The China Metallurgical Group built barracks in the area where it plans to start mining but laid off staff there when the project was delayed.Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR
Al-Qaeda is believed to have used Mes Aynak as a training camp in 1999, and archaeologists at the site said that Osama bin Laden hid in one of the galleries cut into rock and used by the Soviets in the 1970s to explore the copper deposits. Land mines used by the diggers remain hidden in the ground; just this April, one of the deminers working at the site found an aerial bomb on the mountain slope in the red zone.
The MMP has hired more than 1,750 Afghan Public Protection Force guards to secure the area. Green mesh fences snake up the mountains and curve along the rocky slopes and terrain, marking the territory claimed by the Chinese. About 200 Afghan diggers — the majority of whom are Pashtuns from surrounding villages, dressed in traditional tunics and turbans — are removing soil at Mount Aynak, a rocky area in the red zone, to uncover ancient walls. The site also contains ancient industrial features such as furnaces, kilns, mining shafts and ore-processing sites, making this the biggest rescue operation in the history of Afghan archaeology.
The archaeologists are frantically trying to identify and record the existence of items they might not have time to save or that might be damaged during the removal process, in what is known as preservation by record. Another challenge they face is the safe removal of about 20 stupas and more than 150 sculptures and wall paintings from a few of the sites in the red zone — which they said requires the procurement of specialized equipment and the hiring of more archaeologists and diggers.
“We’ve lost already an important part of history,” said Marek Lemiesz, a senior archaeologist hired by the MMP. “What can we do with [only] a few guys?”
He said his team is too small to complete the excavation before the Chinese plan to start working in the red zone. There are currently only 10 international experts and fewer than 20 Afghan archaeologists from Kabul’s Institute of Archaeology. A team of seven Tajik archaeologists arrived at the end of May, but Lemiesz said that is still not enough.
Lack of security hasn’t helped either: Some international archaeologists and China Metallurgical Group workers left Mes Aynak in recent months because of increasing concerns about safety, with the Taliban intent on disrupting the recent presidential elections, the withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of the year and the continuing presence of the Taliban nearby. On June 10, gunmen killed eight deminers working for the Afghan Detection Center in Mes Aynak. Local officials blamed the Taliban for the attack.
Archaeology is a very delicate and unpredictable process. “You never know what’s going to happen [during excavation],” said Lemiesz. Removing the stupas and large Buddhist statues is painstaking and involves carefully cutting the objects into blocks so they can be safely transported. The artifacts will be stored in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, and there are plans to open a museum in Logar close to the site.
Many of the statues have been damaged by looters, snow and rain over the last few decades. The art from the time of Mes Aynak’s existence, from the second to the early ninth centuries, is popular and is considered top quality. After the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, prices of Buddhist sculptures like those at Mes Aynak rose to $10 million to $100 million on the black market. Illegal sales are a serious problem in Afghanistan, especially in areas bordering Pakistan controlled by insurgents, warlords and Pakistani merchants. The ancient artifacts are shipped and sold illegally to buyers in Japan, Europe and the United States.