This article originally appeared in USA Today.
By Mark Memmott
The giant Buddhas that looked down on this valley for centuries are gone. Only huge holes remain.
But the families who live in some of the hundreds of caves surrounding those holes have returned. Four years after fleeing the fighting that raged here and that climaxed with the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas in early 2001, they are back in their dirty, cramped, primitive homes.
There is no electricity, no running water and constant danger outside their doors from land mines and unexploded ordnance left by the Taliban. The homes are literally holes in the wall -- some carved by wind and rain, others cut by hand decades, even centuries, ago.
Most aren't big enough to hold a sport-utility vehicle, but they house families of sometimes 10 people. Almost all the children appear ill with colds or respiratory infections that are brought on by winter's frigid nights and summer's choking dust.
Those who live here say they have no other place to go. They're too poor to get anything better. As the residents see it, at least they're not living outside or in abandoned homes, as many did after running from the battles between Northern Alliance and Taliban troops in the late 1990s.
''There are no other dwellings here for us, so we have no choice,'' says Hashimi, 45, an elder among the cave dwellers. Like many Afghans, he uses only one name. As did most of the other cave dwellers, Hashimi and his family returned to the caves this spring.
No one knows for sure how long people have lived in the red cliffs that dominate this mountain valley, 8,500 feet above sea level in central Afghanistan. Experts say the two Buddha statues, one 175 feet tall and the other 125 or 130 feet, probably were carved in the third and fifth centuries.
There's evidence that Buddhist monks lived and meditated in the walls up to the seventh century. The walls are dotted with carved rooms that once had contained altars and were used for meditation. Many now are homes.
Most of the people living in the caves came in the past 10 to 20 years. Poor and landless, they needed a free place to stay while eking out livelihoods by farming small plots of land or working in Bamiyan's bazaar, which is in a valley about a mile away.
They could make a crude home by putting a simple wood door across a cave opening.
No census has been done to determine how many people live in the caves. A survey this year by the Red Cross found at least 56 families, Hashimi says.
Because it is common for Afghan families to include five or more children, the number of cave dwellers could top 500.
The cave interiors are spartan. Hashimi's home, where he lives with his wife and seven children (the oldest about 16, the youngest about three) is one room. The rounded ceiling is 7 feet high at its peak. The floor area is 10 feet square. A small stove sits near the door. Dried animal dung from nearby fields is used for fuel. There aren't enough trees for kindling.
One small hole has been dug in a wall of Hashimi's cave. That's where the family stores food: 20 or so golf ball-sized potatoes, two small bags of rice and flour, and a little kerosene for lamps. When not in use, blankets and cushions are stacked against the back wall. The dirt floor is covered by a thin, worn rug. The only light comes from a small, oil-burning lamp or the little bit of sun that filters in through the small door.
Flight from war
The story of Hashimi's family is typical of those who live in the caves. Homeless and desperate to find shelter, they moved in 12 years ago. A landowner in the valley allowed Hashimi to grow potatoes and other crops on a small piece of land in exchange for a share of the harvest.
Sometimes, there would be work in Bamiyan's bazaar. Sometimes the family would accept money from the occasional visitors coming to see the Buddhas.
About four years ago (he can't remember the month, though it was in winter), Hashimi took his wife and the five children they had at that time and fled. Fighting between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces had spread to Bamiyan. The family left behind nearly all their possessions. They took ''only this carpet and our clothes,'' Hashimi says.
They walked for six days, heading northwest through mountain passes, until they reached the village of Dara-I-Suf in Samangan province. On a straight line, the distance is about 80 miles. Because of the ridges, cliffs, streams and other obstacles blocking their way, the family walked much farther.
''I saw 120 people freeze to death'' during the long march north, Hashimi says.
His family made it to safety. In Dara-I-Suf, they moved into an abandoned mud-walled hut. In exchange for food and a plot to farm, Hashimi taught local children the Koran, Islam's holy book.
The first year in Dara-I-Suf, there was some rain, and Hashimi was able to grow enough food to feed his family. But then most of Afghanistan, including Dara-I-Suf, was hit by drought.
With little rain for the past three years, Hashimi and others in the village had barely enough food to survive. Then the Taliban was toppled in November. It appeared safe to return to Bamiyan, so the family made the six-day walk back.
Conditions aren't any better here than in Dara-I-Suf, but it is home.
Missing the Buddhas
Bamiyan became an internationally known symbol of the Taliban's harsh rule while the cave dwellers were gone. The Taliban believed the Koran forbids the depiction of the human form in any type of artwork, so its leaders ordered the destruction of the Buddha statues.
Despite an international outcry, Taliban troops using explosives and artillery shells blasted the Buddhas out of the mountainside in March of last year.
''We got really sad when we saw what had happened,'' says Ghulan Eshan, a father of 10 who lives with his family in one of the caves. He estimates his age to be between 50 and 55.
The Buddhas, he says, ''were the property of Afghanistan'' and should have been protected. And they had attracted some visitors, a few of whom would give money to the children.
The cave dwellers are aware there's talk of rebuilding the Buddha statues in some form, but they aren't counting on that happening anytime soon. People here are much more concerned about the immediate future and how to feed themselves.
International aid has begun to arrive. A French relief organization, Solidarité, paid Hashimi and some other men $2 a day to repair roads. The work lasted about a month.
The Red Cross has passed out necessities -- rice, oil, split peas, plastic sheeting for windows. An aid group based in Maryland, CHF International, is looking into whether a closer, cleaner water source can be found than the river that's a 15-minute walk away. Teams of searchers fan out each day to comb the cliffs, roads and fields for land mines.
Other aid is more informal. Families get some leftover food from the local warlord's militia and aid groups working in the region.
But the cave dwellers' needs are great. For Hashimi's family, breakfast is some bread they got from the militia, washed down with tea. Lunch might be a few boiled potatoes. For dinner: rice, again begged from the militia.
The children have a school they can go to. But if it rains, they can't leave the cave to get to their class. It's too dangerous because water washing down the cliffs could sweep undiscovered land mines into paths previously thought safe. They have to wait for mine-clearance teams to return and recheck the area.
''We need so much,'' Hashimi says. ''Schools, a health clinic, land to farm, food. Now, we have nothing. Please tell the international community we need help.''