KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban soldiers unlocked the bullet-scarred doors of the Kabul Museum on Thursday, opening the war-ravaged building for the first time since Afghanistan's hard-line rulers ordered all pre-Islamic statues destroyed.
But remnants of the destroyed statues were nowhere to be seen in the museum. Pieces of a stone carving were visible through a rusted grill in a basement room but were not identified as a statue.
"We are here to show you what we have. There are no more statues left," said Ahmed Yar, president of the Kabul Museum, who refused to say where the destroyed statues were located.
"We are not against anyone's culture, we are against what is against Islam," he said.
It was the first glimpse of what remains of Afghanistan's historical artifacts since Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declared all statues idolatrous and ordered them destroyed last month.
The destruction of two giant statues of Buddha, carved into a mountainside in the 3rd and 5th centuries, sparked international outrage. An estimated 6,000 fragments of Buddhist art were housed in the Kabul Museum.
The collection spanned Afghanistan's 50,000-year history and included relics from the country's prehistoric, classical, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic periods. It contained "the greatest testimonies of antiquity that the world has inherited," according to a 1974 book by American author Nancy Dupree.
Journalists have not been permitted to go to Bamiyan province to see what is left of the huge Buddhas. The larger statue, at 170 feet tall, was believed to have been the world's tallest standing Buddha. The smaller one stood 120 feet tall. Taliban officials and international aid workers say they were demolished by explosive charges.
Thousands of smaller statues in the Kabul Museum and elsewhere were destroyed with pickaxes, hammers and artillery.
The domed museum building was badly damaged during a bitter four-year feud between rival Islamic groups. The Taliban took control of most areas of the country in 1996, including the capital.
During that time, 80 percent of the artwork was stolen and sold on the open market, bought by dealers around the world, experts say. The artwork is now scattered in museums and private collections in several countries.
The last time the museum was opened to the public was in August 1999.
At that time, the most priceless artifact, a 2,000-year-old seated bodhisattva made of baked clay, enraged several Taliban clerics because it was mostly naked. In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are people of great spiritual awareness who help others reach enlightenment.
The Taliban apparently slapped the statue around the head and shoulders, causing museum workers to buy a glass case to protect it.
"It is one of the most beautiful, ethereal Buddha statues," Carla Grissmann, who did an inventory of the Kabul Museum collection, has said. "It was in superb condition."
At other sites, like Ghazni, about 120 miles southeast of Kabul, a reclining Buddha was destroyed by troops using pickaxes. Taliban soldiers in pickup trucks drove up the mountainside to an ancient Buddhist monastery and demolished the unbaked clay statue.
Shattered by relentless war and a devastating drought, many residents of Kabul view the destruction of the Buddha statues as the final blow to their waning hopes for a better day.
"Now everything is finished. We are really lost," said one Kabul resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.