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But the problems of reconstructing the Buddhas are immense, especially in terms of the cost. ‘You can spend billions on reconstructing the Buddhas,' says Nancy Dupree, author of one of the best books on Afghanistan's cultural heritage, ‘or you can spend those same billions on the people of Afghanistan.' In 2003 the United Nations designated the Bamian ruins as a World Heritage site, but, if reconstruction (as opposed to preservation) commences, they will lose that status.

And even before discussion on reconstruction can begin, there is a graver danger. The dynamite explosions carried out by the Taliban have destabilised the cliffs out of which the Buddhas were carved. Mines are still believed to be in the vicinity of the large Buddha. Repairs are currently being undertaken on the niche which once housed the smaller Buddha. A German conservation team, under the auspices of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a sub-organisation of UNESCO led by Edmund Mezl, has erected scaffolding - which had to be imported from Germany - to stabilise the niche. ‘Our job is to find all the stones and to make sure that nothing is destroyed,' says Mezl. While the Afghan government deliberates on the future of the Buddhas, all the fragments are being carefully stored under tarpaulin on the site.

One form of restoration which has been considered acceptable by the United Nations is a process called anastylosis, whereby the original pieces are reassembled and held together by minimal new material . But the pieces which have been salvaged are barely recognisable and the process of hoisting material weighing as much as 90 tons is another challenge for a country which does not possess a crane large enough to lift them. And since Bamian is covered in snow during the winter, they can only work in summer. ‘We must finish our work now by October,' says Mezl. ‘And then we will start again in the Spring.'

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