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‘Excuse me,' says a young man in Bamian's one and only high street, ‘may I practise my English with you?' Anywhere else in the world, this approach could be brushed aside as a poor attempt at a social interaction, but this is Afghanistan and the young man is in earnest. ‘Our teacher has emphasised that when we see a foreigner we must try to practise our English.' As I indicate my willingness to linger in the street, he is immediately joined by several others. The impromptu English class turns into a discussion about their life in Bamian, located 140 miles north-west of Kabul in a valley once traversed by Alexander's armies in the 4th century BC, and devastated by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. In modern times, Bamian was famed as a tourist attraction throughout Afghanistan because of the presence of two gigantic statues of the Buddha, rising to 180ft and 125ft. Dating from the 4th/ 5th century, they had been carved out of the rock face, and stood in niches, adorned with paintings, many of which had survived into the 20th century. Also carved out of the cliff face is an intricate network of caves in which Buddhist monks once passed their austere lives.

After the destruction of the Buddhas in 2001 by the Taliban, discussion amongst the local people revolves around their restoration. Abdullah, the first young man who approached me, and who is a student at Bamian University, wants to see them reconstructed. ‘They are part of our heritage. They will bring the tourists back to Bamian.' The local inhabitants, who are Hazaras of Shia Islamic faith, are also especially bitter against the Sunni Pashtun Taliban who slaughtered them in their thousands when they took the valley. Abdullah was a young boy and remembered fleeing across the mountains. ‘It was a very sad time. Bamian was so peaceful. When we fled, there was no food, we had to eat grass.'

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