BALKH, Afghanistan (AP) — The pillaging of the ancient city of Balkh has started again.
Since the fall of the Taliban, scores of Afghans have grabbed shovels and picks and fanned out across the city's historic ruins in hopes of finding an ancient treasure they can sell.
Mostly, they uncover far less valuable coins and pieces of pottery, even though they are thousands of years old. Those lucky enough to discover something of true value usually are forced to give it up to one of several local commanders.
"This represents our civilization and our history and they are stealing it," said Abdul Aziz Azimi, an archaeology professor at Balkh University in nearby Mazar-e-Sharif.
It is unclear exactly how prevalent the looting of Afghanistan's historical sites is, but the international market for such artifacts is "enormous," said UNESCO official Christian Manhart.
The latest round of scavenging began in the chaos that followed the fall of the Najibullah government in 1992. Many local commanders used the proceeds from sale of ancient items to help fund factional battles, Manhart said.
Though the looting at Balkh never fully stopped under the Taliban, far fewer people were willing to endure the militia's harsh punishments — such as being thrown in a hole and buried up to their necks.
A few weeks after the Taliban were routed from northern Afghanistan in November, the looters were back in Balkh.
Now the mound known as Jewelry Hill, which legend says was the site of a jewelry bazaar 1,400 years ago, is a muddy moonscape scarred by hundreds of deep holes. The ground is littered with pottery shards, some an unadorned red, and others with the remnants of colorful designs.
The diggers said Wednesday they only want to eke out a living from what they find in Balkh — a city that was the birthplace of Zoroastrianism and a center of Buddhism and Islam. It was conquered by Alexander the Great and razed by Genghis Khan.
"I don't know what's under the ground here. I am just digging and everything I find here I hope to sell," said Khayr Mohammad.
The 25-year-old began working the ground three days ago, digging into the soft earth of a 20-foot-deep pit and passing the dislodged soil to assistants with buckets.
He left his job selling wheat in the bazaar when he heard he could make more money here, but so far he has found little more than broken pieces of pottery no one will buy.
Other diggers talk of remarkable objects found at the five major digging sites in Balkh. They boast of beautiful statues, ancient jewelry, even whole chunks of palaces that were spirited away by local commanders.
The diggers are allowed to keep smaller, less valuable objects, which they sell to local merchants who resell them here or in Pakistan, said Arab Zada, a merchant who came to look at the day's haul.
He left after buying only a silver coin he believes is 2,400 years old for 250,000 afghanis — $8.
Few diggers share Azimi's concern about the looting of cultural artifacts.
"What can we do? We are hungry. We have no food in our homes. We have to dig up these things and sell them," Mohammad said. "We don't worry about our history. We just think of our hunger."
Afghanistan's provisional government has said it has stopped the looting, Manhart said. But the digging has continued, and local officials say they have no immediate plans to end it.
"No one cares about these things," said Saleh Mohammad, Balkh's police chief. "The government is very busy and has more important things to deal with, like kidnappings and killings."