x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Nomads lose hope of homeland

Kuchis are persecuted for trying to claim what they have long been due.
Kuchis are persecuted for trying to claim what they have long been due.

SHOMALI // On the Shomali Plain, north of Kabul city, Bashir Khan was preparing to escape the approaching winter. "There is no difference for us between all these regimes," he said, remembering Afghanistan's tumultuous recent history. "When the Mujahideen came, when the Taliban came, when this new government came, no one helped us. We are always just travelling around."

Mr Khan is a nomad, or what is known locally as a Kuchi. For each of his 55 years he has had no permanent home, moving instead from place to place in search of work and better weather. When the temperatures begin their rapid ascent in the spring, he packs his few belongings and hits the road, heading inland from the eastern province of Nangarhar with scores of relatives. Six months ago they arrived in Shomali - setting up camp in the vast area of vineyards, dirt football pitches, cemeteries and mud-walled homes - that lies just a short drive from the capital, Kabul.

Now there is a chill in the evening air and they are getting ready to leave again, all 10 families and their worn-out looking animals. "We don't have the money to build a house or buy land," Mr Khan said. "How can we say this is a good life? During the night we feel cold and during the day we feel hot, but there is no other way for us." While invaders have come and gone and governments have repeatedly collapsed, the annual migration of Afghanistan's Kuchis has altered little over the centuries. What changed in 2001, though, were expectations.

After years in the metaphorical and actual wilderness, the nomads believed their time had finally come. The land they had long hoped for suddenly seemed to be within their grasp. Now, like so many other Afghans from all walks of life, they say the situation is worse than they have ever known it. This year, their anger turned to violence in a series of fatal clashes with members of the Hazara ethnic group in Maidan Wardak province that forced thousands of people to flee.

A political row ensued in Kabul, with MPs from both sides arguing about who owned the land and who was responsible for the bloodshed. One Hazara commander warned that a civil war could break out. Mahmood Khan Sulemankhel, who runs the government department responsible for Kuchis, said the issue has still not been resolved. "I know lots of people who died in the fighting. I know families who lost members, I know where their graves are, but nobody cares about them," he said. According to Mr Sulemankhel, there are about five million Kuchis in Afghanistan today. The overwhelming majority of them are Pashtuns and they are getting increasingly frustrated. As well as the land they claim is their ancestral right, they want their own schools and hospitals.

"I can tell you that 50 per cent of the Taliban are Kuchis," Mr Sulemankhel said. More recently, nomads have also clashed with locals in the eastern province of Khost and casualties have again resulted. While disputes have always been common, this year's incidents - particularly the battles in summer - have raised real alarm. Haji Haidar Jan Naeemzoi, one of 10 Kuchi MPs in the lower house of parliament, said his people were being persecuted simply for trying to claim what they have long been due. He said further violence was inevitable in Maidan Wardak unless immediate action was taken.

"Next year, if the government does not care about the Kuchis and solve this problem, then there is no other option: they will fight and they have to fight," he said. Back in Shomali, the families had sent for a lorry to take them and their animals east again. With the brutal winter closing in and security deteriorating across the country, all Afghans face an uncertain future. What these nomads fear is that it will be much the same as their past.

"Our life is finished now, we don't want anything for ourselves," said one of Mr Khan's relatives. "We just want something for our children." csands@thenational.ae