Qadi Temori and Brent Huffman are two men with a mission. One is an Afghan archaeologist. The other is an American documentary film director, writer and editor. And though they each herald from very different backgrounds, they share a common, critical passion—the rescue of an archaeological site in Afghanistan that holds priceless treasures and secrets of a slice of humanity that will imminently vanish into oblivion unless someone can do something about it.
That slice of humanity is the ancient site of Mes Aynak. Based on the findings of recent archaeological investigations, it contains the remains of a massive, 500,000-square-meter, 2,000-year-old Buddhist city that consists of stupas and temples, thousands of artifacts, including ancient Buddhist manuscripts, and around 600 large Buddha statues to date. Evidence shows that it also sits atop a 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site. Anciently, it was an important cultural crossroads of Buddhism along the ancient Silk Road that connected Asia and the Mediterranean Sea.
But there are a few seemingly insurmountable problems with the site.
It is located in a mountainous area 25 miles southeast of Kabul near the Pakistan border in the Taliban-controlled Logar Province. It rests on a major transit route for insurgents filtering in from Pakistan. And Mes Aynak (meaning “little copper well” in Pashto) is situated atop Afghanistan’s richest source of copper, an estimated $100 billion dollar deposit that the Afghanistan government and a Chinese State-owned mining company, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation, are poised to mine. To reach and acquire the deposit, the site must be destroyed, along with six surrounding villages. They plan to use open-pit mining. Alternatively, that operation could be delayed for 30 to 40 years, the estimated time it would take for archaeologists to fully recover the priceless artifacts and information about the site. But time is money, and so further delay is an unpalatable option for the mining interests.
Meanwhile, archaeologists and conservators, under the direction of Qadi Temori of the Afghan National Institute of Archaeology and Phillipe Marquis of the Délégation Archaéologique Francaise, have been feverishly but carefully and systematically recovering and restoring as much as possible in a rescue excavation before the destruction begins. In three years, they have managed to excavate 10% of the site’s remains, and time is rapidly running out.
But Qadir, along with his fellow Afghan archaeologists, are facing nearly impossible odds with pressure from the Chinese corporation and government, hidden landmines throughout the area, constant death threats from the Taliban, and local politics. The World Bank has stated that Mes Aynak is the most expensive archaeological excavation in the world, but “little money has been given to workers leaving them without necessary equipment like computers, cameras, and chemicals, as well as months without pay”, reports a recently issued press release.*
Undaunted by the challenges, Qadir and his colleagues press on as best they can and as quickly as reasonably possible with the excavations, even under shifting circumstances. Fortunately, a variety of reasons, including public pressure, have delayed the start of mining operations and have given the excavators some breathing room. But the question remains: For how long?
The situation is tenuous, at best.
For his part, Brent Huffman, the American filmmaker at the site, has spent the last three years visually documenting the excavations, acquiring an up-close-and-personal connection to the site and its spectacular finds. Working alone with only the assistance of a local translator, he filmed 250 hours of footage throughout 18 months. Being there has taught him the great potential and value of Mes Aynak and the volumes of history that will likely be lost if the site is destroyed.
“My fear is that we’ll all gasp in horror when the Mes Aynak site is destroyed but won’t do much when there was actually time to save it,” says Huffman. “We know the world was heartbroken by the recent destruction by ISIS of the Mosul Museum, the Tomb of Jonah, the ancient city of Nimrud, and other cultural heritage sites in Iraq. The same level of destruction is happening at Mes Aynak.”
“However,” he emphasizes, “unlike those sites, we can do something about this.”
With that, Huffman and his colleagues have launched a worldwide campaign to save the site in its entirety, culminating in recognition and designation of Mes Aynak as a World Heritage Site, much like Machu Picchu, Pompeii, and other well-known sites of similar significance. He hopes to do this the best way he knows how—by raising public awareness through the visual power of film to generate international public pressure on the Chinese corporation and the Afghanistan government. Using the newly-produced film, Saving Mes Aynak, he is launching a campaign on Indiegogo, the world’s largest crowdfunding platform. Through the documentary collective Kartemquin Films (Life Itself, Hoop Dreams), the aim is to bring viewers around the world together through social media to watch the film via VHX on July 1st, 2015 – “Global #SaveMesAynak Day” – with an initial 10% of the campaign goal of $50,000 of raised funds going directly to funding archaeologists preserving the site. Should the filmmakers exceed their goal, the plan is to double the donation to 20%.
But the July 1 event is only part of the action. “The campaign will last 60 days in order to give it time to reach as many people worldwide as possible,” said Zak Piper, Saving Mes Aynak Producer. “We are trying to get broadcasters around the world to show the film in that week and help us bring pressure on the situation, but we also know from our social media analytics that there is a passionate audience already for this film in countries where broadcast documentary isn’t possible in this timeframe.”
In addition, and perhaps most important of all, the campaign organizers hope to add thousands of signatures to a Change.org petition asking Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani to spare the site from destruction via designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If successful, they will present the petition to him in person in Kabul following the Afghanistan premiere of the film.
“With Mes Aynak, we aren’t up against religious fundamentalists, but a corporation,” says Huffman. “But, as our film shows, they have repeatedly bowed to public pressure and delayed mining. It’s our hope that we can build enough awareness globally to permanently change their mind, and for the government of Afghanistan to petition UNESCO to make Mes Aynaka a protected World Heritage Site. We think this is the only way it can be saved now, and the film is the tool that will drive that pressure.”
In many ways, the Mes Aynak situation is a classic example of the conundrum faced by world leaders and people everywhere concerning the problem of how humanity can reconcile the needs for economic prosperity with the imperatives of preserving, protecting and advancing knowledge and awareness of humanity’s cultural identity and history. In this context, Mes Aynak, like a number of other cases across the globe, could present an opportunity for problem solvers to put their heads together and come up with surprisingly workable solutions.
But for now, at least for Mes Aynak, it continus to be an uphill battle. Excavation went full throttle during the filming, although it has recently diminished as threats from the Taliban have increased. “It’s a harrowing situation,” says Huffman. “Qadir received threatening phone calls from them while I was on site.” Moreover, the mining is scheduled to begin in 2015. And although Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani, a former anthropologist as well as economist, may be positively sensitive to serious consideration of a submitted petition, he has also recently visited Beijing to meet with the President of China about prioritizing mining projects in Afghanistan—including, of course, Mes Aynak.
Despite these new challenges, Temori and Huffman continue to be hopeful.
“The more that people are able to see the film, and the more who sign the Change.org petition asking Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to request that UNESCO make Mes Aynak a World Heritage Site,” says Huffman, “the greater the chances that Mes Aynak and its invaluable history can be saved. That would be a victory for Buddhists, Afghanistan heritage, and anyone who cares about world history.”
Individuals interested in acquiring more information about Mes Aynak and how to take part in the campaign to save the site may learn more at the website at http://www.savingmesaynak.com/.
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