Bamiyan, Afghanistan — Watching his country's turmoil from exile for two decades, Afghan sculptor Amanulah Haiderzad always worried about two soaring statues of Buddha hewn into this barren valley's towering sandstone cliffs.
The ancient monuments escaped damage throughout the 10-year Soviet invasion and Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s. But they were demolished last year by the former Taliban regime, which said the Buddhas violated Islamic bans on human images and idolatry.
Now Haiderzad is back in Afghanistan for the first time in 23 years, returning at the request of the interim government to organize reconstruction of the statues.
"I had this dream to come back and visit, but not like this," the 62-year-old sculptor said on a plateau overlooking the site where the majestic statues once stood.
Carved into a mountainside above the central city of Bamiyan in the third and fifth centuries, the Buddhas were considered cultural treasures. The larger of the two, at 175 feet high, is thought to have been the world's tallest standing Buddha. The smaller statue was 115 feet tall.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's decision to destroy the statues was met with international outrage, but the protests fell on deaf ears. After trying for weeks to obliterate them with anti-aircraft guns and rockets, Taliban troops finally blew up the relics in March 2001, placing explosives into holes bored into the rock.
"It was a very sad day for me," said Haiderzad, who saw the images on television from his home in New York City. "They didn't understand that these statues don't belong to the Taliban. They belong to Afghanistan, to human history."
The Buddhas' destruction was only one element of the Taliban assault on Afghan culture.
The Taliban banned music, television, movies and theater, and spent three days smashing statues in the Kabul Museum. A small version of the Bamiyan Buddhas sculpted by Haiderzad, now on display in Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, also was defaced by the Taliban.
Haiderzad said he visited the Bamiyan statues as a boy, and they inspired him to become a sculptor.
He studied sculpture in Italy for six years, and then established a fine arts department at Kabul University. But when the Soviets invaded in 1979, Haiderzad fled to the United States.
Haiderzad estimates it will take four to five years to rebuild the larger statue, and just beginning the project is a huge undertaking.
Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's administration has no money for the project, and is now looking for "anyone, anywhere" to help out, Haiderzad said.
Karzai, who on Tuesday visited Bamiyan, said his government has been in contact with UNESCO, the U.N. agency responsible for safeguarding the world's cultural heritage.