that claimed the United States was protecting the Chinese companies and helping them. That peaked my interest: China’s relationship and this culture clash between this Chinese company and Afghans. Eventually I visited the Mes Aynak site. I really fell in love with this Buddhist city. I couldn’t believe that it was going to be destroyed. Also, as I’ve done a lot of reporting in Afghanistan, I’ve come to care for the country and its future, the future of the Afghan people. I feel if this Buddhist city is destroyed when this copper mine starts, there’s nothing but negative repercussions for the Afghan people.
The archaeologists can’t save a lot of the statues, they can’t move them out of the site. They’re too fragile. If you went to the site in 2011, you would have seen monastery structures. You can actually go inside many of these structures and see different levels, sort of like residential ancient homes. A lot of these homes have stupas inside them, little temples where Buddhists would worship. These stupas are incredibly intricate. There’s decoration on all of them. There’s still some blue and red paint on some of these structures. The same thing with Buddhist statues, a lot of them still have gold paint on the surface. It would probably take you a couple of days to walk to all locations and see all the different sites, the different things that have been found.
What is the history of the place, the cultural significance?
Brent Huffman: This 2,600-year-old Buddhist city was a major hub on the Silk Road. You saw trade all throughout Asia and the Middle East, Buddhist monks making pilgrimages, different people traveling to the site, all these different cultures meeting in Mes Aynak for trade and worship. Then you saw all these cultures influencing each other. Some of the finds in Mes Aynak show that. There are statues and artifacts made from material that came from Pakistan, Iraq, China and India. You really see this incredible influence that Afghanistan had in shaping other countries.
Also, underneath this 2,600-year-old Buddhist city is an older site, a 5,000-year-old Bronze Age city. Archaeologists only started to bring up material from that period. So not only is Mes Aynak important because of its Buddhist history, but it’s also incredibly important to preserve material underneath that shows an even older history.
I think Afghans have the most to lose here. They will be losing a huge part of how important their own history is and how influential Afghanistan was to the rest of the world. They’re losing it in a way that’s going to be erased. There’s no way to salvage this once the copper mine starts. The other thing Afghans aren’t told or being educated about is that this copper mine is not going to benefit them, in my opinion. The money that is paid from the Chinese company to the Afghan ministries will be lost in corruption. All that money will just evaporate and disappear. Afghanistan won’t see any of that money.
My other fear is that the jobs from the copper mine are going to be terrible. China usually brings in its own managers and high level workers, so the jobs are low paid, slave labor kinds.
Afghans also maybe don’t realize the environmental destruction from copper mines. Not only will Mes Aynak be destroyed, but six villages will also have to be relocated and destroyed. The Chinese are going to do an open pit mine, they’re going to make an enormous crater, scoop out the whole mountain range itself. Once they’re finished, this crater will be filled with toxic waste, so much so, mining experts tell me, that it’s very likely that Mes Aynak will become a superfund site, which means it’s so toxic you can’t step foot on it. Not only would they be losing the entire cultural heritage site, but the money will be lost, the jobs will be terrible and the land will be ruined.
My fear, too, is that Mes Aynak will set this precedent where the Chinese will say: “Here we have this successful copper mine, this is how we did it, and we can do it other places. We can mine for other resources in Afghanistan.” There’s gold, oil, iron, lithium, all kinds of natural resources. I fear that they’ll replicate this process all over Afghanistan.
The rest of the world will also lose this incredible, cultural heritage site, which could be like Machu Picchu, could be a tourist attraction if the situation were different, could be something that Buddhists across the world could come visit. The international community, I wish, would step up in a bigger way and come to protect Mes Aynak.
Can you talk about security at Mes Aynak?
Brent Huffman: There are actually 2,500 Kabul police protecting the Chinese mine. But ironically, because the Chinese mines are at Mes Aynak, they’re also protecting the archaeology site. So all of those Afghan guards are risking their lives pushing back against this Taliban element to protect the MCC mine, but they’re also protecting the Buddhist site. The irony is if MCC was forced to leave or decided to leave because it thought it wasn’t worth it, the Mes Aynak site would be unprotected. Then, because of all the publicity about Mes Aynak, the Buddhist city would just be immediately looted. This is one of the complexities of the story. Mes Aynak was being looted before MCC arrived. In setting up, the Chinese company has, inadvertently, helped archaeologist work at the site, help protect the site with the Kabul police.
Is there a chance the site can be preserved? Or is it definitely going to be destroyed for mining?
Brent Huffman: Everything that I’ve heard from the U.S. State Department and from the archaeologists, they tell me that by the end of the December, archaeologists will be forced off and the copper excavation will begin. I’ve been told that the Chinese actually need more infrastructure to get copper out of Mes Aynak, but at some point after the end of December, they’re going to bring in their vehicles and start preliminary excavation work. By January, the site will be destroyed.
You have hope that something could happen. What could happen to preserve the site?
Brent Huffman: We’ve started a petition that’s got almost 70,000 signatures. What I would love to see is that MCC give the archaeologists more time. The archaeologists tell me they need 30 years to properly excavate the site. That’s not going to happen. But the archaeologists can do a lot with an additional year, an additional two years, 10 more years, whatever. Give them more time to save more artifacts. The really sad thing is that all the structures, these enormous statues, are too fragile to be moved.
When I first came to Mes Aynak, I was thinking I was going to capture on film this Buddhist city before it would be destroyed. My real fear was that in destroying the site, you’re wiping away the history, so that no one would know that it ever existed at all. All I wanted to do was to show everything that was being found, all the statues, relics, temples, before they were destroyed and to highlight the incredible work of the archaeologists. They’re the real heroes of the story. The Afghan archaeologists working on the site are risking their lives everyday to be there. There’s this heavy Taliban presence, and the archaeologists are constantly threatened, having rockets flying at them. I also wanted to document them and their story and why this meant so much for them that they’d risk their lives for it.
It’s a complex story. I want to be careful to give a full picture about all the facets. The story is kind of like an onion. You can keep pealing layers and there are new surprising details. The film is probably about 60 to 70 percent complete. I’m returning to the site in December, hopefully not documenting the end of the site, but that might be what happens. I’m seeing the last days. I’m sort of bearing witness to the end of the archaeologist site. Hopefully it tells the full picture of who’s involved and how this all happened.