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February 4, 2014

Tuesday, February 04, 2014 - ,, No comments

Fair Observer's Will Calhoun publishes two-part interview with documentarian Brent E. Huffman on "The Race to Save Mes Aynak"

Will Calhoun interviewed Brent Huffman in the two-part article, "The Race to Save Mes Aynak" (Fair Observer, Feb. 1 and Feb. 2). Brent E. Huffman, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, has been working on a documentary film about the site (see previous posts on the ARCA blog). Huffman has been awarded a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to complete his documentary, hopefully by this summer. What can people do? Huffman tells Calhoun that celebrity appeal would be helpful. Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Will Calhoun: Can you give us some background on Mes Aynak? How is the site significant? 
Huffman: I’ve described it as an ancient city of vast size. It was located at a major crossroad on the Silk Road. There are many layers of material. The top layer that archaeologists have done the most work on is a 2,000-year-old Buddhist site that’s over 500,000 square meters in size, or 98 football fields — so an enormous area. There are over 400 life-size or bigger Buddhist statues, ancient manuscripts, temple structures, just a wealth of discoveries and information. The Buddhists were mining for copper using ancient techniques, so archaeologists are really excited about the ancient mining and smelting that was done. Beneath that Buddhist site is a 5,000-year-old or older Bronze Age site, an enormous area filled with this treasure trove of Bronze Age material. 
Calhoun: When was the site first discovered? 
Huffman: That’s sort of when things get complicated. I’m sure the site was known about before this, but the first written evidence that the site was traveled to was in the 1960s by French archaeologists. I don’t know if there was any significant study of the site at the time. The site was left completely unprotected. No protection or way to visit the site was ever put in place, so Mes Aynak has been heavily looted since the 1960s.
The big irony is that when MCC arrived, they were unaware of the Buddhist site, so they signed the contract without knowing of the existence of the site above the copper deposit. When they came in they destroyed a local village to set up their camp, where they are currently staying. Initially they brought in 1,500 Afghan police officers to guard the mining compound and, in addition to guarding the compound, the officers were guarding the site. The Chinese have basically brought in this force that’s now protecting Mes Aynak really for the first time. Since the site is so famous, it is likely that it would be looted again if the Chinese were to leave, so it’s all quite complicated. 
Calhoun: Who is mainly doing the looting? 
Huffman: I would say that it is people from Pakistan who are crossing over, working with local people in Logar province who are very poor, starving to death, and have little employment. Selling these relics, unfortunately, makes sense for local people who have no other prospects. Looters from Pakistan return to the country and sell the relics. 
Calhoun: How has the Afghan government been involved in efforts to preserve the site, if at all? 
Huffman: In my opinion, the Afghan government has been part of the problem. There is massive corruption in the government, especially in the Ministry of Mines. When the deal was first signed in 2007, the rumor was that the minister of mines received a $30 million bribe from MCC. He denied accepting the bribe, but he did step down from his position. I think it is quite likely that he did accept the bribe. He has since been replaced, but I fear the same sorts of allegations of corruption are true within the new Ministry. Obviously they want mining to begin, and they want it to begin as soon as possible. I think the archaeological findings are a thorn in their side, delaying the time when they can extract copper.
Calhoun: How can people get involved in efforts to preserve Mes Aynak? 
Huffman: There’s a petition on my Facebook page with almost 70,000 signatures, but I think the best thing would be if a celebrity or politician would speak up and say that the US should work to preserve Mes Aynak. I think that would really rally support. I think if we could get hundreds of thousands of signatures — that would really save the site. The dream situation for me would be to save Mes Aynak and do a proper archaeological dig, save everything, and make it a tourist destination. But I think that will only happen with massive public support for the site, and UNESCO would have to come in and assist archaeologists. Sadly, when the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, people were horrified and shocked and it really rallied them. However, it was too late. My fear is that the same thing will happen with Mes Aynak, that there will be silence until it is destroyed and then there will be outrage. But yes, people can come to my Facebook page and sign the petition. I’ve given money to the Afghan archaeologists to finally buy them computers and digital cameras.  They had been working for years with neither. The Afghan archaeologists are the unsung heroes in this story — they have been working in terrible and dangerous conditions, so people can also donate to the film to help the archaeologists.
Here's a link to the Brent E. Huffman's photographs which accompany the article in Fair Observer