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Afghan Nomads Fend Off Authorities In Kabul Land Dispute

Kuchi women carry water on their heads on the outskirts of Kabul in late November.
Hundreds of Afghan nomads, armed with pitchforks and sticks, were holding off attempts this week by authorities to evict them from their makeshift settlement in Kabul's outskirts.

The Kuchis have been staging protests daily since December 10, when members of the traditionally nomadic tribal grouping claimed three Kuchis were killed and several others injured as bulldozers accompanied by policemen tried to raze their dwellings in the capital's Qasaba district.

Kabul police have acknowledged only that several people were injured on December 10.

The Qasaba clashes are just the latest incidents involving Kuchis, a predominantly Pashtun people who have increasingly been forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and relocate to settled areas. In their search for permanent residence, the Kuchis have come into conflict with local authorities and rival ethnic groups who say the newcomers are encroaching on their lands.

Gul, a 40-year-old woman, is one of the Kuchis who has defied the eviction. She, like many others in the area, says she has permission from the Afghan Ministry of Urban Development Affairs and Housing to live in Qasaba.

"We haven’t slept because we're scared that they will come back," she says. "They have brought these tractors here to destroy our homes."

'Playing Games'

Meanwhile, Agha Khan, a Kuchi tribesman, has condemned the government for not dealing in good faith with his people.

Under the Afghan Constitution, the government is required to allocate permanent land for the Kuchis and help integrate them into settled areas. But Khan maintains that officials are chasing them from the very property they were given.

"The president, the mayor of Kabul, and the government shouldn't play games with us," Khan says. "We will accept even the worst land in Afghanistan. They should give us land-ownership documents and not deceive us."

A Kuchi boy tries to drink water in front of the ruins of Darul Aman palace in Kabul.
A Kuchi boy tries to drink water in front of the ruins of Darul Aman palace in Kabul.
Hassan Abdullahi, the minister for urban development affairs and housing, says the nomads were given temporary residence in the area but have been ordered to leave. He says the ministry originally allowed 30 families to set up living quarters in Qasaba but that hundreds more relocated to the area illegally.

Meanwhile, Habib Afghan, a Kuchi representative in the lower house of parliament, says the Kuchis are being forced out by Kabul Mayor Mohammad Younas Nawandish, who has approved plans for a housing-development project in Qasaba. The project, which will include the construction of luxury homes for lawmakers as well as ministry buildings, was approved last month by parliament.

According to Afghan, Nawandish promised the Kuchis plots of land in Pul-e Charkhi, on the outskirts of Kabul. But the Kuchi representative says that's not a viable option.

"How can you expect people to move during these harsh winter months?" Afghan says. "That's the first reason. The second is that there is no land available in Pul-e Charkhi for them to live on. The government should choose another location for the Kuchis to resettle to."

Tragic Tensions

The incident in Qasaba is just the latest land dispute to involve the Kuchis, who after roaming Afghanistan's high plains with their caravans of livestock for centuries have been forced to relocate to settled areas because of war, drought, and dwindling access to land. The Kuchis number around 3 million, according to government estimates, with only around one-third still leading nomadic lives.

In 2010, clashes broke out in the Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood in western Kabul. A group of Kuchis, contending their ancestors owned the land in the neighborhood, clashed with ethnic Hazara residents in the area. The fighting lasted several days and caused dozens of casualties on each side. Newly built Kuchi homes were reportedly burned to the ground.

The government relocated the nomads to the ruins of the Darul Aman palace, the residence of former Afghan monarchs, where they lived for months without electricity or adequate water supplies before moving to the city's slums.

In the past decade, there has also been growing violence between Kuchis and local farmers over grazing rights. The Kuchi tribes are spread across Afghanistan, traditionally moving with their herds to mountain pastures in the warmer seasons and to warmer lowlands during the winter.

Depleted natural resources, such as water, and lingering ethnic tensions have led to fierce clashes between Kuchi herders and members of the Hazara ethnic group in the last few years. Scores have been killed and wounded from both sides.

Hazara residents in the Wardak, Bamiyan, and Dai Kundi provinces, home to some of the most fertile land in the country, say Kuchi tribesmen are invading their villages, damaging farmland, and destroying their homes. Kuchis, however, say the Hazaras are denying them their centuries-old right to grazing lands across Afghanistan.

The escalating land disputes shed light on the plight of the Kuchis, who human rights organizations say are the poorest and most marginalized group in Afghanistan.

Many Kuchis say local hospitals refuse to treat their sick, while schools turn away their children. And although some earn money from selling milk from their animals, many have resorted to begging and living in urban slums.

Even so, the Kuchis have made important strides in the past decade. Ten of the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan national parliament, have been allocated to Kuchis. The government also has a department, the Independent Directorate of Kuchi Affairs, to handle Kuchi issues.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.