Friendly City Bamiyan, Afghanistan

This page describes Bamiyan, Porirua's Friendly City in Afghanistan.

Why Bamiyan?

Since the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, the New Zealand Government has provided a Provincial Reconstruction Team in the province of Bamiyan comprising Defence Force personnel, N.Z. Police and NZAID development programmes.

View of Bamiyan Valley.
View of Bamiyan Valley.
Photo by Bob Maysmor, Porirua City Council, 2008.

Dr Habiba Sarabi, Governor of Bamiyan Province (including Bamiyan township), visited New Zealand in February 2008 to thank the government for their support. At that time Dr Sarabi visited Porirua and invited the then Mayor, Jenny Brash, to form a Sister City relationship with Bamiyan.

Widespread debate within the City Council and the community led to a Friendly City relationship being established in October 2008.

An exhibition celebrating the Friendly City relationship between Porirua City and Bamiyan was presented at Pataka Museum in Porirua from 18 February to 23 May 2010. It featured many photos of Bamiyan and its people and described the work of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team that is based in the town. A book of the Bamiyan exhibition is now available at Pataka.

Bamiyan Town

The township of Bamiyan is at an altitude close to 2,550m above sea level (Mt Ruapehu is 2,997m) and some of the mountain passes are as high as Mt Cook/Aorangi). In winter (December-March), the surrounding mountains and valleys are covered in snow.

Temperatures easily reach 40°C in summer and winter temperatures have been recorded as low as -30°C with wind chill factors lowering this by an additional -20°C. The climate is much drier than New Zealand, with dry snow in winter and dust storms in summer.

Bamiyan, population 62,000, is the capital of Bamiyan Province, one of thirty-four provinces in Afghanistan. Bamyan province is approximately 200km east to west, roughly 2-3 days driving, and around 250km north to south. The roads are unsealed and rocky and drivers can safely average speeds of 25-40 km/hr.

The Band-e-Amir Lakes, now part of a national park.
The Band-e-Amir Lakes, now part of a national park.

Bamiyan town is home to the region's provincial government and is headquarters for most of the international organisations and non-government organisations in the province. Many of these in turn report to a higher national level headquarters in Kabul and have branches or outposts in some of the minor towns within the province.

It is located about 240km north-west of Kabul. The town and province of Bamiyan are situated in the heart of Afghanistan amidst the tangled peaks of the Hindu Kush in an area known as the Koh-e-Baba – The Grandfather of Mountains. The area is also known as the Hazarajat, the home of the minority Hazara people.

Bamiyan is a small town with the bazaar at its centre. Its airport has only a gravel runway and the town lacks any extended infrastructure. Mountains cover ninety percent of the province.

Education and other facilities in Bamiyan

University

Bamiyan University has about 900 students. The original building that was occupied by the Taliban was subsequently bombed by the US. Through one of its projects, New Zealand assisted in the construction of a new two-storied building. Classrooms are relatively crowded with about 35 students in each class. A scoping study showed the need for more women teachers in the university as young female students were reluctant to sit entry exams knowing that access to university was limited. NZAID is currently supporting teacher training programmes for women.

Other education facilities in Bamiyan

There is a Teachers Training College (grade 13-14), a number of colleges that take up to grade 12 students and a structure of three other levels of schools – grades 1-6, 7-9 and grade 10. When a school reaches 250 pupils an additional school is built.

In more remote areas of the province, or where schools are not able to accommodate all pupils, schooling is often provided in tents or in the local mosque.

Internet access and communications

Bamiyan currently has a number of internet access networks. The university has a limited internet facility along with Refugee Services. The Aga Khan Foundation has a wider network available and there are public internet facilities in the bazaar. There are no restrictions on access to internet sites. There has been a fragmented approach to the development of internet services in Bamiyan. NZAID is aware that an extended, more integrated approach could be beneficial and allow for a more reliable and faster growth of such services particularly in schools.

There are numerous television channels accessible in Bamiyan with one of the most popular programmes being the Indian soap operas that are screened at 7pm each evening.

A history of Bamiyan

During the 1st century AD. the Kushan empire flourished. Bamiyan was located halfway between the ancient town of Balkh and the Kushan capital that was located near the modern-day town of Bagram, benefiting from the rich trade along the silk route between Rome and China.

In the 4th century the White Huns invaded the region but were eventually assimilated.

Mani, the founder of the Manichaean religion, is believed to have lived at Bamiyan in the third century AD. During this period the smaller of the two Buddha figures was cut into the cliffs; the larger is believed to date from the 5th century. The photo below shows one of the Buddha statues before it was destroyed by the Taliban.

Buddha statue.
Buddha statue before it was destroyed by the Taliban.

Bamiyan became a major centre of Buddhism and home to many monasteries. Two statues of Buddha were carved into the rock walls of the Bamiyan valley during the sixth century. They were the largest standing statues of Buddha ever made and became one of the world's most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

The eastward thrust of Islam was felt throughout Afghanistan during the seventh century. Isolated in the mountains, Bamiyan retained its Buddhist traditions for another 400 years before the Ghaznavids, a dynasty controlling all of Central Asia, brought Islam into the region.

Several smaller dynasties flourished in Bamiyan including the Shansabani kings until 1222 when the Mongol hordes swept through Afghanistan destroying everything in their path.

For the next 600 years Bamiyan and the Hazara people, who claimed descent from the Mongols, lived independent of the rest of Afghanistan. They were separated geographically, ethnically and by their Shiite Islam faith. The photo below shows Hazara women in Bamiyan.

Hazara women in Bamiyan.
Hazara women in Bamiyan.

In the late 18th century there was a military campaign to bring Bamiyan and the Hazara people under Afghan rule. Many of the Hazara were made slaves with their land given to Pashtun farmers. Throughout the 20th century the region remained the least developed part of Afghanistan.

In 1973 the monarchy was overthrown and a republic established under Muhammad Douad. Islamic leaders opposed to his modernizing fled to Pakistan where they set up the mujahideen. Douad was assassinated in 1978, replaced by a communist-led government.

In 1979 the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took place. 85,000 troops were sent in to support the communist government. Almost immediately the people of Bamiyan rebelled against the Soviet occupation, successfully driving them out of the Hazarajat by 1981. The Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. The photo below shows remnants of Russian tanks.

Remnants of abandoned Russian tanks.
Remnants of Russian tanks in Bamiyan.

During the 1980s Bamiyan was ruled by the Hezb-e Wahdat, a mujahideen party supported by Iran. By the mid 1990s the party's influence had spread to Kabul and to Mazar-e Sharif in the north.

After the Russian withdrawal, the tribal militias that evolved into the coalition of Islamic fighters known as the mujahideen, split into rival factions. The Taliban (a Pashtun militia) fought the Northern Alliance (non-Pashtun) for control of the country. The Taliban seized power in 1996 and immediately blockaded the Bamiyan valley refusing to let food or international aid into the Hazara people.

The Taliban's version of Sunni Islam doesn’t recognize Shiites as Muslims, resenting the comparative freedom that Shiite Hazaras afforded women, who took part in Bamiyan's politics and social enterprises. By the time the Taliban captured Bamiyan in 1998, most of the inhabitants, knowing of the Taliban's hatred towards them, had fled to the mountains.

Threats to blow up the two Bamiyan Buddhas were momentarily waylaid but by early March 2001 the statues had been destroyed.

By the end of 2001, the Northern Alliance with the help of US and British forces had defeated the Taliban and the Hazara returned to their land and homes.

Afghanistan's first female provincial leader was established when Dr Habiba Sarabi (pictured below) was appointed as Governor of Bamiyan Province in March 2005.

Governor Sarabi.
Governor Sorabi.

Dr Sorabi studied at Kabul University and became a doctor. She lived in Kabul at the time the Taleban took over and as an educated woman, was in grave danger of persecution. She took her three children and fled to Pakistan. Dr Sarabi returned to Kabul to set up an underground school for girls, reentering the country under cover of the burqa, a garment which represented the Taliban oppression but gave her freedom to move unrecognised.