Afghan Mine Clearers Rescue Artifacts

On a rocky hillside in central
Afghanistan, men in visored helmets and protective blue smocks
gently scratch the earth for land mines - or shards of pottery from
the sixth century.

Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the
world. But this valley presents a challenge to deminers because of
its history, from Silk Road traders to Buddhists who carved
towering statues destroyed by the Taliban.

So deminers here double as amateur archaeologists, protecting
the dirt as well as the people who will walk on it. Rather than
exploding mines in the ground, the deminers ease them out gently
with a strap around the explosive. And they spend as much time
excavating bits of pottery or rusted jewelry as mines.

On the hilltop sits a sixth-century citadel called
Shahr-i-Ghulghula that archaeologists say shows the transition from
Buddhist to Islamic cultures in Central Asia. It's one of eight
area spots named World Heritage sites by the U.N.'s cultural and
education arm, UNESCO. All are in a "fragile state of
conservation," UNESCO says, from abandonment, military action and
dynamite explosions.

Usually a deminer can clear about two square meters a day, but
here it is slower because artifacts set off metal detectors. A
glimpse of a pottery shard can stop work outright while
archaeologists are called over. About 100,000 square meters must be
cleared by the end of October.

The precision of mine work is good preparation for extracting
artifacts, says Sorna Khakzad, a conservationist with UNESCO.

"They are more careful than archaeologists sometimes," Khakzad

Many of the sunburned, bearded deminers are proud that they are
making their country safer, but say the work at Shahr-i-Ghulghula
is equally necessary.

"This place is like gold. This place is a treasure for our
country," says Ghulam Dastagir Hairan, 45.

Hairan recently found a bracelet lodged in the dirt of
Shahr-i-Ghulgula. He says it was a "great moment to be working."
The Islamic-style etching on the bronze bracelet suggests it is
from sometime around the 10th century.

Ironically, the mines protected the sites from looters, Khakzad
says. Once the mines are cleared, protection falls to the Afghan
government. UNESCO will provide advice and money for guards,
Khakzad says. But with war still waging, it's unclear how high a
priority the fragile sites will be.

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