The cave dwellers of Bamiyan

From livestock to satellite dishes: Some Bamiyan families have adapted caves to suit their needs
Image caption From livestock to satellite dishes: Some Bamiyan families have adapted caves to suit their needs

The sandstone cliffs of Afghanistan's Bamiyan province are most famous for the giant 6th century Buddha statues carved out of the rock and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

The monks who created them also dug out numerous caves in the Bamiyan valley.

Originally used for meditation and retreat, some of these caves are now home to around 700 Afghan families who have no land and can't afford conventional housing.

Ramazan and his wife Zahra have been living here for eight years.

Their son and two daughters were born in the caves. Like most of the local children they don't go to school.

"There's no hope of becoming an educated person if you live here," says Ramazan.

There are no schools nearby and grinding poverty means most families need their children to work.

Ramazan would like to find somewhere better to live. He once moved out, but was forced to return because he couldn't afford to pay the rent.

Image caption Ramazan's family of five can't afford to pay rent for a conventional house
Image caption Many of the ancient caves have been modified with wood and mud brick constructions

Taliban legacy

Most people living in the caves lost their family homes when the Taliban captured Bamiyan in the 1990s.

The hardline Sunni movement burned down the houses of the predominantly Shia Hazaras living in the area.

When people eventually returned many had nowhere to go.

Forty-seven year old Halima's life changed after her husband was killed by the Taliban.

She lives in a one-room cave with her son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

There are family photos on the roughly-plastered white walls, and a carpet covers the stone floor.

"Life here has never been easy," she says.

Halima and her daughter-in-law are the only breadwinners in the family, doing embroidery to earn a little money.

Image caption Halima and her family keep live stock at their cave dwelling to help them survive
Image caption Hundreds of caves in the Bamiyan cliffs form part of the Unesco world heritage site


The family's most valuable possessions are their donkey and a few chickens.

Several years ago the local authorities tried to move the cave dwellers on by giving them plots of land. But the initiative failed.

Local people say the land was in a remote area with no access to running water, and in any case no-one had any money to build houses.

The cave families say they've been forgotten.

"There might as well not be a government here for all we've heard of them in the past ten years," says Ali Hussain another resident.

For the local authorities the situation presents a dilemma.

The longer the caves are occupied, the more damage is done to the site, as families install front doors and windows, build makeshift extensions, and rig up satellite dishes and solar panels.

"The caves are our historical heritage," says Ghulam Ali Wahdat, the governor of Bamiyan. "They must be empty, preserved and open for tourists to come and visit."

Mr Wahdat is now looking to central government in Kabul to help him come up with a plan to help find new homes for the families.

Image caption The niche once occupied by the 38 and 55m high Buddha statues dominates the Bamiyan cliffs
Image copyright AP
Image caption The 2000-year-old Buddha statue at Bamiyan before its destruction in 1997

Lost heritage

But the cave dwellers are not the only problem at the Bamiyan site.

Five minutes' walk from Ramazan and Halima's homes are the huge empty niches, several storeys high, where the Buddha statues used to stand.

When the Taliban destroyed them with anti-aircraft-, tank fire and eventually dynamite, big cracks appeared in the surrounding sandstone cliff raising fears of a partial collapse.

"We have stabilised the niche where the smaller Buddha once stood and have started work on the giant Buddha niche" says Sara Noshadi UNESCO project manager in Kabul. "It will take two years to complete the work."

Afghanistan's ambassador to UNESCO, Qasem Fazeli, told the BBC that preserving what's left of the statues is now a top priority.

"It's not possible to rebuild the giant Buddha," he said. "But some pieces of the smaller Buddha are still intact and could be restored."

The coming months could see the confrontation between the local authorities and the cave families finally come to a head.

Bamiyan has been chosen as South Asia's 2015 capital of culture.

Afghans are hoping this will help Bamiyan to regain the status it once had in the 1960s and 1970s as a key destination for local and international tourists.

Many people in Bamiyan also hope it will prompt the government to finally find somewhere else for the cave dwellers to live.

More on this story