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Watch: Kabul museum restores art shattered by Taliban

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The Taliban destroyed 2,500 statues in the museum's collection
The Taliban destroyed 2,500 statues in the museum's collection -
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In 2001, Taliban fighters arrived at the National Museum of Afghanistan in the capital Kabul armed with hammers and hatred.

What they left behind is laid out on tables at the museum 18 years later: shattered pieces of ancient Buddha figurines, smashed because they were judged to be 'un-Islamic" by the Islamic fundamentalist group.

Museum workers have been trying to piece the artefacts back together, as the country holds its breath waiting for the Taliban and the US to reach a deal on ending what is America's longest-running war.

The agreement is expected to lead to intra-Afghan talks, in which the extremist group would play a role in shaping Afghanistan's future.

As museum workers pick with gloved hands through neatly arranged shards labeled "ears", "hands", "foreheads", "eyes", the fragility of the country is brought into sharp relief. Afghanistan still sees near-daily attacks not only by the long-established Taliban, who now control around half the country, but also from a brutal local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State group.

Few details have emerged from several rounds of US-Taliban negotiations held over the past year, and no one knows what a Taliban return to Kabul might look like. The group's five-year rule imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, denying girls education, banning music and banishing women to their homes.

It came to an end shortly after the US-led invasion following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The Taliban had harboured al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden.

Sherazuddin Saifi remembers the day the Taliban arrived at the national museum in 2001 – a period of cultural rampage in which the world's largest standing Buddha statues in Bamyan province were blown up, to global horror.

For several days, the Taliban demanded access to the museum's trove of artefacts from Afghanistan's millennia-old history as a crossroads of cultures: Greek, Persian, Chinese and more. Once inside, they set upon "offending" items depicting human forms, even early Islamic ones, with hammers or dashed them against the floor.

"We couldn't do anything, they took all the museum staff out and they took all the items out of the box and smashed them into pieces," said Saifi, who is part of the team restoring the pieces – work that he says could take a decade. "There were bunches of 20 to 30 Taliban entering each room and smashing all items into pieces."

Among the objects destroyed were the Hadda figurines, a notable collection of Buddhist sculptures discovered decades ago in eastern Afghanistan near today's city of Jalalabad. Photographs that remain of the intact figurines, and the shards themselves, hint at delicate curls of hair or lip.

The Taliban smashed them into thousands of pieces, some the size of a coin. Now some of the shattered heads are held together with rubber bands in the workshop, part of a sprawling puzzle which can see days of patient effort to join a single piece to another.

The Hadda figurines are now the museum's most visible sign of the years-long recovery from the turmoil in Afghanistan that began even before the Taliban, when warlords fought over Kabul in the wake of a Soviet retreat. Much of the museum's holdings, thousands of pieces, were looted and the building was shelled, although some treasures were hidden in the presidential palace and elsewhere.

The museum's recovery began in earnest in 2004, while the defeated Taliban quietly began to regroup. Now the museum, with the help of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, is compiling as complete an inventory as possible in the hope of tracking down missing artefacts – and saving a digital record of the collection in case of further threat.

That database is more than 99 per cent complete, with more than 135,000 surviving pieces, the Oriental Institute says. It hopes to create digital "wanted" posters with images of those artefacts still missing to post online in order to help recover and repatriate them.

Experts and advocates of Afghanistan's rich history have expressed dismay that cultural preservation does not appear to be an issue in the US-Taliban negotiations, which are focused on a US troop withdrawal and Taliban guarantees not to allow the country to be a launching pad for global terror attacks.

Museum director Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, however, is making plans to protect the museum's holdings in the event of the Taliban's return. He said: "I hope that they have learnt that this is not against the Shariat (law) of Islam. Nobody is worshipping these objects, everybody considers these objects as historical items showing our history."

He urged the Taliban to go to museums in Qatar's capital Doha, where the group has a political office, and see the artefacts preserved and respected there.

"If they are here in power and there is no change in their mentality, it means we are definitely back where we started and whatever we achieved will be gone. Not only the cultural objects, but the values that [we have]."

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