‘Leaning tower of Herat’ worries Afghans and historians

The historic minarets, once a ‘shining example’ of Mughal architecture, in Afghanistan’s Herat province, need to be restored to their former glory. (Files/AFP)
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Updated 02 September 2020

‘Leaning tower of Herat’ worries Afghans and historians

  • Medieval minaret has bent nearly 60 degrees due to natural wear and tear

KABUL: It has survived 40 years of war, but an iconic tower in Afghanistan’s Herat province, one of the five known as the Musalla Minarets, could soon topple over due to natural wear and tear and lack of restoration efforts.

“The minaret has bent nearly 60 degrees because of natural changes such as floods, earthquakes and other disasters. It needs urgent attention,” Arya Rawoufyan, head of Herat’s Information and Culture Department, told Arab News.

Built in the 15th century by Timurid Queen Gawhar Shad Begum, the minaret measures 100 feet in height and nearly 3 meters in width. Cars were allowed to drive between the minarets until as recently as 2007.

“When it started to damage the structure, authorities placed a ban and built a blockade, but some cars still drive through,” Rahima Jami, a lawmaker from Herat, told Arab News. Historians credit Queen Gawhar’s keen interest in art and culture for the construction of the site’s original madrassa complex which, at its height, housed 20 minarets.

That was until 1885, when most were destroyed by British forces during the conflict with Russia.

Herat would later bear the brunt of the Soviet occupation of region and the subsequent wars that followed, until the Red Army’s departure in the 1980s.

Today, only five minarets remain from what was once a “shining example” of Mughal architecture.

“The minarets are part of what was once a brilliantly decorated complex of Islamic learning and devotion in the region, along the Silk Road in western Herat,” Rawoufyan said.  Considered a cradle of art and culture in Afghanistan, Herat is its second-largest city and borders Iran and Turkmenistan.

Famous for a wide variety of foods, such as grapes and saffron, and local handicrafts including exquisitely designed carpets, Herat has long been a hub for trade activities within the region and other parts of the world.

It gained prominence after Genghis Khan conquered several Afghan cities, including Kabul and Herat, and from there moved on to Iran in the 13th century. Once his army left Afghanistan, Herat remained under Mughal rule for years and eventually became home to prominent Persian poets, scholars and artists.

The minarets which once “stood out on the dry expanse of land in the area” are today punctuated by old and new houses and shops that have sprung up in recent years.

For years, authorities have tried to get the remnants listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, but have failed due to the deteriorating condition and a lack of resources to restore the minarets back to their former glory.

To facilitate the restoration efforts, former President Hamid Karzai had asked Germany, France, Italy and India, through UNESCO, to help prevent the minarets’ destruction.

“So far, none of the nations has come forward, but UNESCO paid more than $250,000 for the fortification of the five minarets’ foundations and for building a wall sealing a road that passes through the minarets complex, where traffic was once a major threat,” Rawoufyan said.

And while UNESCO rose to the occasion, and Kabul is willing to cover restoration expenses, authorities said they would be able to evaluate the total cost involved only after a “technical assessment” of the site.

“It is beyond the ability of Afghan engineers to rebuild it from a technical and resource point of view,” Rawoufyan said.

However, even if officials succeed in restoring the worst-affected minaret, Rawoufyan said Afghanistan might not be able to meet UNESCO’s criteria for the World Heritage List as “several boxes” remain.

“Unchecked developments, new high-rise buildings near the minarets, red tape and the municipality’s inability to stop their construction has changed the character of the area from being old and historical, which are key criteria,” Rawoufyan said.

Jami added that some vehicles still use the road that goes through the minarets and blamed Kabul for “not paying attention” to the destruction of a world treasure.

“This is our national asset and part of Islamic civilization and must be protected under any cost,” she told Arab News.

Haji Rafiq Shaheer, a historian and civil society activist, agreed, and questioned why “despite technological advances,” the government was unable to restore the structure.

“How come in the past, with limited resources, we managed to build over a dozen such minarets? But today, with so much advancement and progress in all fields we cannot? It’s a shame that we cannot protect this icon which depicts our history, authority and honor,” he told Arab News.


Fear stalks northern Afghan city as Taliban lay siege

Updated 24 June 2021

Fear stalks northern Afghan city as Taliban lay siege

  • The Taliban have held Kunduz twice in recent years — both times briefly — but have now captured the surrounding districts and the main border crossing with Tajikistan
  • Violence surged after the US military began the withdrawal of its last remaining 2,500 troops from the country to meet a September 11 deadline

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan: Fear stalked Kunduz Thursday as residents prepared for a lengthy siege, with government forces patrolling the streets and Taliban insurgents surrounding the northern Afghan city.
The Taliban have held the city twice in recent years — both times briefly — but have now captured the surrounding districts and the main border crossing with Tajikistan.
“The Taliban have besieged our city,” said Qudratullah, a fruit seller who has done hardly any business since fighting first erupted in Kunduz province two weeks ago.
“Even today there is sporadic fighting on the outskirts of the city,” said Qudratullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
“If the government does not launch an operation against the Taliban, their siege will continue for a long time.”
Most businesses in Kunduz remained shut and vehicles stayed off the roads, an AFP correspondent who toured the city reported.
Dozens of military vehicles patrolled the streets as new government forces were deployed in the city of around 300,000, swelled by an influx of rural residents fleeing fighting in the districts.
Troops were seen firing sporadically at Taliban positions, and the bodies of two insurgents lay on the ground on the eastern edge of Kunduz.
The city’s public health director told AFP that since the fighting erupted a week ago, 21 civilians have been killed and 225 wounded.
Residents said they were suffering from water and power cuts, and few shops were open.
Kunduz resident Hasib said he feared the Taliban would soon launch a major offensive on the city.
“We don’t feel safe... We have seen the Taliban capture the city twice before, and we do not want the city to fall again to them,” he said.
“The government forces should break the Taliban siege, if not the Taliban will continue their offensives... and their siege will continue forever.”
Fighting has raged across Kunduz province for days, with the Taliban and Afghan forces engaged in bloody battles.
On Tuesday the insurgents captured Shir Khan Bandar, Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Tajikistan, in one of their most significant gains in recent months.
On Thursday, Afghan authorities attempted to put on a brave front, with Interior Minister Abdul Satar Mirzakwal flying in for a brief visit.
“Saving and protecting Kunduz is among our top priorities,” he said in a video message released to reporters.
“We are taking serious measures and will provide more weapons and technical equipment to Afghan forces in all provinces.”
Since early May, the Taliban have launched several major offensives targeting government forces across the rugged countryside and say they have seized at least 87 of the country’s more than 400 districts.
Many of their claims are disputed by the government and difficult to independently verify.
Violence surged after the US military began the withdrawal of its last remaining 2,500 troops from the country to meet the September 11 deadline announced by President Joe Biden to end America’s longest war.


Poland withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, says president

Updated 24 June 2021

Poland withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, says president

  • Foreign troops under NATO command will withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11
  • First troops would return to Poland on Thursday night

WARSAW: Poland will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan at the end of June, President Andrzej Duda said on Thursday, bringing its two-decade presence in the country to an end.
NATO allies agreed in April that foreign troops under NATO command will withdraw from Afghanistan in coordination with a US pull-out by Sept. 11.
“At the end of June, after 20 years, we are ending our military involvement in the largest NATO operation in history,” Duda wrote on Twitter, adding that the first troops would return to Poland on Thursday night.
After withdrawing, the United States and NATO aim to rely on Afghan military and police forces, which they have developed with billions of dollars in funding, to maintain security.


Africa CDC says continent not winning against ‘brutal’ COVID-19 pandemic

Updated 24 June 2021

Africa CDC says continent not winning against ‘brutal’ COVID-19 pandemic

  • About 1.12 percent people have been fully vaccinated on a continent that has recorded 5.2 million infections

HARARE, Zimbabwe: Africa is not winning its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as a third virus wave sweeps the continent and countries struggle to access enough vaccines for their populations, Africa CDC director John Nkenkasong said on Thursday.
The COVAX program co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) for fair distribution of vaccines is now planning a shake-up as it has been shunned by rich countries and failing to meet the needs of the poorest, internal documents seen by Reuters show.
Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) director Nkenkasong said he was more worried about getting vaccines in time regardless of where the doses came from.
“The third wave has come with severity that most countries were not prepared for. So the third wave is extremely brutal,” Nenkasong said during a weekly online briefing.
“Let me put it bluntly, we are not winning in Africa this battle against the virus so it does not really matter to me whether the vaccines are from COVAX or anywhere. All we need is rapid access to vaccines.”
Nkenkasong said at least 20 countries were in the middle of the third wave, with Zambia, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo among those whose health facilities were being overwhelmed.
The COVAX program’s initial lofty ambitions to act as a clearing house for the world’s vaccines, collecting from the manufacturers in the most developed countries and quickly distributing to those in the most urgent need, have fallen flat.
About 1.12 percent people have been fully vaccinated on a continent that has recorded 5.2 million infections, Nkenkasong said.
More than half of poorer countries receiving doses via COVAX do not have enough supplies to continue, an official from the WHO said on Monday.


Thai pro-democracy activists march against government

Updated 24 June 2021

Thai pro-democracy activists march against government

  • The protesters defied a ban on large gatherings instituted to fight a coronavirus surge that shows little sign of abating
  • Several hundred marched to Parliament, which is due to vote on several amendments to the constitution

BANGKOK: Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Thailand’s capital on Thursday, marking the anniversary of the overthrow of the country’s absolute monarchy by renewing their demands that the government step down, the constitution be amended and the monarchy become more accountable.
The protesters defied a ban on large gatherings instituted to fight a coronavirus surge that shows little sign of abating. It was their first large protest after a hiatus of about three months caused by the pandemic and the jailing of protest leaders, who have since been released on bail.
The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is facing widespread criticism that it botched pandemic recovery plans by failing to secure adequate vaccine supplies.
On June 24, 1932, a group of progressive army officers and civil servants proclaimed constitutional rule and the transition to parliamentary democracy, ending Thailand’s absolute monarchy. The anniversary in recent years has become an occasion for pro-democracy rallies.
Protesters gathered early Thursday by Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a traditional demonstration venue, to light candles and read out the 1932 proclamation of the end of the absolute monarchy.
Several hundred then marched to Parliament, which is due to vote on several amendments to the constitution. The proposed changes, however, fall far short of those sought by the protesters, which include restoring more power to political parties and elected office holders.
“We come out today to insist on the principle that the constitution must come from the people,” said Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a protest leader also known as Pai Dao Din.
The student-led pro-democracy movement sprung up last year, largely in reaction to the continuing influence of the military in government and hyper-royalist sentiment. The army in 2014 overthrew an elected government, and Prayuth, the coup leader, was named prime minister after a 2019 general election put in power a military-backed political party. Critics say the constitution enacted during military rule skewed election rules to favor the army’s proxy party.
The movement was able to attract crowds of as many as 20,000-30,000 people in Bangkok in 2020 and had followings in major cities and universities. However, a coronavirus surge late last year caused it to temporarily suspend activities and lose momentum.
The movement became controversial as its leaders focused on the monarchy in their speeches and activities. They charged that the king holds power and influence beyond that allowed under the constitution.
Since becoming king in 2016, Maha Vajiralongkorn has gained more direct control over the vast fortune of the royal palace — estimated to exceed $30 billion — as well as command of some key military units in the capital.
During the same time, memorials, statues and other symbols associated with the 1932 revolution have been removed.
The monarchy is widely considered to be an untouchable bedrock element of Thai nationalism. Defaming key royals is punishable under a lese majeste law by up to 15 years in prison per count. Many people still revere the monarchy, and the military, a major power in Thai society, considers its defense a key priority.
The government responded to the protesters’ criticism of the monarchy by charging leaders under the lese majeste law.
Parit Chiwarak, among those jailed, said Thursday the protesters are standing by their original demands but perhaps shifting their focus.
“We still demand the monarchy’s reform. But this year Prayuth must be ousted,” said Parit, who is better known by the nickname Penguin.


Ethiopian military says only combatants hit in Tigray air strike

Updated 24 June 2021

Ethiopian military says only combatants hit in Tigray air strike

  • An air strike killed at least 43 people in the town on Tuesday, a medical official told Reuters

ADDIS ABABA: Only combatants, not civilians, were struck in an air strike this week in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the country’s military spokesman said on Thursday.
Col. Getnet Adane told Reuters in an interview in Addis Ababa that the combatants in the town of Togoga were dressed in civilian clothes.
An air strike killed at least 43 people in the town on Tuesday, a medical official told Reuters. The strike took place after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of the regional capital Mekelle.
A resident of the town told Reuters on Wednesday that the air strike a day earlier had hit a market in the town west of Mekelle at around 1 p.m. That resident also said that her 2-year-old daughter had been injured in the attack.
The military spokesman said the combatants were not inside the market, but had gathered in the town to commemorate the anniversary of the bombing of another town in Tigray, Hawzen, in 1988. That attack, by Ethiopia’s then-ruling Communist leaders, killed hundreds of people and is widely commemorated in Tigray.
The spokesman said he did not have the death toll from the strike but that it would come soon.
The military has been battling forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s former ruling party, since November. Fighting has displaced 2 million people, and the United Nations has warned of a possible famine.
Asked about children injured in Tuesday’s attack, the spokesman said the TPLF uses propaganda and is known for faking injuries. He also said that doctors quoted by the media are not “real doctors.”
The remarks were the first acknowledgement by the military of the air strike, which came after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle.
Previously, Getnet, the military spokesman, had declined to confirm or deny the incident, saying air strikes were a common military tactic and that government forces do not target civilians.
The air strike took place as Ethiopian officials counted ballots from national and regional parliamentary elections held this week in seven of the nation’s 10 regions.
No voting was held in Tigray, and security concerns and problems with ballot papers also delayed voting in two other regions.

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