KABUL (Reuters) - Germany this week returned an ancient pre-Islamic sculpture looted during Afghanistan's civil war, giving hope to Kabul's cultural mavens that the rest of its stolen treasures will also make their way home.
Eight figures, one missing a torso and others without noses, make up the 30-cm high (12 inches) limestone antiquity from the second century AD, a reminder of Afghanistan's rich classical past as a confluence of cultures on the crossroads of Asia.
Faces turned to their left, they are believed to be audience members watching Buddha on his throne in the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, which stretched across part of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Foreign Ministry said.
"This is a masterpiece ... I am optimistic that in the future we will get the other artefacts back," said Omara Khan Massoudi, the director of Afghanistan's National Museum, which housed the sculpture before it was stolen.
Afghanistan's embassy in Berlin has been investigating who owned the sculpture since it appeared in Munich a year ago. It was flown to Kabul earlier this week.
As warlords battled for control of Kabul in the early 1990s following the Soviet exit, fighters pillaged around 70 percent of the museum's antiquities, or around 70,000 pieces, selling the choicest artefacts on the black market.
Massoudi, whose museum was also heavily shelled in the war, is working to get them back. "This is our responsibility... According to our laws, they must be returned to Afghanistan," he told Reuters.
Afghanistan's looted treasures have appeared across Europe, the United States and Japan. Kabul might see twenty ivories currently held in the British Museum return sometime this year, Massoudi said.
An agreement with UNESCO, the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and global police Interpol to recover stolen gems is proving successful: he said over 8,000 artefacts have returned since 2007, including a fifth century wooden Buddha. Tens of thousands are still missing however.
Endemic corruption, poverty and insecurity after thirty years of conflict mean even new discoveries do not reach cultural authorities.
Ancient Jewish scrolls, which Massoudi confirmed were recently smuggled out, are currently being kept by private dealers in London.
Most of those that have been recovered and are in Afghanistan are under lock and key until larger spaces are built with the top-notch security systems museums in the West have.
Ten million dollars have been committed, half from the United States, for a new museum with such features and climate control, to be built next door to the old one over the next three to four years.
"It is my dream to have such museums across Afghanistan," Massoudi said.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani